Push For Highway Removal Simmers As Federal Government Looks To Support The Idea With Funding
Until the 1960s, Claiborne Avenue in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans was a major commercial thoroughfare for the Black population of the city, home to a variety of businesses and shaded by hundreds of large oak trees. The avenue was also a community gathering place.
By the 1970s, the street was in the shadow of a new highway, erected in 1968 to facilitate the movement of cars through the city, as was considered important by the highway builders of the time. Most of the businesses and all of the trees along the street were gone. What was once an important part of the community had become blighted.
"The people of Tremé who bought houses, like my family, thinking that the neighborhood was going to remain beautiful and prosperous, had no idea that the government considered them expendable," said Amy Stelly, an architectural and urban designer based in New Orleans who lives in the Tremé neighborhood, not far from the elevated Claiborne Expressway, which is now the target of removal efforts.
The construction of the interstate highway system, arguably the most important infrastructure program in the nation's history, cut off, partly demolished or otherwise impaired a significant number of city neighborhoods. Sixty years ago, that was mostly seen as acceptable in the name of progress, disregarding the fact that many of the affected neighborhoods had majority-Black populations.
In more recent decades, the paradigm of running highways through densely populated places has been discredited. The shift has led to a movement to take down some stretches of urban highways and, just as importantly, devise strategies to restore damaged neighborhoods, especially majority-Black communities. These removals are being touted as economic development opportunities because they free up urban land for new construction.
The push for the removal of highways, especially those that ripped apart Black communities more than 50 years ago, has been simmering for a number of years in the 21st century, with a handful of projects undertaken so far. But with the federal government now supporting the idea, advocates are optimistic that more sections of urban highways will come down this decade. Federal money to facilitate removal is in the Senate-passed infrastructure bill, which is expected to come to vote in the House of Representatives on Thursday.
The movement to replace highway segments through the inner cities also aims at restoring urban street grids, providing space for light rail or other non-car transit, and promoting urban revitalization efforts that could begin to reverse the considerable damage done to midcentury Black communities nationwide.
"In states around the country, highway construction displaced Black households and cut the heart and soul out of thriving Black communities as homes, churches, schools and businesses were destroyed," New York University professor of clinic law Deborah Archer wrote in the Vanderbilt Law Review in 2020. "In other communities, the highway system was a tool of a segregationist agenda, erecting a wall that separated White and Black communities and protected White people from Black migration."
A number of factors are converging to make urban highway removal more palatable to 21st-century government and business leaders, Stelly said. There is the matter of racial justice and rebuilding divided communities, of course, but it is also true that many urban freeways are reaching the end of their natural life spans as infrastructure. The Claiborne, which is part of Interstate 10 running through greater New Orleans, is an example, she said.
"In places, the steel sticks out and bolts are coming off," Stelly said. "It's crumbling. So even if the city wanted to rebuild it, I have to tell you, that would be a nonstarter because it would involve taking more land. I'm optimistic that we can begin reversing the damage that urban highways have caused, particularly [in] neighborhoods of color."
In other words, it isn't the 1950s anymore. Community resistance to any further property-taking for a highway would be stiff and, unlike in the midcentury, taken more seriously, she said. As for dispersing the current traffic patterns, Stelly said studies exist that show that long trucks headed for the Port of New Orleans would only be minimally impacted.
Local officials are behind the removal effort now. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell supports exploring the relocation of the Claiborne Expressway, WDSU reports, but didn't answer questions about possible alternative locations. U.S. Rep. Troy Carter and state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson also said they support removal of the expressway.
The divergent fate of the Claiborne Expressway and the proposed Vieux Carré Riverfront Expressway through the French Quarter more than 60 years ago demonstrates that highway builders often found it easier to run highways through Black neighborhoods than White ones. The Claiborne was proposed to increase access to Downtown New Orleans; the Vieux Carré Riverfront to enhance access to the French Quarter. Both plans called for destroying a good bit of those neighborhoods in the name of easy access for automobile traffic.
Preservationists were able to prevent the expressway through the French Quarter. The mostly Black residents of Tremé, however, didn't have the clout to prevent the building of the elevated Claiborne, which essentially destroyed Claiborne Avenue, including 500 homes in its vicinity and a large number of Black-owned businesses.
"Black community leaders didn't have the agency that White community leaders had at the time, so it went through," Stelly said.
Another factor working in favor of highway removal in our time is the potential economic benefits of the redevelopment of the land freed up by the process. The first example of removing a highway and having it be really successful from a community development standpoint is the 2017 removal of part of the Rochester, New York, Inner Loop, said Ben Crowther, program manager for the Congress for the New Urbanism's Highways to Boulevards and Freeways Without Futures initiatives.
