Hoping to give further momentum to an idea that has picked up a growing number of adherents in recent years, a group of local civic activists and planners today will release a detailed report advocating the removal of the elevated expressway over Claiborne Avenue.The report, "Restoring Claiborne Avenue," was created for the Claiborne Corridor Improvement Coalition and the Congress for the New Urbanism, which also places the Claiborne on its list of "Freeways Without Futures." While the possible removal of the freeway was apparently greeted with skepticism by the previous Nagin administration, current New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu is open to the idea, suggesting that "it could reconnect two of the city's most historic neighborhoods."
The report suggests turning the 2.2-mile stretch of expressway between Elysian Fields Avenue and the Pontchartrain Expressway near the Superdome into a surface-level boulevard tied into the city's regular street grid, although it says even that might not have to be built in the section of the route between St. Bernard Avenue and Elysian Fields.
The document says eliminating the expressway would have numerous benefits, such as removing an eyesore, reducing noise and air pollution, increasing opportunities for public transit, and promoting investment that would eliminate blight and create economic development in the Treme and 7th Ward neighborhoods.
Although travel times for motorists who now use the expressway would be longer, the increases would be only a few minutes, the report says, and accessibility to the French Quarter and other destinations along the expressway route would "improve substantially with a better-connected street network."
The construction of the Claiborne has been blamed for dividing the communities along its path, causing economic decline to historic African-American neighborhoods such as the Treme. In this regard, New Orleans is no different than other American cities - go here to read an an excellent discussion of the devastating effects of urban freeways on inner-city communities in general and on St. Louis in particular - and is something I've extensively researched. Planners and engineers of the '50s and '60s felt that the ability of automobiles to quickly travel from suburbs to central business districts was more important than the preservation of the (largely-minority) neighborhoods through which these structures passed, a philosophy that in retrospect was very unfortunate and something that, as a transportation planner myself, I'm acutely aware about.
While I'm certainly not a proponent of the wholesale removal of urban freeways - these structures have, generally speaking, become a key part of a city's transportation network and ridding our nation's cities of all of their freeways would make them less accessible, less navigable and more congested - I think there is something to be said for the strategic removal (or relocation, as is occurring with I-40 in Oklahoma City) of some structures. The Claiborne seems to be a sensible candidate for removal simply because it is redundant - through traffic through New Orleans already is served by I-610 to the north, the presence of I-12 on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain allows interstate traffic to bypass the city completely, and in any case the majority of the Big Easy's suburban communities are on the west side of the city, in Jefferson Parish, meaning that the removal of the Claiborne would probably not affect the majority of the region's commuters. The wide right-of-way which the Claiborne currently straddles - approximately 180 feet, according to the Google Earth ruler - also presents some innovative and interesting opportunities - perhaps a multiway boulevard?
To be sure, it is unclear if the removal of the Claiborne would have the desired effect of economic revitalization in the communities through which it passes. The city is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina, and in any case the city's socioeconomic woes began long before that catastrophe. This is by no means a magic bullet, and if the comments to the Times-Picayune story are any indication there is clearly at least some opposition to this idea.
What is clear is this: the existing Claiborne structure is nearing the end of its design life. Something, whether it be a new elevated structure, an at-grade boulevard, or something entirely different, is eventually going to take its place. The people of New Orleans are at least being given the opportunity to think about and discuss this corridor's future, which they were not allowed to do when the original freeway was built back in the 1960s.