For Release Sunday, September 5, 2010
© 2010 Washington Post Writers Group
It may well be. In New Orleans, there’s a concerted citizen-led campaign, backed by the national Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), to demolish 2.2 miles of the elevated Interstate-10 Claiborne Expressway as it plows into the city from the northeast, past the French Quarter and ending near the Superdome.
The New Orleans roadway may be the most poignant of the separate cases that CNU makes for taking down 10 major U.S. downtown freeways. The expressway was constructed to run straight through — and over the wishes — of the heavily African-American Treme neighborhood, where the city’s Creole aristocracy had once held sway.
But it’s more of a spur than an essential part of the interstate system. And its consequences have been grim. Old Claiborne Avenue, with its generous, oak-shaded median, a walkable neighborhood center with a history of picnics, Mardi Gras parades and black marching bands, literally disappeared under the broad new route that backers claimed would carry traffic and prosperity into downtown New Orleans.
The number of businesses along the freeway’s path literally collapsed — from 132 in 1960 to 35 in 2000. Poverty and decay reigned, the stark expressway section creating a hostile no-man’s land around it.
Today the Claiborne expressway “is an aging interstate… nearing the end of its useful life and beginning to deteriorate,” requiring frequent maintenance and “possibly reconstruction to carry traffic safely,” according to the exhaustive new report advocating its demolition, issued jointly by CNU and the local Claiborne Corridor Improvement Association.
It would make no sense, the report suggests, to spend the $50 million the Federal Highway Administration’s national bridge inventory says might be needed just to repair or replace the Claiborne expressway’s seriously decayed interchange ramps.
In Milwaukee, where Jon Norquist — then mayor, now CNU president — led the successful effort to dismantle the Park East Freeway, the bill for teardown and putting a surface street system in place was just $30 million, compared to $80 million to rebuild the freeway.
In fact, teardowns, at least on unessential interstate links, may start looking more attractive nationally as the U.S. Department of Transportation struggles to come up with sufficient maintenance budgets to keep up the elevated freeways passing their effective 50-year lifespan point.
Jack Davis, former newspaper publisher and co-chair of the Claiborne Corridor Improvement Association, makes that point, adding that the nation “has a looming balloon payment” for the elevated roadways, all of which are far more expensive to maintain than surface boulevards.
The CNU position is that regular urban grids, minus the expressways, raise property values, increase mobility, restrain sprawl, and make for far more successful cities.
The normal roadways foster, says Norquist, “compact, pedestrian-friendly and mixed-use neighborhoods with interconnected networks of streets” — a system that works well as space for drivers and pedestrians alike. The new CNU pitch to federal highway planners is to fund improvements for surface level road systems rather than big dollars into viaducts, tunnels and elevated highways.
Varieties of roadways, it’s argued, are also better for ambulances or police, or for the movement of masses of vehicles in emergency evacuations when a single clogged interstate link can cause acute traffic stoppage.
In New Orleans, sentiment for taking down the expressway seems high. The new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, has indicated he’s open to the idea, as have several city council members.
Meanwhile, demolition of sections of Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct, the monstrous waterfront eyesore damaged by a 2001 earthquake, has begun despite a dispute over financing a deep-bore tunnel to replace it.
Disasters took out two other famed freeways. The first was New York City’s West Side Highway, which experienced a catastrophic collapse in 1973 and was eventually replaced by a boulevard with a parallel river front bicycle path. And then, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake forced closure and led to eventual demolition of San Francisco’s Central Freeway. It would be hard to find many New Yorkers or San Franciscans who would want either expressway back.
And the CNU lists eight other “freeways without futures” — deserving of demolition and restoration of the natural street patterns. They include Route 34 in New Haven Conn., Interstates 81 through Syracuse, N.Y. and 64 in Louisville, Ky., Route 29 in Trenton, N.J., the Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx, N.Y., the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto, the Skyway and Route 5 in Buffalo, N.Y., and the 11th Street Bridges and the Southeast Freeway in Washington, D.C.
The timing, as the nation turns away from far-out sprawl and more to center cities, should be perfect — atoning for the last generation’s racially-tinged land seizure, making use of prime urban land to create livability, and opening up choice new economic development sites.
Neal Peirce’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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