Four takeaways from the kickoff for the study about the future of I-787

787 study public event visioning map

A large map was laid out so members of the public could annotate with ideas.

The planning project for the future of I-787 -- and the waterfront -- got off to its public start Wednesday with presentations at the Albany Public Library.

The I-787/Hudson Waterfront Corridor Study is sponsored by Capital District Transportation Committee, the state Department of Transportation, and the city of Albany. Its focus extends from the Port of Albany along the riverfront north to Watervliet. And its aims include helping develop strategies for improving waterfront access and guiding future transportation planning.

We stopped by for the early presentation (the same presentation was to be repeated in the evening), and took some time to check out the various posters and other "visioning" materials.

Here are four impressions/takeaways...


The 787 situation is complicated

Because, of course it is. That's kind of an obvious statement. But here are handful of bits from the presentation Wednesday that illustrate how just the roadway itself is complicated:

+ I-787 is the region's third-busiest road, after only the Northway and I-90 in Albany. Sections that run through downtown Albany, as well as those in Menands and Watervliet, average about 80,000 vehicle a day.

+ Within the study area, which extends from the Port of Albany north into Watervliet, there are 56 bridges of all sorts linked to 787.

+ Just in the study area alone there are five municipalities -- the city of Albany, village of Menands, town of Colonie, city of Watervliet, and village of Green Island.

+ A little more than half of the 2,263 acres in the study area are in the 100-year flood plain.

+ There's a rail line that runs down the middle of the 787 in downtown Albany, and as one of the officials pointed out Wednesday, railroad rights are protected by the federal government.

So making changes to 787 -- never mind ripping it out and replacing it -- isn't going to be simple, and a lot of people will affected.

And that's not even mentioning cost.

Cost is a major issue

So, let's talk about cost. Officials stressed Wednesday that this planning project is in the very early stages, so there's nothing close to any sort of official estimate about how much it might cost to pursue whatever options people might prefer for 787. But here's a figure, just to frame this part a bit: The estimated cost to replace all the bridges and pavement within the study area is $800-$900 million, according the presentation.

OK, well, you might say that you're not talking about replacing all of 787, just maybe the part in downtown Albany in order to turn it into a boulevard. So, for the sake of discussion, let's say that would cost maybe $400 million.

Where does that money come from? Good question. Because the way officials were talking Wednesday, the money isn't available.

"If we're talking about [a project that is] hundreds of millions of dollars, we can't afford it right now," Sam Zhou, the state Department of Transportation's regional director for the Capital District, told the crowd Wednesday. "That's just a plain and honest answer."

"If we're talking about [a project that is] hundreds of millions of dollars, we can't afford it right now," Sam Zhou, the state Department of Transportation's regional director for the Capital District, told the crowd Wednesday. "That's just a plain and honest answer."

We got a chance to talk with Zhou for a few minutes after the presentation to try to get a better handle on the funding situation. The short summary of that conversation: the funding situation is complicated and uncertain.

A big part of the uncertainty is related to the ongoing Congressional traffic jam on sorting out federal transportation funding. (That itself is a whole complicated issue, but basically the federal account for transportation projects, which is funded by a gasoline tax, has been coming up short.) And the outlook is that funding will probably not be increasing, even as transportation infrastructure around the country continues to age and deteriorate.

"The most difficult question is what can we afford, and when can we afford it," Zhou told the crowd during the presentation. "Albany is not just the only town in the game. ... Our region is comprised of eight counties. The needs are all over the place. We just don't have enough resources to take care of everything."

So with money tight -- the phrase Zhou used with us was the situation is "fiscally constrained" -- where does 787 fit in among current priorities? Well, that's one of the things that this study will be looking at. But a comment made by Mike Franchini, the executive director of the Capital District Transportation Committee, during the public presentation maybe helps frame how planners will be thinking about 787:

"There's been investment of taxpayers of New York State in the hundreds of millions of dollars [into 787]. So, whether we want to realize that or not, that's an investment that would you recommend tearing that down even though there's a $100 million and 20 years of life in there."

Of course there will also be a cost associated with not changing 787, if only because many parts of it will be reaching the end of their lifespan in another two decades and will have to be repaired or replaced.

No one said this specifically during the presentation, or to us afterward, but we get the impression that any major -- expensive -- change to 787 will end up requiring some sort of outside force to intervene. Maybe the state gets an unexpected windfall and it diverts a chunk of the money to the project, as it's doing with the Tappan Zee bridge replacement. And/or the governor -- whoever that might be in the future -- decides to make 787 a priority as an economic development project. And/or there's enough organized public support to approve new or increased taxes to fund the project, as has happened with massive transportation projects in Denver and LA.


