A new future for downtown Rochester: Removing the Inner Loop highway

By Mary Ebeling

The City of Rochester’s prospects for removing a segment of their Inner Loop did not always look so rosy. Rochester twice before unsuccessfully applied for federal funds to redo this portion of the expressway in 2009 and 2011. But this was before the city committed to investing $2 million to develop a plan and create preliminary engineering documents. This activity sent a strong signal to USDOT that Rochester is serious about removing this freeway segment, and certainly contributed to the successful application in this round of TIGER grant awards. Other communities with similar concerns should take note of how Rochester acquired funding for this game-changing project.

Rochester’s underutilized urban Inner Loop, built in the 1960s, received 17.7 million dollars to facilitate the removal of the expressway and frontage roads and reconstruction as a parkway. A design proposal is complete; the sunken segment will be brought up to grade with surrounding streets, and excitement is growing.
Along the current configuration there are just four bridge crossings, which severely limits access to the downtown, hampers economic development in the area, and creates a formidable barrier to any mode of transportation other than motor vehicles. The removal and replacement of the Inner Loop, a road once disparaged by the city itself as a “noose around the neck of downtown,” has been two decades in planning and will give way to a boulevard that will reconnect the city street grid, improve the business environment, and improve livability for Rochester’s residents.

The following ingredients made freeway removal appealing:

  • An underutilized freeway challenged the city with low traffic volumes and high maintenance costs
  • Concern over increasing operations costs and safety concerns associated with a freeway’s aging infrastructure
  • A local government willing to invest in planning and engineering studies to develop alternatives
  • A group of identified government champions at the local, state, and federal levels
  • An identified civic interest in supporting downtown revitalization. This interest quickened as downtown East Street increased in vibrancy.
  • A group of willing partners at the state and USDOT

The city succeeded in building a team of stakeholders across multiple interest groups, invested in a quality plan, and built relationships with influential elected officials who helped make this grant award a reality.

“The project will convert the 8-12 lanes of expressway and frontage roads into a single two-lane street, with parking, a separated bicycle track and sidewalks,” said Mayor Thomas Richards “This project will remove this barrier to downtown revitalization and will enable residents to walk safely and conveniently on an appropriately-scaled city street.”