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In her State of the City address Wednesday night, Mayor Lovely Warren said she wants to study filling in the northern portion of the Inner Loop. It’s not clear if she means from E. Main to N. Clinton or St. Paul or State St. It’s possible a study would explore each alternative.

There’s a reason the city decided to only fill in the eastern portion, at a cost of nearly $30 million. Traffic volumes were low between E. Main and Monroe. The cost of repairs and maintenance roughly equaled removing the highway. Land would be created in a very desirable area of the city.

The northern area of the Inner Loop is different. It’s got on and off-ramps to 490W. Many of those cars enter or leave the system at East Main St. The E. Main St. intersection has to be solved before such a project can even get off the ground.

In 2001, the city studied filling in both the eastern and northern portion of the Inner Loop. The biggest challenge to making the northern portion an at-grade boulevard was:

“…to develop an alternative that will balance the combined needs of the transportation system and the local neighborhoods. The segment of the Inner Loop from E. Main Street to North Street services a high volume of traffic and is considered a major link in the overall mobility of the area…Alternatives that consider an at-grade facility within this segment will add additional travel time and inconvenience to the existing and future users of this segment…In conclusion, the traffic analysis completed as part of the study supports an at-grade facility from Monroe Avenue to East Main Street. Based on the projected future operations from E. Main Street to North Clinton Avenue, this study suggests a grade separated facility will best accommodated the volumes within this segment.”

The recommendation was to raise the northern part of the Inner Loop, getting rid of those sloping walls that fill with trash, but keep it walled off as a highway.

In 2009, the city studied the idea again, hiring Stantec as its consultant. Here’s what filling in a part of the northern section could look like, using Scio St. as the main entry point for the Inner Loop. Stantec found there would be major traffic backups with this scenario:

 

Inner Loop Concept

 

Another option considered in 2009 was to drop E. Main St. below the new Union St. boulevard that is replacing the eastern part of the Inner Loop. But that would be ridiculously complicated and expensive:

 

Inner Loop

 

Anytime you have multiple intersections like this, it’s wise to consider roundabouts. The 2009 study found you would need some double-lane roundabouts. (Rochesterians’ heads would collectively explode.) The consultants also found there isn’t enough space between roundabouts. Roundabouts also require a lot of land and there would be significant impacts on adjacent properties. The consultants also didn’t think the roundabouts could sufficiently handle traffic flow. Here’s what the roundabout solution would look like:

 

Inner Loop

 

Stantec found the simplest thing to do to improve that E. Main St. corridor is to ‘T” University Ave., reducing the number of lights and improving flow:

inner loop

 

The bottom line is the area is super challenging. It has a ton of traffic and physical constraints. The state agreed. A state transportation official wrote in 2009:

 

Inner Loop

In point number 4, state suggested adding MORE lanes to an area that’s already a nightmare for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists. That defeats the entire purpose of getting rid of the highway. <EDIT: It’s been pointed out to me traffic volume models have changed since 2009. Induced demand is gaining more acceptance. People will just find another way to go someplace if traffic is heavy. If more capacity is added, they’ll fill it up, which doesn’t alleviate the problem. But even if you take out the issue of traffic volume, I still suspect this project will be far more costly and complex than the eastern side.)

Before we discuss whether the Inner Loop could be raised all the way to State St. (New bridge over the Genesee River, anyone?), we haven’t traveled past E. Main St. I fear this project could be $50 million to $100 million to do correctly and get any real benefits.

There’s no question our city forefathers really screwed up when they built the Inner Loop. They destroyed perfectly good neighborhoods, parks and streets. They left an ugly, trash-strewn highway in its wake. They gutted the core of our city.

We’re fixing the eastern side. But the northern side may be a lost cause. I hope I’m wrong. It’s probably worth a study that’s far more in-depth than anything done to date to find out.

<See the city’s Inner Loop documents page for source material.>

Every city along the Thruway now wants to tear down a highway.

In Albany, Interstate 787 separates the city from the Hudson River. Planners want to raze it to develop the waterfront. There’s no money in the pipeline, so the city’s been advised to “work around it.”

In Syracuse, the state is considering options for rehabbing the elevated Interstate 81, which dissects the city. One of the options is to tear it down and build an at-grade boulevard. None of the options are cheap, starting at a half billion dollars.

In Rochester, the city is waiting for federal funding to fill in the sunken Inner Loop. The city calls it a noose around the neck of downtown, cutting off neighborhoods. The Inner Loop isn’t well-traveled. The cost of the project is around $20 million.

