Maryland lawmakers seek to reconnect communities divided by highways

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Baltimore has its Highway to Nowhere, a road that gobbled up communities before the project was abandoned.

Wilmington, Del., had neighborhoods wiped out by Interstate 95.

Thousands of Detroit residents lost their homes — and surviving communities were scarred — by the construction of Interstate 375.

The Overtown neighborhood in Miami, a majority-Black community, was “flattened,” also by I-95, forcing 10,000 people to leave their homes.

In Nashville, bulldozers demolished 620 houses, 27 apartment buildings and six Black churches to make way for the I-40 expressway.

All across the nation, American communities bear the scars of the headlong rush to expand the interstate highway system, mostly in the 1950s and 60s.

In many American cities, the federal government erected roads designed primarily to bring mostly White suburban professionals into urban job centers — slitting established Black neighborhoods in the process.

Many communities have never recovered, scholars and planners say.

U.S. Reps. Anthony G. Brown and Kweisi Mfume and Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Benjamin L. Cardin, who are all Maryland Democrats, are among federal lawmakers seeking to undo some of the damage.

Spurred on by U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has spotlighted the devastating impact the federal highway system has had on communities of color, Brown and the other lawmakers have introduced legislation to “reconnect” communities divided by elevated freeways.

The bill they’re backing would provide funding to remove and “retrofit” what they call “historic infrastructure barriers.”

“We have an opportunity to transform our infrastructure and invest in the transportation future of every community, with equity and justice at the forefront of our efforts. Communities of color have been chronically underinvested in and deliberately harmed by exclusionary infrastructure and transportation policies,” said Brown, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, in a statement.

“We cannot leave anyone behind in our recovery. Infrastructure provides job and development opportunities and impacts the health and wellbeing of residents. By reconnecting communities and correcting the mistakes of the past, we will begin to build more inclusive infrastructure for every American.”

At the time, the expansion of the nation’s highway network was championed as a way to connect cities and their suburbs, boost housing opportunity, and make it easier for a wave of post-war car owners to reach good-paying jobs and take family vacations.

A more robust highway network was also cast as a way to evacuate cities in the event of an attack by the Soviet Union or other foe.

But critics say the people who ended up with highway overpasses looming over their homes endured reduced access to jobs and retail, loss in their property values, and increased noise and pollution.

Van Hollen introduced similar legislation in 2019, when Republicans were in the majority in the Senate, but it didn’t receive a vote.

“For far too long, components of our public infrastructure have divided neighborhoods — scarring cities and isolating communities of color,” Van Hollen said in a statement. “We need to change course and invest in building infrastructure that brings residents together and expands economic opportunity for all.”

“From Baltimore’s Highway to Nowhere to abandoned infrastructure across America, tackling this issue is a high priority, and we will keep working to get this passed,” he added.

The idea of tearing down highways has traditionally met with opposition. But last year Pew reported that in the past three years, five U.S. cities have done so, in some cases by converting overpasses to street-grade boulevards. Similar plans are under review in Massachusetts, California and Texas.

Calvin Gladney, CEO of Smart Growth America, said the legislation championed by Brown and others “can have multiple positive benefits, particularly for Black and Brown communities.”

“The history of running highways through certain communities has caused public health disparities, inter-generational wealth disparities, a loss of social infrastructure and a lack of climate-change resilience,” he said in an interview.

Gladney said he was recently involved in a panel discussion with community activists in New Orleans. One of them showed video of torrents of contaminated stormwater pouring into her community off the Claiborne expressway. Her community gets hit whenever it rains, he said.

In addition to Brown and Mfume, the House legislation is backed by Reps. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) and Dwight Evans (D-Pa.). 

The Senate bill has been introduced by Maryland’s senators, Tom Carper, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), and Chris Coons (D-Del.).

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