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Old Can of Worms


Let’s talk about the Can of Worms.

It’s a classic example of Rochester’s propensity for building big things, only to undo them later. Rochester converted a historic aqueduct to accommodate a subway it later abandoned. Midtown Plaza was torn down within 50 years of opening. The city bought a ferry to Toronto and then pulled the plug. After destroying wide swaths of downtown for its construction, the Inner Loop may be filled in.

But the Can of Worms ranks right up there in civic disasters. The highway was built in 1964 to connect Routes 490 and 590 and provide a link to the Thruway and Seabreeze. There’s a reference to the Can of Worms nickname in a 1965 paper on Rochester street names that suggests the more elegant name of “Brighton Bow Tie.”

Forever known as “The Can,” the complicated interchange featured confusing, short weaving distances. The Can was soon overwhelmed with cars. (Wikipedia and Empirestateroads.com have good explanations on The Can design.)

Rochester History Journal

The Can of Worms was rebuilt from 1987 to 1991 at a cost of more than $100 million. That’s more than $200 million in today’s dollars, a staggering amount of money to fix a boo-boo. There were other costs associated with Rochester’s fast-growing highway system of the 1960s. The neighborhood immediately surrounding The Can, is very disjointed.  East and University are all kinds of messed up where they were realigned. The expressways facilitated suburban growth from which the city still hasn’t recovered.

Now the state plans to fix the “Western Can of Worms” at 390 and 490 at a cost of $140 million. The state also plans to build an interchange and make surrounding improvements at 390 and Kendrick at a cost of $100 million. The first project is likely a necessary fix. As for the second project, I question the University of Rochester’s dire need for an exit ramp.

Let’s hope those projects don’t end up on the civic disaster list. We can ill afford to untangle another Can of Worms.


22 Responses to Debacle of the Can of Worms

  1. The original can was a scary situation for any new driver. You kind of closed your eyes and prayed as you entered. I remember the subway system. We did away with it and now there’s talk about the need for a mass transit. Go figure.

  2. September 19, 2012 at 8:55 am Michael Bloch responds:

    Makes you wonder if they are doing it again on Winton Rd at the intersection of 590. How many years will go by before that “Diamond” has to be fixed? Who knows, maybe it will work. Only time will tell.

  3. Oh my. “Rochester” didn’t build the can of worms, the state did it was their design. It is logical to connect the expressways vs getting off of one highway, go on a few “neighborhood” streets, to then get on the other expressway. The path into the city on the east side using the old canal bed was logical and was the LEAST disruptive to city neighborhoods . There are 1000s of multiple interstate exchanges around the country in every major city.
    The UR demanded the exit or they wouldn’t expand. UR PREZ , head of the local economic council and with “no conflict of interest”(?), had “his” exit project approved first. Local media reporters never questioned the conflict of interest, as they are afraid to report negatively on the UR. The exit is not needed, UR traffic congestion could be solved with a staggered work day.

  4. Loved the can of worms. Got me where I wanted to go for many years.

  5. The intercection that needs attention more than the 390/490 is 390 @MCC.. both directions.. people don’t know how to merge. If there are more than a few cars, it always backs up.

  6. Rachel, you in the past have noted how terrible the w and e Henrietta exits on 390 are. Either they need to be fixed (those stoplights are terrible) or another exit added to get to both u of r and strong

    • September 19, 2012 at 11:07 am Rachel Barnhart responds:

      I don’t see how a Kendrick Rd. exit will ease congestion on Routes 15 and 15A. I agree those roads are congested and they have a higher rate of accidents. But continuously deriving ways for cars to go faster and get places faster will not solve anything. UR will grow and there will be more cars. No one ever talks about mass transit to the area’s largest employer.

      • There is not a lot of talk about the state of our mass transit period. It’s cheap, which is nice, but the routes out to the suburbs (where a lot of urban folk work low wage jobs) are pretty spotty. Brockport no longer has weekend routes and what it has during the week is pretty spartan (I guess those commuter students/staff/faculty don’t matter.) I spent the last couple of weeks in Buffalo canvassing for Sean Ryan’s campaign, and I have to say, while it is pricier, their mass transit is much more reliable.

  7. Note that, at the same time they will be rebuilding the “western” can of worms (which I don’t think is particularly problematic to begin with), they will also be rebuilding the western terminus of Rt. 531, fouling the commute of people from Brockport and Spencerport even further. All traffic will exit 531 at Union St. in Spencerport for the duration of the construction.