The timeline is long

Any major change to to 787 would be complicated. It would be expensive. And it's not clear where the money would come from. So we're not looking at a short timeline.

The completed version of this current study is scheduled for spring of 2016. And for actual large projects?

The timeline described in the public presentation by Christina Minkler of CHA Consulting, the firm managing the study, set planning for the next 5-10 years, outlining a long term plan during the next 10-20 years, and in 20+ years identifying and moving on "big ticket" projects.

Said Franchini to the crowd: "We have to look at it, if we have a project that's going to be hundreds of millions of dollars, to develop that, to design that, to develop the scope and to find the funding, that's probably a long term. That's probably 10-15 years, at least."

"We have to look at it, if we have a project that's going to be hundreds of millions of dollars, to develop that, to design that, to develop the scope and to find the funding, that's probably a long term. That's probably 10-15 years, at least."

One of the things this study is aiming to identify is smaller projects -- that could completed much sooner -- that would potentially increase access to the waterfront, or generally make the area along 787 more attractive or open it up to economic development. Maybe that's more pedestrian bridges. Maybe that's new paint for overpasses and better lighting. Maybe it's something totally new. It sounds like officials are looking for ideas.

There's going to be frustration from the public

Wednesday's presentation included time for questions from the public, and in the early session at least, there were multiple people who expressed interest in the boulevard idea for 787 -- and many of them appeared visibly frustrated by the long timeline.

We're guessing that frustration will continue to pop up. The question of what to do with 787 isn't a new topic, and we get the sense that many people have a pretty good idea about what they'd like to see done. So, to them, this is probably going to feel a bit like the process is spinning its wheels.

But if you're one of these people -- a boulevard-or-bust advocate, or some other viewpoint -- the upside to this study is that it will be a formal way for the public to express its desires about 787. And, presumably, after the study is finished, the question won't be what people want -- but how can it be made to happen.

There's another public presentation about the start of study June 30 at the Watervliet Senior Citizen Center -- the presentation is set for 5:30 pm.


+ A few years back there was a report by two think tanks about urban highways -- "The Life and Death of Urban Highways" -- that includes a look at some of the issues involved, and case studies of projects in cities around the world.

+ Just down the Thruway, Syracuse has been trying to sort out what to do with I-81, an elevated highway that runs right through the middle of downtown, a process that's included conflict between the city and its suburbs. (Here's the latest on the I-81 storyline.) As part of the planning process for the next I-81, the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council put together a bunch of case studies about how other cities have handled remaking urban highways -- it's worth a look if you're interested in the topic.


If cost is such a tremendous issue, as 800-900 sounds like it is, and we're seeing the end of life for 787, is it reasonable to not rebuild it at all? I know it sounds crazy and would make traffic more difficult on other streets but if we can't afford and public safety is an issue, then may be don't even boulevard the whole thing, only what is needed to connect to ESP and that's it? Can the Port be accessible without 787? Are any other destinations inaccessible with the loss of 787?

A windfall, hm? Like, say, the huge increase in tax revenue and reduced prison costs we could get by legalizing marijuana?

The "420 for 787" initiative?

I think that we can all agree that 787 is the big ugly. We can also agree on the fact that, absent some funding miracle, 787 is here to stay for a very long time. The cost of repairing it, though high, is still much lower than taking it down, and the actual benefits are not very clear. Would land developers simply build strings of condos along the river and still deprive all of us from enjoying it? It happened in many places (parts of Newburgh, Bronx, etc, come to mind). The bigger problem, I believe, is that the job was left unfinished. The spaces under the overpasses became parking lots and shady areas. There are probably affordable and reasonable ways to improve the big ugly. All those spaces under the overpasses could be transformed into gardens and small parks. We could engage artists to paint the columns and display sculptures. We could increase street lighting to make those areas less shady. We could build underground or overhead walkways to the river at multiple points in the city. We could decorate the concrete sides of the highway. I'm sure that artists, landscape architects and other creative people, together with engineers, could really devise economically feasible ways to improve the big ugly. Sometimes we have to meet probelms half-way.

