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Foss: Should I-787 be torn down?

Foss: Should I-787 be torn down?

Idea not as far-fetched as it once was
Foss: Should I-787 be torn down?
Albany's I-787 looking north.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ

Should I-787 be torn down?

The first time I heard this question, I saw little point in giving it much consideration.

I could see that removing Interstate 787 might improve waterfront access in Albany, that dismantling the elevated highway would rid the landscape of one of its uglier features.

But I could also see that demolishing a heavily-used road system would cost a lot of money and present new transportation challenges. So while I liked the idea of an I-787-free Albany, I also viewed it as fanciful and extremely unlikely.

That was more than a decade ago.

Today the question of whether I-787 should be torn down is taken far more seriously than it was in the past.

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In 2015, the Capital District Transportation Committee, state Department of Transportation and the city of Albany kicked off an effort to study the future of I-787. According to the project website, the team's findings will be presented to the public for feedback during the first half of this year.

Among other things, the I-787/Hudson Waterfront Corridor Study will develop strategies for improving access to the Hudson River, making better use of empty spaces beneath the highway and improving transportation for cars, pedestrians, cyclists and others.

You don't need to rip out all of I-787 to accomplish these goals, but it's difficult to imagine making big changes and improvements without significantly altering the downtown Albany highway system as we know it.

It isn't hard to find people who believe I-787 is a major eyesore that has detracted from overall quality of life in New York's capital city. What's hard is making the case that the cost of tearing it down -- or making major changes to it -- is worth it.

But that could be changing, too.

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More cities are considering tearing down highways, and some have even done so.

Boston got rid of sections of I-93. San Francisco tore down the Embarcadero Freeway. Milwaukee demolished Park East Freeway.

In a piece titled "Six Freeway Removals that Changed Their Cities Forever," the design and technology-focused website Gizmodo observed "It seems counterintuitive, right? Rip out eight lanes of freeway through the middle of your metropolis and you'll be rewarded with not only less traffic, but safer, more efficient cities? But it's true, and it's happening in places all over the world."

The non-profit organization the Congress for the New Urbanism recently put out its 2017 "Freeways Without Futures" report, which examines efforts to remove highways in 10 American cities.

Three of these highways -- the Scajaquada Expressway in Buffalo, the Inner Loop in Rochester and I-81 in Syracuse -- are in New York. Will I-787 one day find itself on the "Freeways Without Futures" list? Given the long-running discussion of whether Albany might be better off without it, it certainly seems possible.

What distinguishes I-787 from the highways on the "Freeways Without Futures" list is that it's well-used.

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Unlike, say, I-345 in Dallas, it is not nearing the end of its industrial life. Tearing it down without carefully considering how to accommodate the large number of cars that travel in and out of Albany every day would be a huge mistake.

But I suspect that there are ways to accommodate them -- that alternatives to I-787 could be established, and might already exist. As someone who travels to and from Albany on a regular basis, I can attest to the fact that it's possible to get in and out of the city without using I-787.

As ideas go, tearing down I-787 still strikes me as unlikely, but not as unlikely as it once was.

This is a sign of progress -- an overdue recognition that building I-787 was a mistake that the city of Albany is still grappling with today.

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog can be found here.

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