More Urban Freeway Removals Possible

Bay Area advocates and officials encouraged by proposed $10 billion grant from D.C. to repair some of the damage of the freeway-building age

The Embarcadero Freeway, prior to its removal after the 1989 earthquake
The Embarcadero Freeway, prior to its removal after the 1989 earthquake

There’s a good chance the new Democrat-controlled government in Washington will pass a $435 billion economic justice bill called S5065. Significant to the Bay Area: it includes a $10-billion pilot program aimed at helping communities tear down urban highways.

That could finally push forward some long-sought freeway dismantling in the Bay Area. “The rest of the Central Freeway and the northern end of I-280 are reaching the end of their useful lives, and ought to be removed,” wrote Livable City’s Tom Radulovich, in an email to Streetsblog. “It would be a shame if San Francisco didn’t receive some of the proposed federal grants to do so sooner rather than later.”

On the other side of the Bay, the group ConnectOakland has long sought to remove I-980, which divides downtown from West Oakland, cap it, and use the trench it occupies for a transit corridor. When Streetsblog last spoke with them in 2019, the project seemed like a pipe dream; not anymore. “The best example in the Bay Area, looking into the future, is I-980 in Oakland, where Mayor Schaff is a strong advocate for doing something different along that R-O-W. Plus that location is loaded with essentially every major issue the subject seeks to address,” wrote Randy Rentschler, Director of Legislation and Communications with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, in an email to Streetsblog.

Advocates around the nation are enthusiastic about the idea and the possibility of righting the historical wrongs wrought on Black communities during the freeway-building era, as expressed in this tweet from Transportation for America:

The Bay Area has been a trendsetter when it comes to ripping down freeways, albeit with a powerful push from mother nature.

In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake damaged several area freeways and forced cities to decide whether to remove or replace them. Part of the Central Freeway, now Octavia Boulevard, was taken down. The Embarcadero freeway (seen in the lead image) was removed, finally rejoining San Francisco with its waterfront. And in Oakland, the deadly partial collapse of the Cypress Viaduct lead to its rerouting around West Oakland. Now that people have seen how much these areas have benefited, it shouldn’t take another catastrophic temblor to motivate further tear-downs.

In the case of Oakland, “The challenge is less removing the freeway as opposed to the big price tag needed to build the things” to replace it, noted Rentschler. If I-980 were removed, the trench it occupied would be repurposed, possibly for a new BART or Caltrain connection that “…would be needed to maintain mobility and make the civic improvements expected from such projects.”

Jason Henderson, a Professor in Geography and Environment at SF State, author of Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco, and co-author of Low Car(Bon) Communities: Inspiring Car-Free and Car-Lite Urban Futures, told Streetsblog he agrees it’s time to remove the aging Central Freeway. “The deck from Mission Street to Bryant is from 1959. And it’s on a stream bed. It’s a prolonged off-and-on ramp being jammed into a residential neighborhood that has to put up with all this through traffic.” He added that its removal should be incorporated into the planned HUB redevelopment of the area.

Chris Sensenig and Jonathan Fearn of ConnectOakland propose putting transit in the trench now occupied by I-980 where it connects to I-880. Photo by Nathanael Johnson
Advocates at ConnectOakland propose putting transit in the trench now occupied by I-980 where it connects to I-880 and building a new boulevard on top. Photo by Nathanael Johnson

Henderson and Radulovich would like to see all three freeway removal proposals go forward (the I-280 stub, the rest of the Central in San Francisco, and 980 in Oakland) to benefit the communities they bisect. “Freeway removal is consistent with our official climate and transportation goal of eighty percent trips by sustainable modes–walking, cycling, and transit–by 2030,” wrote Radulovich, who argues that removing I-280’s stub by the Caltrain depot would be a bargain since it simplifies the planned rail connection to the Salesforce Transit Center. “Hoping that our new SFCTA chair Mandelman will light a fire under the City bureaucracy to develop freeway removal plans for both the Central and I-280 north of 101. Removing I-980 through downtown Oakland makes sense to me too.”

For more on the history of the region’s freeway teardowns, check out this article by Henderson.


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