It's nowhere near the same scale, but a little further down the road in Rochester they're filling in a portion of the old Inner Loop that was always underutilized and a barrier between the downtown business district and the eastside residential/entertainment district. I used to live on the eastside and would walk to work downtown, and this was a terrible dead zone - so I'm really excited to see what transformation it brings.

I was curious how there were covering the $21mm cost, and from the project website it looks like 80% is Federal ("TIGER"?), 18% is state and 2% is local. Key differences from Albany are the size of the undertaking and the utilization of the road - but it's great to see something like this actually move forward Upstate. One interesting thing I hadn't thought about is that in the 3/4 mile section being turned into a boulevard it's expected that 6 acres of land will be opened up for private development - land that can then generate tax revenue for the city.

But where else would it go? We need a roadway connecting those areas somewhere or else downtown businesses are doomed. Whats' the alternative, demolishing downtown to put a highway there? I don't think so. 787 is here to stay. I think we need to look at lower hanging fruit solutions and make the best of what we have. Revitalizing the neighborhoods that border the riverfront would be a good start like the south end and helping the homeless population. People don't want to go down there because it's dark and feels dangerous. Start there to encourage it's use and the demand will grow.

Joe, how would building condos prevent anyone from enjoying the river? By that logic, we would demolish the entire city.

That said, I fully agree with the rest of your comment. Even the one pedestrian overpass that exists was very helpful in improving river access. Even better would be if we could take that one on-ramp and make it into a High Line variety park, an idea that has been floated quietly.

how would building condos prevent anyone from enjoying the river?

JayK -- In the areas that I'm the most familiar with, riverside condos were built as gated communities, which have exclusive access to the riverfront. That's what I'm talking about. A friend of mine in the Bronx lives in one of those very, very large condo complexes and the riverfront is not public.

I suggest Albany take a look at what NYC did along the West Side Highway downtown..around the area where the new Whitney is located and south. Simply create crosswalks at street level with traffic lights so pedestrians can easily cross over to the river , and not just one crosswalk, but several from say, the boathouse, down to where the Slater is moored. Oh yes, drivers will balk at having to stop at a light? Oh, well. They'll get used to it. I really think this is the most cost effective solution

The model for this job would be the removal of San Francisco's Embarcadero Freeway. It was supposed to be a wonderful transportation amenity for the people of San Francisco, but turned out to be a hideous concrete wall that surrounded the city and cut it off from the Bay. Fortunately, it was badly damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

No one, but no one, wanted to repair it. Down it went. As did some other ill-conceived elevated roadway left over from the 1950's. In every instance, the change is a magnificent improvement. Just do an internet search for the photos. The traffic issues were all handled. This can be, too. It's all about money and political will.

So all we need to do is have some major earthquakes and increase the albany population by an order of magnitude. Sweet.

In considering the removal of I-787, the biggest determining factor is in fact, political will. In NYC, the Port Authority of NY & NJ (a bi-state agency), after having just spent over $4B on a subway (PATH) station, is now projecting the cost of rebuilding its midtown bus station as costing $15B. FIFTEEN BILLION DOLLARS -- to accommodate primarily NJ commuter buses.

Yes, Albany is not NYC. But it is the State Capitol. And NYS is fighting to retain its population and economic significance. And we are experiencing a clear, strong resurgence, nationally, of older cities, being reborn as desirable residences (Millennials, "Empty Nesters", etc), Further, the continued revitalization of Hudson Valley towns has moved steadily north, over the past 10-15 yrs. A stronger commercial and residential Albany is needed, to encourage the health and growth of the Hudson Valley corridor.

In terms of funding -- no city or county assumes the majority burden in financing highway removal. Rather, it is State and Federal highway funding that is invested, with the intent of enabling economic viability to follow.

NYS needs to view Albany in a new, 21st century light. Too many factors are already in play, to allow Albany's waterfront to remain in its sad, current state. Much the way Rockefeller & Corning found creative ways to finance the Mall (for better or worse), our leadership needs to champion Albany's future. The waterfront is crucial to distinguishing Albany's identity and enabling its viability.

Something we often fail to consider -- Other cities would give anything to have the natural asset that Albany takes for granted. It's now time to move out of a 1950's mindset, and enable Albany to breathe and grow. It took NYC into the 1990s to realize this and effectively act -- and NYC didn't fund its waterfront improvements on its own. Nor did Yonkers, Nor is Buffalo. Now is Albany's time. Remove I-787, and let Albany be a city with a future -- Not one who's fortunes are buried beneath elevated highways and squandered opportunities.

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