In 2013, the city of Rochester obtained a nearly $18M grant from the Obama administration to remove the freeway to create the Union Street corridor, which includes a tree-lined median, bike lanes, pedestrian paths, and new commercial and residential development. Part of the removal also involved reconnecting surface streets bisected by the former highway to encourage pedestrian traffic in the area, something that highways almost always discourage.
Support for the project was strong, though there were detractors who pointed out that the highway wasn't quite at the end of its life span.
"As far as public perception went, though, the benefits of filling in the depressed expressway far outweighed the benefits of maintaining the aging infrastructure," a Federal Highway Administration case study on the project said.
"Rochester started with community development as a main goal for this project," Crowther said. "The city, in the planning phase, actually asked residents who live nearby what they wanted to see out of the 6.5 acres that would be reclaimed from the highway."
That part of the process informed what the city of Rochester ultimately put into the request for proposals for the redevelopment of the land, which was handled by private developers.
"The neighbors said, for example, 'We don't have a pharmacy here. We don't have a daycare center.' And so the city told developers that they could build mixed-use projects, but they would have to include those amenities," Crowther said.
Altogether, the removal cost about $25M. During the first two years after the removal, that investment generated $229M of economic development, Crowther said.
"Economic development is a very strong argument for highway removal," he said.
Other potential candidates for removal around the country include Interstate 980 in Oakland, California, which cut off West Oakland from Downtown; Interstate 5 in Portland, Oregon; and Interstate 345 in Dallas, Crowther said, noting that each of them harmed neighborhoods when they were built and are areas that would benefit from removal.
For there to be any hope of healing a neighborhood, the economic development spurred by highway removal needs to take into account the people who live in the community, Stelly said — the polar opposite of the way things were done in the 1950s and '60s. That is easier said than done, she added. Though it is generally acknowledged that the Claiborne needs to come down, New Orleans municipal leadership has been mum about the details so far.
"We have to come to the table and have those discussions before the interstate comes down," Stelly said. "Once it is removed, it's really too late to begin putting those programs into place.
"Quite honestly, so far I'm hitting a wall in getting our leaders to talk about the plan for the removal. And there are a number of reasons, primarily political, for — what would I call it? Their silence. I'm trying to be diplomatic."
One more important factor now pushing highway removal forward is that the federal government, in particular the Department of Transportation, is on board with the idea since the change of administrations in January.
"Every decision about transportation is necessarily a decision about justice," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in Syracuse, New York, in June, where the state of New York proposed to take down sections of Interstate 81 running through that city.
Buttigieg called the interstate system "an extraordinary achievement" but also said that the planners behind it made choices that often routed new highways directly through Black and Brown neighborhoods, doing lasting damage to those communities.
"One of those highways is right next to us," Buttigieg said. "I-81 was built ... right over and through the 15th Ward. It displaced nearly 1,300 residents from what had been a close-knit, middle-class, Black neighborhood. Those who remained were cut off, in many ways, from opportunity."
In March, the Biden administration's budget plan proposed $20B for a new program to reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic infrastructure work, but Senate deliberations cut the total to $1B in the version passed by that chamber. A House vote is expected Thursday.
In the high-cost world of highway construction — and deconstruction — $1B, or 5% of the originally proposed total, doesn't by itself buy much. The money in the infrastructure bill would, however, create the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program.
According to the text of the bill, the program would study the feasibility of removing, retrofitting or otherwise mitigating existing eligible facilities — that is, highways believed to have caused damage to their communities. The program would also be able to plan and carry out highway removal, presumably as more money for that purpose is allocated by Congress.
Though money in the infrastructure bill was winnowed down, the federal government already has some money at its disposal for highway deconstruction and related projects in the form of discretionary grants and loans. In September, the Transportation Department provided a $464.9M loan to support the Central 70 project in Denver, part of which will fund the construction of a 4-acre section of a park above I-70 that will reconnect the Elyria and Swansea neighborhoods, minority communities that were divided when the original viaduct was built in 1960.
“The Biden-Harris administration has made racial equity and environmental justice a key consideration for new infrastructure projects, while taking significant steps to help correct planning mistakes of the past," a spokeswoman for Buttigieg told Bisnow in an email.
DOT policy now includes overseeing each state’s process and encouraging more equitable solutions, the spokeswoman said. That means that federal infrastructure grants include criteria to benefit communities that have historically been left out and facilitate the reconnection of communities where highways divided them.
"If you study the locations of urban highways and redline communities, you'll see that there was often a relationship between the placement of the highways and redlining," Stelly said. "So you can compare them to monuments to White supremacy, and like them, it's time for the highways to come down."