In Buffalo, Rep. Brian Higgins wants to tear down the Skyway, which runs along the Outer Harbor. He says it’s a barrier to waterfront development. The state says it’s not a priority. The project would cost at least $100 million, but Higgins points out much of that money would be funneled into repairs of the current structure.

Links of the Day:

– New York State wants a bite of Apple. Industrial sites everywhere are salivating over the prospect of a chip manufacturing plant.

– Superintendent Bolgen Vargas wants to make schools more middle class. He asks how schools can put on a play with no music classes.

There are more women cops in the Rochester area.

– Feeling yucky? Consider letting the University of Rochester study your germs.

In Rochester, we often see the conflict between the dreamers and the realists.

We rarely see the dreamers win out. The fast ferry was their biggest triumph and we know how that turned out. Now we have a practical mayor who doesn’t seem too fond of the Big Idea.

But there are some Big Ideas out there. The concepts are either wacky or brilliant, depending on your vision for Rochester.

Here are the top 5 Big (Crazy?) Ideas:

1. Rewatering the Canal – Erie Canal restoration advocates want to rewater the old aqueduct downtown, essentially flooding Broad St. They envision recreational boats in summer and ice skating in winter, as well as real estate development along the new waterfront.

2. Doing Something with the Subway – This idea is in conflict with rewatering the canal, as it would use the same infrastructure. The subway was built in the old canal bed, so one could argue the canal was there first! Ideas for the subway tunnel, some of which has been filled in, include parking and bringing back light rail.

3. Garden Aerial – This would transform the Pont de Rennes Bridge at High Falls into a “floating garden.” There would be an additional pedestrian bridge built close to the falls and a winter garden on the side of the brewery.

4. Performing Arts Center – The Rochester Broadway Theatre League has long wanted new digs, saying the Auditorium isn’t adequate. The group hasn’t raised funds, however, and has no politician advocating for grants. RBTL chose Midtown Plaza for a theater site, but City Hall is lukewarm, at best, to the idea.

5. Filling in the Inner Loop – This one has the most support from City Hall to actually get done. But there’s still a funding gap. The sunken expressway is underused and a barrier to development. Filling it in would create usable land and fill in gaps between downtown neighborhoods.

What’s your Big Idea?

Links of the Day:

– Buffalo is seeing a lot of conflict between cyclists and drivers who have to share the road.

– Governor Cuomo’s administration has a serious reputation for secrecy.

Newark, New Jersey’s mayor slammed the war on drugs.

– A mom is arrested for allowing kids, ages 7 and 11, walk alone to get pizza a half mile away.

Cool read about an ex-slave’s letter to his former master.

Syracuse is contemplating removing the elevated portion of Interstate 81 that runs straight through the city for much the same reasons Rochester wants to get rid of the Inner Loop. The Post-Standard reports the highway divides the city and creates barriers to development:

The 1.4 miles of I-81 that splits Syracuse’s downtown from the University Hill will reach the end of its useful life in 2017.

(snip)

The ideas include leaving it alone, rebuilding it in its current state, burying the lanes in a tunnel, or creating a boulevard running through the city.

In the 1920s, former governor Horace White, who had Syracuse roots, warned against building elevated railroads, a system that eventually led to the construction of an elevated I-81:

“In my humble opinion, the proposed elevated plan … would mean the infliction of another monstrosity upon our home for a time beyond calculation. Of course, … elevation … would doubtless be the cheapest, the most expeditious, the easiest in the matter of engineering work for the railroads, but it would be like ripping a savage septic wound across a human face — likely to infect the whole body, sure to ruin its appearance.

“It would mean that the city would be divided into sections, property would be seriously damaged, the environs would be marred and disfigured, the public health and comfort would be endangered and our taxes would be increased by depreciated assessments.

City of Rochester Communications Bureau

He could also have been talking about the Inner Loop, for which Rochester razed buildings and rearranged neighborhoods. The sunken highway is now considered a noose around the neck of downtown. Nowhere is the strangulation more evident than the East/Union corridor, where the flow of the East End is interrupted and surface parking lots and backs of buildings line the highway.

Rochester’s mayor submitted legislation to City Council this month to further study the economic impact of filling in the eastern portion of the Inner Loop. Preliminary estimates show nine acres of land would be available for development than could result in more than $120 million of private investment. Getting more finely-tuned information about the impact of raising the highway is important.

Links of the Day:

The state is laying out plans to revamp the 390/490 Interchange.

– This is sure to go over well. Not. New York State lawmakers are scheming for a pay raise.

– Rochester City Hall is planning a big crackdown on convenience stores, which have proliferated in recent years.

– The Buffalo Bills are being urged to see the light on blackouts.

