Interstate 43 in Milwaukee, WI is one example of federally-funded highway projects that obliterated historically Black neighborhoods.
Creating an interstate highway system was among the greatest engineering feats of the 20th century in the U.S. The paving of highways connecting cities from sea to shining sea represented American idealism at its best: a gateway from downtown financial districts to the burgeoning suburbs, a post-war infrastructure renaissance set to rival Germany’s Autobahn (Germany, for crying out loud!) and the freedom of the wide open road.
But when the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 set in motion the construction of 41,000 miles of highway roads that would span the nation, it also set in motion the blatant destruction of Black communities (such as I-43 in Milwaukee, shown above) that were in these roads’ paths. The Senate-passed $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill will allocate $1 billion to reconnecting cities upended by past projects.
The development of the highway system followed a blueprint unmistakably synonymous with America’s stained and racialized past. The story of several American cities, from Cincinnati to Detroit to Houston and beyond, share a similar script: Highly populated and thriving black communities brimming with main streets and arts districts were flattened and disbanded in favor of new highways. While the highway system connected commuters to their jobs in cities to mostly white suburbs, it upended Black communities.
Now, 65 years of wear and tear on major U.S. highways have spurred bipartisan legislation for an historic infrastructure bill. The aging highway system also coincides with a rejuvenated racial reckoning that’s relit a spotlight on historical injustices and discrimination in the U.S. These two worlds collided last June when protesters en masse responded to George Floyd’s murder by shutting down highways across the country to shed light on the communities thrashed by the American road system. Protesters symbolically occupied major highways like I-75 in Cincinnati where the West End was once whole and I-630 in Little Rock which sought to segregate the Arkansas capital.
The bill’s $1 billion will largely go toward funding feasibility studies that would assess the impacts of dismantling or retrofitting freeways in high-impact zones. Some of the funds will provide a financial boost to projects already in the works, like the one in Miami’s historically black Overtown community. Along with building out more highway lanes to improve traffic flow, the $800 million Miami project will also lift highway bridges currently engulfing Overtown and convert that “underdeck” area into green space.
Other projects to come out of the money allocated to reconnecting these communities will likely be a mixed bag as experts, community planners and activists analyze project possibilities from every angle. The funds could be used to build multi-block land bridges for public space above highways that uprooted hundreds of businesses and families, like in the once thriving Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota. Or projects could revert sections of disruptive highway back to their pre-1960s boulevards, like in downtown Syracuse.
DC-based nonprofit Congress for the New Urbanism published a report, Freeways Without Future 2021, that highlights 15 highways most in need of transformation as well as organizations and projects working toward solutions. One of those organizations is Claiborne Avenue Alliance, a nonprofit committed to righting the wrongs caused by I-30’s passageway splintering Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans. Claiborne Avenue Alliance’s co-founder Amy Stelly told Bloomberg that “One of the biggest monuments to racism in America is the urban highway system.”
The $1 billion is a drop in the bucket and a far cry from the $20 billion which was originally included in the bill but severely downsized after negotiations between Democrats and Republicans. Activists criticized the cut in a fiery letter sent to Congress endorsed by nearly 100 cities, urban planning organizations and transportation groups.
“Without additional funding, the program will either fail to adequately fund even one full project from planning to implementation, or will grant many communities the opportunity to reimagine their neighborhoods without providing any follow-through in the form of dedicated capital construction funds,” the letter reads.
With this bill, grants of up to $2 million dollars will be rewarded to local governments and urban planning organizations for feasibility studies. Projects that have a plan in place can apply for construction grants, which start at $5 million.
According to the Urban Institute, state and local governments spent $140 billion on highways and roads in 2018 compared to the federal government’s $45 billion. While the infrastructure bill will pump more federal money nationwide into projects like road and bridge repairs, public transport, electric vehicle charging stations, broadband internet infrastructure, and much more, it remains true that states fund and distribute much of the spending when it comes to highways and roads.
While studies and plans are in motion for reviewing ways to reform highways, the paving marches on as roads meet the end of their lives. As Bloomberg points out, the billions upon billions of dollars being poured into infrastructure projects across nearly every corner of the U.S. severely overpowers the cries from activists and money allocated from Congress.
Even still, the fight rages on. In Houston, activists celebrated a big (yet potentially impermanent) victory when the Federal Highway Administration told the Texas Department of Transportation to halt the construction of a $7 billion highway project. The highway widening environmental plan revealed that 1,300 homes and businesses as well as two schools in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods would be collateral damage from the construction. Though the fate of the North Houston Highway Improvement Project is stalled and uncertain, it could represent an interesting case study into federal government oversight and clamp downs on highway construction. With former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg at the helm of the Department of Transportation, “freeway fighters” from Portland to Boston are lining up to encourage Buttigieg to put divisive infrastructure projects on pause.
Biden’s infrastructure bill has been tumultuous - what started as a $2 trillion plan has been nearly halved. The 2,000+ page bill gained steam in early August, passing through the Senate with all Democrats and 19 Republicans casting “yes” votes. The bill is due for the House floor by no later than September 27, and the margin of votes the Democrats need is slim. Can the $1 billion set aside for reconnecting communities paralyzed by highway constructions hold tight and stay in the final bill? Or will it be reduced (or worse yet cut altogether) as politicians take a red pen to a bill that rivals the size of an encyclopedia?
Image credit: Miguel Ángel Sanz/Unsplash
Based in Atlanta, GA, Grant is a nonprofit professional and freelance writer passionate about affordable housing and finding sustainable approaches to international development. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.