    Moreover, the reconstruction of the 531 terminus is said to be needed due to problems caused by traffic being forced to a stoplight at that end, yet two of the three remaining possible “solutions” for the rebuild involve – guess what? A stoplight!


  8. And it needs redesign again. The massive growth of Webster/points east has led to 590 N/S being a logjam every weekday. The DOT decided that the interchange with the Webster side of Rt 104 from Rt 590 N would go down from 2 lanes to one first resulting in confusion over the lane striping and once that was sorted it resulted in one giant snake of cars in the middle lane back down to the Can which ads to the backup on 490. This same snake is forced into one lane to get into the city on Rt 490 when headed south while 2 lanes allow for travel to Brighton/points south which are never backed up unless there is an accident. Did anyone drive these before re-designing them? 2 lanes in/out of the city and 2 onto 104 east from 590 N, ine lane to continue on 590 S past the Can and traffic jams are gone. We build roads (like everything here it seems) for what was 10-20 years ago instead of 10-20 in the future.

  9. September 19, 2012 at 2:58 pm Edward Richards responds:

    I don’t know if I’m coming or going.

    And I’m confused.

  10. September 19, 2012 at 3:27 pm Havahd St responds:

    Know what I do? Drive on the surface roads! They may be a little slower, but a big advantage is that you don’t get locked into massive traffic jams because you have so many different route options.
    Before I leave work, I always check Google Maps for the up-to-date traffic to see which route to take. I work at RGE on Scottsville Rd, and when I drive (usually bike), I take Genesee>Plymouth>Averill back to the Park Ave area rather than the sh*tshow that is that 390>590 mess. If there is a jam on my normal route, I could take Elmwood, or Exchange, or Goodman, but I’m never locked into that awful jam that always happens on 390>590.
    Of course, my favorite thing is when I ride my bike over 490 on Averill and wave to the 100s of cars trapped on 490!

  11. Rachel:

    While you know that I am the ‘King of Journalistic Harshness’, I think your article about the Can of Worms and other public works projects is a little too harsh.

    In my experience, I have found that civil engineers, architects, contractors and funders (in the case of the Can of Worms, gov’t) are bascially good, competent professionals who do the best they can, given their levels of funding, and obstancles like topography, space restrictions, time constraints, etc.

    True, the original Can of Worms was a bit of disaster. But, the late 1980’s-early’90’s rehab turned out to be a fantastic fix. It was worth every penny, in my estimation. And by the way, as I’m sure you know, I-590 was called Route 47 in the 1960’s.

    Like it or not, the car (and truck) is king, in America. We need the ‘Western Interchange’ (I-390/I-490) rehab job, just like we need the U. of R. exit. Though we’ve seen a major reduction in the amount of manufacturing in this metro, trucks still need a fully functional western interchange, so they can make their way to and from the Mt. Reed – Lyell Ave. – Lexington Ave. industrial sector, as well as the growing Rochester Tech Park (former Elmgrove).

    And the University of Rochester-Strong Hospital complex is the region’s largest employer, and therefore whatever we can do in the public works arena to aid employees getting to and from the U. of R.-Strong, is by definition, a good thing.

    When I was a county legislator, I tried to push light rail transit as a transportation companion to our numerous local interstates. According to transporstion professionals in the Doyle administration, light rail would not work in Greater Rochester because our metro population density would not support such a large expenditure.

    There are always problems and second guessing with large public works projects like the Can of Worms, Midtown, etc. However, generally speaking, these projects are well run, and help maintain the high quality of life most of us enjoy here in Monroe County. And if you want to see a real highway-public works nightmare, check out the level of graft and corruption that has taken place in metros like Montreal. Thank you!

    Christopher J. Wilmot
    Pittsford, NY

    • September 20, 2012 at 9:41 am Rachel Barnhart responds:

      I certainly didn’t mean to imply engineers are not doing their jobs.

      Rather, I think it is important to look at the money we are pouring into highways, which will never be adequate. Highways create demand for cars, facilitate sprawl and will always need to be made bigger.

      I’m discouraged there is ZERO talk of mass transit to the U of R.

