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Sunday, October 30, 2011

I-565: Twenty Years Later

Twenty years ago this month, Interstate 565 was opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by city and state officials. Planning for the highway began in the 1960s and when completed, the cost of the entire 21-mile highway was around $500 million ($790 million in today's dollars). At around $38M per mile, the highway was a bargain by today's standards; if the same cost-per-mile estimates for the Southern Bypass ($65M) or Birmingham's Northern Beltline ($90M) were applied to 565, the cost may have been well into the billions.

Much of the interstate has served its purpose, carrying 100,000+ cars daily in some spots. It has cut cross-city trip times significantly (ask anyone who has lived in Northeast Huntsville for more than 20 years), and has been credited for making Madison the medium-sized suburban city it is today.  There is one portion, however, that has created headaches for engineers, drivers and planners alike-- the 2.4 mile "urban overpass." Only a few years after it was opened, cracks were found in many of the bridge girders. Whenever snow or ice threatens, the bridge is always the first to close, shutting down the city's major east-west arterial. And unknown to many drivers who use the overpass daily, the bridge has left a scar of underused land right in the middle of the city.

The I-565 Urban Overpass (outlined in light blue) occupies about 140 acres in the heart of the city. (Google Earth)

The overpass is underused volume-wise, especially the stretch between Memorial Parkway and Oakwood Avenue which averages about 45,000 vehicles per day-- less than many segments of University Drive. Also, the interstate's planners didn't think about the finite life span of an overpass-- most last up to fifty years, sometimes less, meaning that sometime in the next thirty years the cost of maintaining the overpass will become too great and we will have to talk about replacing it.

Overpasses as far as the eye can see, over Church St. (Photo credit: James Vandiver)

The officials at the 1991 opening ceremony praised the economic development opportunities that 565 would bring to the area, but when the time comes, replacing part of the highway with a surface or below-grade boulevard could bring substantial development as well. A boulevard would have a substantially smaller footprint than the current overpass structures, opening up valuable land near downtown for greenspace and development. It would also create a less hostile environment for bicyclists and pedestrians, and eliminate the physical divide between North and South Huntsville. Another added perk of eliminating the overpass is a redesign of the Parkway/565 interchange, which is badly needed even today.

Elevated freeway removal has been a growing trend in American cities-- even Birmingham is considering it in their long-term plans with I-20/59 downtown. You may have heard of Boston's "Big Dig" project, though that may not be the best example due to politics, shoddy engineering and massive cost overruns. Here are a couple of less infamous examples:

San Francisco: The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged several elevated freeways in the Bay Area, including the Embarcadero Freeway. The highway was replaced in the 1990s with an at-grade boulevard, a light rail line, and park space along the once-inaccessible waterfront. Here's a link to a video discussing the Embarcadero transformation and the recent removal of another San Francisco highway (the Central Freeway).

Milwaukee: In 2002, the Park East Freeway was demolished, opening up 24 acres of their downtown for redevelopment. Projects include residential (apartments and condos), an Aloft hotel, and the new world headquarters for Manpower. http://city.milwaukee.gov/Projects/ParkEastredevelopment.htm

In a quick search, I found that Syracuse, New Haven, and New Orleans are considering highway removal as well. The Urban Land Institute has a list of current and proposed highway removal projects in the US.


Anonymous said...

A couple years back, an NPR commentator described 565 as a "lake of asphalt" and example of wasteful spending.

Mayor Battle defended it:

HSV Times article:

I am a fan of 565. It cuts my commute time tremendously.

Anonymous said...

I live in S.E. Huntsville and work in Research Park. I have found that even with school zones, 40 m.p.h. speed limits, and traffic lights, driving Whitesburg - Airport - Triana - Bob Wallace (or some variation) is as fast or faster than taking the Parkway and 565.

Anonymous said...

It was elevated to maintain street level traffic patterns and to avoid splitting neighborhoods in half with a solid, physical barrier like the parkway does. Up or down, people are never happy with decisions The fact remains it is hugely more convenient than 20 and 72 were. The traffic would back up for a mile when the trains crossed the Sparkman crossing near the Space & Rocket Center. Imagine all the traffic on 565 going down Governors between Jordan and the parkway. It was bad then, the city would have been choked to death without 565.

codyg1985 said...

The elevated portion of I-565 going through Huntsville, while being a urban planning nightmare, does serve a vital purpose by directing through east-west traffic, some of it truck traffic, non-stop through the central business district. Although the part between the parkway and Oakwood only sees around 40K AADT, it is also a critical link for those people commuting from NE Madison County, Jackson County, Lincoln County, TN and Franklin County, TN to get to research park and the arsenal.

If this road is torn down in 30 years, then let's hope that the northern bypass is finished, complete with all of its associated overpasses. With all of the examples you mentioned about the proposals to remove elevated freeways, there are freeway bypass alternatives already in place. That isn't yet the case with Huntsville.