Urban planners and community advocates have long noted that the interstate highway system was designed to separate and isolate poor Black and brown communities from the economic hearts of their cities. A new measure tucked inside the massive Biden-backed infrastructure bill passed by the House of Representatives on Friday sets out to address this “racist infrastructure” by rebuilding the highways and overpasses that have split these neighborhoods for generations.
Dubbed the Reconnecting Communities Act, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said on Monday that the new plan would mean that some highways and overpasses will be torn down in the coming years. The Department of Transportation will consider local needs as it identifies areas across the country to delegate portions of the $1 billion of funds.
“It’s going to vary by community and we have to listen to the community,” Buttigieg said during a White House briefing on Nov. 8. He also noted that as highway design varied from region to region, so do potential solutions. “Sometimes it really is the case that an overpass went in a certain way that is so harmful that it’s got to come down or maybe be put underground. Other times maybe it’s not that way. Maybe the really important thing is to connect across, to add rather than subtract.”
Experts say the Reconnecting Communities’ Act is only a start when it comes to addressing such a longstanding problem.
“During the ‘50s when a lot of money was going into building highways and interstates from the federal government, there was a deliberate strategy of using highways to wall off or isolate redlined communities or communities of color from the rest of the city,” said Joan Fitzgerald, a professor of urban and public policy at Northeastern University. “You can find quotes from transportation planners, being quite open about how [cutting of communities of color] was the intention.”
In addition to displacing community members and disconnecting neighborhoods from the rest of the city, these highways and overpasses also negatively impacted both the health and economic wealth of residents who lived near them. The location of the highways “was on top of them not being able to get down payments or not being able to access government programs for housing,” Fitzgerald noted. “So you’re losing wealth on housing and then on top of that there are environmental hazards.”
Studies have shown that children who grow up near highways are more likely to have asthma and other respiratory conditions, which have also affected how those neighborhoods have fared during the COVID-19 pandemic because of the high rates of preexisting conditions in those regions. “People that had all of these preconditions for respiratory disorders, did not fare well under COVID,” Fitzgerald said. “You could correlate that with where people live.”
During his press conference, Buttigieg specifically noted the impact of the construction of Interstate 81 in Syracuse, New York, which cut through a historically Black neighborhood in the city’s South Side, a move that displaced thousands. As The Guardian noted earlier this year, the interstate is now seen as a “symbol of segregation” in the community and the consequences of its construction have been dire. An analysis by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) found that Black Syracuse residents were more likely to have asthma and be exposed to lead than their white counterparts. New York state recently proposed a new $2 billion plan to rebuild I-81 and redirect traffic to the nearby Interstate 481.
The severity and complexity of the problems created by these highways and overpasses also mean that the $1 billion designated by the infrastructure bill is not nearly enough to address the problem nationwide.
“I’ll say it’s a drop in the bucket,” Fitzgerald said, noting that when President Joe Biden originally proposed a plan to address racist infrastructure, he said he wanted to delegate $20 billion to the program. “With a billion dollars, probably a couple of cities will get to tear down some segments of highway. I can understand why it wasn’t a real priority and how these negotiations take place in Congress but, nevertheless, it was a disappointment to see that this won’t be a major, major initiative.”
As one example of what a reconstructed highway could look like, Fitzgerald points to what the city of Boston did with the former “Big Dig,” a megaproject that began in 1991 and reconstructed the previously elevated I-93 elevated roadway so that it now ran underground. In 2008, the area above the now-underground highway was declared the Rose Kennedy Greenway and consists of 17 acres of parks and green spaces that run throughout downtown Boston.
“It essentially became the world’s largest green roof, because we put a park on top of the and so it’s a whole ribbon of Parkway that is widely used today,” she said. But, she added, the most important thing to do when it comes to designating the $1 billion of funds for the Reconnecting Communities Act is for the government to work with local governments and organizers in order to identify what the needs of individual neighborhoods are.
“The intention would be not just to say, ‘Okay, now we’ve got this land for development,’ but to say, ‘What are the needs of these communities?’” she said, naming increasing affordable housing, new first-time homebuyer programs, and walkable neighborhoods as items a community might be advocating for. “There’s just enormous potential, if done right with that intentionality that would be part of a green revitalization.”