  12. Agreed, justaguy. Why is it that any re – design in our area results in more bottlenecks? Are any of these ‘traffic engineers’ Monroe County residents who actually know our roads? Exmaples – 590S – 490E-W, 590N – 104E, Sea Breeze Blvd., (What if there is a Ginna emergency?), and now, the off ramp off 390N – Lexington is down to one lane, instead of two, causing back – ups onto 390N in the morning. Do we really have to spend millions on diamonds and off – ramps to nowhere when 590S is a parking lot every morning from Empire to the dreaded ‘Can’? And Chris Wilot, I grew up one block from the ‘Can’ on the city line with Brighton. Rt. 47 became Rt. 590 in 1979. Still remember hearing the screeches, skids and sirens from another crash in the ‘Can’!

  13. Too bad all the “good intentions” of the engineers were followed by mediocre at best skill at designing urban interchanges that neither ruin the cohesion of the neighborhoods they are built in or are not unnecessarily complex and dangerous.

    The I-787N and US7W interchange in Troy looks as if the engineers were TRYING to cause accidents.
    You have to go up a relatively steep on-ramp and then instantly get over 2 lanes to the left while dodging cars coming up behind you doing about 70, then you have to get over to the right while dodging cars entering the highway from “behind” your exit but in the same lane as the one you need to get in, then a sharp, uphill ramp to RT7 where you have to dodge highway speed traffic.
    An added exit lane to Rt7W, basically by extending the middle lane of 787 to the 7W exit, would have solved this issue but, for some reason and in spite of all the boosterish rah rah about them all “being good people, blah blah blah” of other commentators, no one did.
    My guess is that these engineers did not live in the communities they helped ruin and therefore knew they would not have to suffer through years of driving their creations M-F.

    Don’t even get me started about the homicidal design for the Erie Blvd/GE exit of I-890 in Schenectady….Oy!

    But hey, maybe I’m a little sensitive now that I live in the Capitol Region – home to 4 massive and dangerous interchanges, the most “impressive” of which I call the Traffic Dragon.

    See for yourself:http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=2331327619580&set=a.1504612912229.45956.1741462311&type=1&theater

  14. September 19, 2012 at 7:51 pm Brian Thorn responds:

    THe New Can of worms was very badly needed. Given our population, we still are not getting our fair share of “road” funds here in Upstate NY. Albany, Buffalo and Syracuse still get more. I agree with many a reader about the 490 to 390 North need to be rebuilt. Traveled that road for over 5 years and many times ended up getting forced to exit on Lyell Ave as I couldn’t get over in time to the left lanes of 390 in the AM to travel north on 390 to my destination…
    We need the road work, and time as in 20 years will often show that roads are now not facilitating out current traffic patterns and volume… Just my opinion

  15. The UR exit is not needed. Again a staged work shift/ hours would solve the problem just as Kodak did. If the UR wants the exit, let them put some money in the project, just as Wegmans does to roads around their new stores.
    Oh the UR is not a profit making company. Are you sure about that?
    And again why does no one have a problem with the UR PREZ /Economic Council findings and his conflict of interest?
    The UR has received more taxpayer funding in the last 4 years than most SUNYs. Yet have no responsibility or feel no civic duty to give tuition breaks or acceptance standards breaks to local residents who have supported the UR for over a century.

    • I would argue thought, that with clinical and administrative staff schedules, the UR is already on a staged shift. It doesn’t seem to matter what time of day I come and go – traffic and parking in that area is a nightmare.

      • A “traffic nightmare” is the Schuylkill Expressway in Philly (R76) its packed 3 to 4 lanes wide it can’t be expanded only double deck-erd costing billions.

        A parking nightmare is most of Downtown San Francisco.

        We have no traffic nightmare’s or parking problems around here no matter what anyone says. A Traffic jam in Rochester is major when it delays you 15 minutes. In most major cities that occurs EVERY day.

  16. My house literally backs up to Rt 590 at Empire, it is my back yard. Our expressways work fantastically during off peak hours but like I said before, the recent changes to just the striping has made congestion worse. Somehow the adding of the roundabouts on 590 (which I’m a fan of) caused DOT to reduce the 590N to 104E from 2 lanes down to 1 while providing an entire lane for the East Ridge Rd exit. I think that shows that Rick Amico is correct that there must not be much local input at all in the DOT process. Anyone who drove the ‘old’ 590/104 interchange would say that 2 lanes coming off 590 to 104 made sense especially considering 104 in Irondequoit/City is far underutilized since KODAK became kodak. There used to be traffic jams on the “Keeler St Expressway”, now it is the fastest stretch of highway this side of the Thruway. Allowing 2 lanes from it to 104/Bay Bridge is just dumb.

  17. No Rachel, we can’t afford to not fix, and modernize, previous efforts!

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