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The Community Road and Infrastructure Restitution Act (CRIRA)

Author: Bradley Bethel

The Community Road and Infrastructure Restitution Act is a proposed federal law that would reduce the cultural and economic division caused by state expressways that were implemented in American cities in the 1950s and 1960s.

Background

While the original purpose of our state expressways were to increase access between multiple municipalities, it was strictly influenced by the proliferation of the automobile following World War II. As of today, American transportation is still highly dependent on the use of a private automobile, which results in less funding for public transportation, and more funding to maintain roads, infrastructure, and businesses catering to auto ownership.

This became one of the primary components of sprawl development, which pertained to outward economic growth from the urban core to the surrounding suburbs. Correspondingly, expressways were built through established urban neighborhoods to accommodate residents relocating to the suburbs. Some laws, such as the Federal Highway Act of 1956, were influenced by Cold War politics, to accommodate quick egress in the event a city suffered a terrorist attack.

Purposes

Purpose I. The first purpose of this law is to curb the influence of traffic engineers and automobile lobbyists in road and infrastructure development. The job of a traffic engineer is to determine how roads can accommodate the logistical needs of the automobile, in the words of New York State’s Department of Transportation, getting “from Point A to Point B”. Auto lobbyists, such as the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, protect the public interests of the auto industry. Generated by a line of federal transportation laws passed between the 1950s and 1970s, the influence of traffic engineers and automobile lobbyists, as well as the prime function of state departments of transportation, is road and infrastructure planning that caters to, and in fact, places more value on the needs of the automobile, rather than the people who use automobile.

The end result is a socioeconomic model that places the proverbial “cart before the horse”.

Purpose II. The second purpose of this law is to give more leverage to communities that were negatively impacted by expressways. By giving more input from community leaders, local officials, urban planners, and professional architects, the law is intended to find solutions placing emphasis on people and their respective communities. In the context of current discussions in the Buffalo-Niagara region, the daily commute from Buffalo’s surrounding suburbs yield more influence in the reconfiguration of the inner city’s expressways than the public space and residency of each surrounding neighborhood that are negatively impacted by each respective thoroughfare.

This proposed law is inspired by the ongoing controversy of several state expressway projects in Buffalo, NY. These projects include building a green promenade over Route 33, reconfiguring Route 198 in accordance to surrounding neighborhoods and parkspace, and the yet-to-be determined fate of the Skyway based from its official decree of “functional obsolescence”.

Purpose III. The third purpose of this law is to bring meaningful action from the New York State Department of Transportation in adherence to community needs and concerns. Since the 2000s, community pressure has grown to seek solutions for these urban expressways which, from the time they were built:

  1. Erased scores of homes and buildings by means of imminent domain.
  2. Severely decreased the property value of existing homes and buildings.
  3. Impeded access between neighborhoods and parks not limited to the city’s radial street grid.
  4. Have created numerous safety and health hazards for motorists, pedestrians, and residents in affected neighborhoods.
  5. Have failed to create the investments that were promised at the time of conception.

Despite multiple public hearings regarding proposals put forth by the NYSDOT, and despite the NYSDOT’s own claims of receiving public input for each project, each project has been met with chronic delays, due to what has been attributed to lack a funding sources and due to claimed adherence to federal regulations. However, there is ample evidence in contradiction to these claims.

  1. The implemented expressways, while not unique to Buffalo-Niagara, have been opposed by the broader community from the time they were first proposed in the 1950s. Economic and political trends at the time of conception superseded the needs of urban residents on the receiving end, resulting in the encroachment still faced to this day. The NYSDOT’s responses to these decades-long concerns, could be described as passive-aggressive, a mechanism intended to mute the community consensus through verbal action, but apparent inaction repeated over periods of time.
  2. Although the NYSDOT claims lack of funding for freeway remediation proposals, they have been willing to proceed with other proposals intended to sustain existing expressways, with little regard to community input, yet within similar price ranges. Their studies have played into their “level of service”, which although never stated, adheres to the motorist first.
  3. The NYSDOT’s studies are influenced by engineering concerns of redistributing traffic volumes into the local street grid, resulting in what is known as “carmageddon”. This comes against ample evidence in larger cities of how freeways can be successfully remediated on time and on budget. These successful projects in urban cores of 500,000 or more people, in contrast to 250,000 in the Buffalo core, have not only debunked initial claims of “carmageddon”, but have proven to benefit these cities further through increases in property values, restoration of once negatively effected neighborhoods, and the gradual disbursement of high volumes of traffic into the common street grid.
  4. Some freeway remediation efforts have already taken effect in the Upstate New York region, including the removal of the Inner Loop in Rochester, and the removal of Robert Moses Parkway in Niagara Falls. This serves as a more direct contradiction to persistent delays for Buffalo-area projects.

It can be concluded that the NYSDOT’s current procedure is intended to avoid any long-term solutions that would involve reducing or potentially removing expressway infrastructure.

It can be concluded that the NYSDOT’s current procedure is intended to avoid any long-term solutions that would involve reducing or potentially removing expressway infrastructure.

Purpose IV. The fourth purpose of this proposed law is not to discourage general use of the automobile. Due to the availability of arterial roads in the regular street grid, the remediation of an urban expressway does not restrict access to or from the central city. When the expressways were conceived, they were intended to solve traffic problems of that time period. However, the intent to solve one specific problem instead created several more problems while scarcely solving the initial problem. The object is to recover real estate that was sacrificed for freeway construction from the 1950s and 1960s.

Purpose V. The fifth purpose of this law is to encourage economic opportunities in conjunction with the remediation of expressways. As witnessed in many realized examples from other cities (with a population of 500,000 of more), and as indicated in ROCC’s Economic Impact Study, expressway remediation stands to bring many benefits to subject neighborhoods. Concerns regarding cost would easily be offset by long-term investments that would more than pay for the project itself.

Part of this purpose would pertain to adopting a comprehensive transportation policy that encourages motorists to utilize the city street grid. In the long term, this would increase knowledge and flexibility in travel time by utilizing the series of arterial roads that were built for the stated purpose of going “from Point A to Point B”. It would also encourage policies to broaden our public transportation options by first utilizing our existing services.

Buffalo has not fully committed to expanding its public transit options since the implementation of NFTA’s Metro Rail in 1986. The existing rail only covers 6.4 miles within city limits, on Main Street. The plan to spur new transit-oriented development is being realized more than 30 years after its hypothesis, yet plans to expand into the surrounding suburbs have been stalled by uncertain funding sources, and from lack of support among multiple sources.

Written by BRo Guest Authors

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