On a sunny day last fall just before Thanksgiving, dump trucks sat on massive mounds of dirt and rubble in an east Rochester neighborhood. In a surreal scene, the construction equipment was parked nearly at street grade on a section of a depressed highway that until November 2014 was traversed by a mere handful of cars each day.

With the help of federal and state funding, Rochester is now trying to right a wrong from a period in planning when the automobile was king and high-speed roadways were paramount in designing infrastructure.

When completed, the $20 million effort will bring a small section of the Flower City’s notorious Interstate 390 back to grade, reconnecting east side neighborhoods with downtown and replacing 12 lanes of road that acted as an economic moat with pedestrian and bicycle-friendly parkways that city officials hope will promote new development in the area.

Jim McIntosh, Rochester’s city engineer, said that the stretch of the Inner Loop that’s being filled in only saw about 6,000 cars a day in recent years, meaning the barrier for neighborhoods that could otherwise benefit from easy access to Rochester’s downtown business districts was essentially pointless.

“I think we’re trying to, I guess, build the city for people versus for cars,” McIntosh said. “That’s kind of where we were.”

Closer to downtown, construction workers in bright yellow vests and hard hats were working below a pedestrian bridge in the warm afternoon breeze.

“Without a doubt, the freeze-thaw cycles we have give another hit, another negative on how long our system is going to last.”
- Terrence Rice, Monroe County Department of Transportation director

Pont De Rennes Bridge in Rochester spans the Genesee River at the base of High Falls. Converted to pedestrian use, the bridge must undergo regular minor maintenance. (Brendan Bannon)

The bridge, which spans the gorge near High Falls, is not dangerous at this point, but could become unusable within a few years without regular maintenance, due to the area’s frigid weather, in addition to everyday wear and tear. The crossing is important for people who walk to work from nearby neighborhoods, but also for businesses that benefit from recreation in the city. The Genesee Brewing Company recently invested in its building on the edge of the gorge, creating a tasting room, restaurant and banquet facilities with views of the falls. Directly across the gorge is Frontier Field, the city’s baseball stadium, an easy walk that would otherwise be five or six blocks, McIntosh said.

“There’s destinations on both sides that people want to get to,” McIntosh said. “Without having the pedestrian bridge you wouldn’t be able to do that.”

Rochester has been pursuing a number of other projects and focusing on maintenance in order to help private businesses thrive, such as repaving roads and repairing bridges, and is putting a high priority on heavily traveled thoroughfares, especially those that run through business districts.

Rochester has been able to keep up on maintenance and tackle bigger projects like the Inner Loop in part because of good planning. Take the city’s water system: About a century ago, city planners had the foresight to build a system that is largely driven by gravity. In Western New York there are about 100 water pumps, and each one requires maintenance and repairs whenever it breaks down. In contrast, Rochester and the surrounding communities of Monroe County have just one massive pump.

The county invested in upgrades to its water infrastructure in the 1970s, spending millions of dollars in the process. While it was a huge upfront cost at the time, it resulted in a more reliable, cleaner and safer system that does not require the hundreds of millions of dollars that other metro areas like Buffalo and Syracuse need to maintain service, or – as in parts of Western New York – clean up severe pollution in waterways.

“I guess I would say that we have a strong maintenance program and that helps us make do with what we have,” McIntosh said.

Still, McIntosh stressed, the city does struggle to fund projects. Despite a capital projects fund in its budget that not all upstate cities enjoy, Rochester still has more projects planned than it can fully fund each year.

“I think we try to be proactive, but the funding to do that is limited,” McIntosh said.

“We have a strong maintenance program and that helps us make do with what we have. … We try to be proactive, but the funding to do that is limited.”
- Jim McIntosh, Rochester’s city engineer

Rochester City Engineer Jim McIntosh stands on Pont De Rennes Bridge and looks out at High Falls. (Brendan Bannon)

The city got some big news last year. In July it was announced that the region would become home to a $600 million photonics center, part of a federal program working to drive innovation across the country. Then, in December, officials learned that a state panel selected the region as one of three to win $500 million in economic development money as part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Upstate Revitalization Initiative – often called the “Upstate Hunger Games.”

A good deal of that money is set to go toward capitalizing on the photonics center and the manufacturing opportunities it presents.

Mayor Lovely Warren said she feels that with the investments coming to Rochester, it will be increasingly important to address infrastructure needs to continue to attract new employers and industries.

“We have, as a community, done a lot to maintain the investment and to develop ways in which we can prolong certain types of residential street improvements or with our bridges and other things, but we can always utilize more money,” Warren said.

In order to attract and retain those companies and industries, the city will need to earn a reputation as a place with reliable infrastructure on all fronts, especially at a time when so much attention is being paid to the deplorable conditions of roads, bridges and water systems across the country.

“As the leader of this city, my job is to work with our business community, work with our unions, work with our state, local and federal officials, for them to understand what our immediate needs are,” Warren said. “Hopefully they will bring in the resources that we need to take care of those needs.”

New York’s brutal winters mean that roads must constantly be repaired or replaced, regardless of how well a municipality keeps on top of maintenance.

“It’s more about those everyday street infrastructure improvements that people are driving on that you want to make sure are safe,” Warren said. “We do our best at the city with the funding that we get to prioritize and develop a strategy around that.”

Still, particularly in the Northeast, maintenance of roads is difficult because even if the surface roads look brand new, the infrastructure underneath may need serious upgrades.

Terrence Rice, the director of the Monroe County Department of Transportation, said that even with a strong program in place for prioritizing road projects, it can be hard to find needed reconstruction funds. In addition, many times it is difficult to know just how bad the infrastructure beneath a road is without digging it up.

“That’s where we struggle with money, if we need to rehabilitate or reconstruct, because we can’t do as much as we’d like to,” Rice said. “There’s just not enough money.”

Rice said that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature have responded well to unique situations, providing extra funding over that last two years after the long, hard winters that punished the entire Northeast.

“Without a doubt, the freeze-thaw cycles we have give another hit, another negative on how long our system is going to last,” Rice said.

Rice said he is optimistic about what the recent federal transportation deal will mean for Monroe County and other municipalities throughout the state. He is also glad that legislators and advocacy groups are pushing for additional infrastructure funding for upstate in light of the state’s deal to help pay for New York City projects through the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The governor has since promised $22 billion for upstate infrastructure projects, although the bulk of it is not new money.

“We’re hoping, from the local standpoint, that now with the deal with the governor down in New York City with the MTA, if you’re going to give additional money to the MTA, well let’s have that much money, that same amount going to the DOT as a whole, with some of it coming to the locals,” Rice said.

Click here to read part four of our saga: Syracuse.