Five Cities Argue the Economic Case to Tear Down a Highway

"Seattle Viaduct," originally uploaded to Flickr by Slightlynorth

Commuters sitting in gridlock may find it hard to believe, but many smaller and mid-size cities in America have under-used highways. In some of these cities, highways that were built decades ago are now impeding potentially valuable real estate development. And as many highways from the middle of the last century deteriorate past the point of minor repairs to needing to be entirely rebuilt, leaders in these cities are starting to question the cost and efficiency of maintaining certain pieces of their highway systems.

In Seattle, Cleveland, Syracuse and a number of other cities across the country, leaders are debating the merits of removing portions of their underused, crumbling highway systems to allow for economic development instead. As older highway segments meet the end of their useful life, civic leaders are presented with a rare opportunity to reduce expenses on underused infrastructure and create new opportunity for development at the same time. (editors note: according to transportation engineers, a road or bridge’s “useful life” is determined to be over when repairs are so expensive and the conditions are so bad that it would cost several times more to rebuild the road or bridge than to tear it down and build something different.)

To mayors and governors looking for ways to balance their budgets, tearing down a highway that’s underused or bisects an economic center can help boost the economy while cutting costs at the same time. So many places are considering tearing down highways that the Congress for New Urbanism has outlined the country’s top ten “Freeways Without Futures.”

Cleveland has plans to replace the under-used East/West Shoreway with a street-level, tree-lined boulevard that would open up access to Lake Erie. Syracuse has started to debate the idea of tearing down I-81, which cuts through the heart of the city and separates the growing university/hospital neighborhood from the rest of downtown.

Seattle is in the middle of building a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct as the main north-south arterial for the city. Plans have been to keep the viaduct open until the tunnel is complete in 2016, but the Mayor of Seattle would like to see the viaduct torn down in 2012.

The models for these projects are Milwaukee, where it cost $30 million to tear down a freeway spur that would have cost $50-$80 million to repair, and San Francisco, where tearing down the Embarcadaro Freeway cleared the way for successful economic development of waterfront neighborhoods.

NPR recently reported that there is such a shifting paradigm in considering the costs and benefits of some freeways, “even the U.S. Department of Transportation, which spent decades promoting highways, recently stunned planners when it backed some freeway removal plans.” Sometimes the primary motivation for local leaders is fiscal because the road or bridge repairs are too costly. Sometimes it is economic development opportunity because the highway is blocking valuable real estate development. Either way, when cities are looking to save money or expand real estate development options, they may increasingly consider asking, “how much does this highway cost?” The answer could be “too much” – and the solution might just be something very different.