– Niagara Falls desperately needs the money the Senecas are withholding from the city because of a dispute with the state over racetrack video slots.

– Here are some tips to keep your kid safe this summer. Very, very safe.

City of Rochester Communications Bureau

If I had to name the top two projects at City Hall that get officials excited, they would be Midtown and filling in the Inner Loop.

The mayor frequently talks about how downtown is designed for a fast exit. He wants you to stick around for a while. The Inner Loop is underutilized, cuts off neighborhoods and is a “noose around the neck of downtown.” Filling in the eastern portion of the Inner Loop would free up about 9 acres of land for development and save the city future maintenance costs.

Senator Chuck Schumer has gone to bat to get the city federal TIGER funds. When Rochester was passed over for a $15 million grant last year, Schumer said he’d help the city improve its application. In February, city council authorized nearly $2 million in design work to bolster the 2012 TIGER funding application.

The TIGER application was due in March. The city never submitted it. Instead it only submitted an application for funding for the $26 million intermodal station. The city says the intermodal station is further along in design and has crucial state support. Besides, the city can’t expect to get two big projects funded in the same round.

Funding is not a sure thing for either project. Putting off the Inner Loop application is a risk construction could be delayed a year or more. It will likely not coincide with the marina dig at the port. The fill from the marina was to be used to fill the Inner Loop.

What’s surprising about this development is the city had not touted the intermodal station much until a couple weeks ago when a design was unveiled. It’s not a project anyone talks about with enthusiasm, not even the mayor. The Trailways bus owner said he doesn’t think the station will be built in his lifetime.

There’s only one person who is a champion of the intermodal station: Louise Slaughter. She has always wanted a true intermodal station, one that combined all of the city’s buses and trains in one spot. Many believe Slaughter pressured Bob Duffy to drop his support of Renaissance Square, which didn’t not align with her vision. Several years later, RGRTA is building its own bus station, anyway.

The city says it didn’t put the intermodal station ahead of the Inner Loop at Slaughter’s urging. A mid-afternoon email to her spokesperson wasn’t immediately returned. It’s possible there’s nothing more to this sudden switcheroo than pure strategy to maximize federal dollars. I suspect that’s not the whole story.

***

In other news, 90 percent of Chicago teachers authorized a strike. This gives them more leverage at the negotiating table. It’s a rather astounding development, given it’s Jean-Claude Brizard’s first year in Chicago. You may recall, an overwhelming majority of Rochester teachers voted no confidence in his leadership in a union ballot, results backed up by a Center for Governmental Research survey.

A city consultant has found converting St. Paul St. and Clinton Ave. downtown to two-way traffic is feasible. The plan, if implemented, would dramatically change how traffic flows in the Inner Loop. Here’s what the consultants said in their report:

Overall, the study shows that two-way conversion is a feasible option for the full length of both the St. Paul Street/South Avenue and North/South Clinton Avenue corridors. This conversion would cause no noticeable detriment to traffic operations and would greatly improve driver way-finding and business access within the study area. The study further shows that pedestrian mobility will improve slightly with the addition of bulbouts and leading pedestrian intervals at some locations, and that onstreet parking could be increased.

The city made the streets one-way in the 1960s. But in the 1980s, many businesses left downtown. There need to “get people in and get people out” has lessened. Mayor Tom Richards doesn’t want to make it so easy to leave.

The study found the current configuration is not hospitable to bikes, pedestrians and businesses. It’s confusing to visitors, who find themselves circling around and around on one-way streets.

The conversion to two-way traffic would require extensive changes to paving, signage and traffic signals. In some cases, the geometry of the street would have to change.

The total cost is estimated to be $1.6 million to $2.6 million, depending on construction options. The city is now moving to the design phase and is seeking proposals.

City of Rochester

Rochester is trying again to get federal highway funding to fill in the eastern portion of the Inner Loop. The city’s first application needed to show more progress on design work.

The city is seeking $15 million to cover the total project cost of $20 million.

Rochester sees the Inner Loop as an outdated, underutilized noose around the neck of downtown. The Inner Loop costs more money to maintain than fill in. It slices the East End in half. Raising the Inner Loop would make land available for development, creating a boulevard lined with housing and retail instead of the parking lots and the backs of buildings.

The Inner Loop recently landed on the Freeways Without Futures list put together by the Congress for New Urbanism. Buffalo’s Route 5/Skyway and Syracuse’s I-81 are also on the list.

I often wonder what Corn Hill would be like had the city not taken a wrecking ball to a swath of the neighborhood to create Route 490. Urban planners now realize building highways straight through downtowns has consequences.