Tag Archives: Highway

Highways and Byways

18 Feb

In the last week there has been some debate, none of it new, on the chicken and the egg, and the relative importance to each. In this case, the chickens are large highways, and the egg is the perpetually under-developed downtown Buffalo. Is Buffalo under-developed because large highways are in the way? Do the highways need to be removed for Buffalo to prosper? How important are the stupid highways in the grand scheme of things?

I love new shiny objects. Especially when they are over 10 stories and cost $100M or more. But let me make the layman’s common sense case for new shine being neither here nor there.

Which is more important: having great infrastructure, or how you use what you have? If you answered the second, why do we always seem to argue about the first? Alan comes down squarely in the “play the hand you’re dealt” camp. A comment discussion between myself and STEEL yielded the admission that highways may not be the most important thing, but they are not an asset.

Since Buffalo doesn’t have $5B or $10B to start over, I think how we use what we’ve got is more important than arguing about what we wish would happen, or would have happened. “But hold on,” the infrastructure first crowd chants. “We just trying to better use the money we do spend. Like not spending $50M on reinforcing Route 5 and the Skyway.” If only the Southtown Connector was the only project on the docket. Its hard to talk about one highway project without hearing a chorus of “Tear down the Skyway! Tear out the I-190! Pull up the 198!” If you’re not careful, that starts to turn into real money . . .

Even the most cursory review shows that both flourishing and floundering cities have all manner of infrastructure. For every Vancouver touted for explosive growth with no highways in the urban core (though plenty of gridlock), there is Chicago, Milwaukee, Toronto, Portland and Seattle that are riddled with expressways. Few would say highways are the main feature holding back Detroit. And does Pittsburgh‘s resurgence have more to do with renewed medical and education industries, or reclaiming a little parkland where three rivers come together? Portland has a Skyway interchange hanging over the Willammette river. Know what’s surrounding it? Filled to the brim bike paths. STEEL challenged me that I didn’t spend a lot of time under Portland’s highways. Actually, my favorite place in Portland is under a highway:

Which makes my point completely. What Buffalo is missing is attitude. Our highways, empty grain elevators, rusting factories, abandoned warehouses, urban prairie, and old housing stock – all seemingly negatives – can be assets with the right attitude. Warehouse to loft conversions, PUSH, Buffalo Reuse and the Wilson Street Farm are a couple examples of new attitude. That those four, and few others, sprung to mind so quickly perhaps shows how far we have to go.

I spent the last couple weeks in Yakima, Washington. Yakima is to Seattle as Jamestown is to Buffalo. Yakima has many shiny new buildings in one small strip of downtown.

Two blocks off downtown is another story.  

While many complain that poor Buffalo is surrounded by rich suburbs, much of small town America shows that rich suburbs are better than no suburbs. At least Buffalo, theoretically, has a financial cushion of the county to fall back on. What if poor Buffalo sat alone? Welcome to Yakima, and similar poor, hollowed out metros, lonely and isolated. Yakima’s alternative music school is closing, but it has shiny new infrastructure. How much do brick-accented sidewalks matter?

Form Follows Function. The bike and walking culture of Portland was not created because a forward looking city council created bike paths everywhere, and the average citizen one day decided “You know, there’s a bike path out my front door – maybe I should try it.” The culture came first, and demanded bike paths and pedestrian friendly light rail. The politicians followed, and built it.

Where does this meandering column lead? To this conclusion: The Buffalo we have is the Buffalo we deserve, because it is the Buffalo we chose. The union bound, small minded politicians we have accurately reflect and represent our interests. The infrastructure we have is the infrastructure we chose based upon our priorities: cars and industry. We replaced factories with call centers and back office paper shuffling. When there is a new initiative for the city, we spend more time planning for its failure than helping it succeed. We are not Portland because we do not wish to be. The problem is attitude.

If you are troubled by this, you have three choices: accept it, leave, or try to change it. While seemingly superficial advancements and events, like the giant ice maze, are greeted with jeers, I respect them. They attack the root problem: attitude. If Buffalo became a more creative, fun, progressive (for progress, not liberal) place, then perhaps our form would follow that function instead.

Abolish the Thruway Authority

10 Nov

The state DOT, which manages not just highways, but airports, seaports, and some public transportation, has an annual budget of $7.4 billion.

The Thruway Authority, which manages the Thruway and Erie Canal, has an annual budget of over a billion dollars, and a little over half of its money is collected through tolls. I’ve written extensively, critically, and dismissively of the Thruway Authority, and I won’t repeat those here.

The obvious solution is abolition of the bloated, inefficient Thruway Authority. The problem is – if you incorporate it into the State DOT, it will cost money to maintain and service, and the money has to come from somewhere. Most likely, your pocket through gas tax hikes or similar.

But there’s another way.

In the past, I’ve suggested that the Thruway take a hint from Toronto’s 407 and make toll collection something that’s done at highway speeds. But that’s expensive and probably not necessary.

Instead, many European countries share the cost burden of highway maintenance through sales of stickers.

Austria (for vehicles up to 3.5 tonnes), the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland and Hungary have toll motorways (some motorways, though, are toll-free). Payment in those countries is done in the form of “vignettes”, or stickers being affixed to the car’s front window, which are valid for a certain amount of time. The time is always one calendar year in Switzerland; in Austria and Hungary cheaper vignettes with shorter validity are also available. Slovenia introduced vignettes on July 1, 2008. Due to the fact that the vignette with the shortest time-frame available is valid for 6 months and costs € 35, vignettes have been met with fierce opposition.

Naturally, we could follow the Austrian model where 10 days of travel cost € 7.70 of unlimited travel on that country’s highways. The Swiss system is an annual charge of SFr 40. If caught without a vignette, the Swiss charge you a SFr 100 fine, plus the cost of a vignette. The Austrians are stricter, charging between € 400 and € 4,000 for a missing sticker. Given that it now costs almost $20 to get from the Major Deegan to the PA line, a $10 sticker for 10 days’ worth of highway travel is a bargain.

Vignettes could be sold at welcome centers entering New York or leaving bordering states. They could be sold online, in advance, or, as they are in Hungary, even via cell phone text message:

The point here is that the roads need to be paid for, and it makes sense for the people using them to pay for them. People could avoid buying the stickers by using secondary roads, so it’s completely optional. We could abolish not only the entire Thruway Authority, but most of its associated, dedicated toll-collecting costs. We could get rid of its obnoxious exclusive contracts with towing and wrecker services on the Thruway. But something different should at least be examined.

(Photo of Swiss Vignette by g-trieber @ Flickr.com)