Federal Program Would Help Cities Tear Down Highways

Photo:  Famartin/Wikipedia/CC
Photo: Famartin/Wikipedia/CC

A bill sailing through the Senate would give cities — and grassroots groups — a chance to heal urban neighborhoods by tearing down and repairing the damage done by 1960s-era highways.

The “Community Connect Grant” — a tiny program in the context of a new transportation bill that seeks to increase highway spending a whopping 27 percent — would provide $120 million over five years to reconnect neighborhoods that were torn apart by urban-renewal era highway projects. Often these projects specifically targeted low-income neighborhoods or black and brown neighborhoods for demolition and displacement.

One example is Baltimore’s Interstate 170 — aka “The Ditch.” This 2.3-mile channelized highway bisecting West Baltimore is sometimes referred to as the “highway to nowhere.” Originally designed to be part of the interstate system, connecting to I-70 and the Beltway, it became a useless isolated highway node when wealthy residents successfully blocked I-70’s construction.

Now “The Ditch” carries so few vehicles a day, the city sometimes doesn’t plow it. Still it serves as a major obstacles for the neighborhoods surrounding it.

“It’s a big scar on the urban fabric,” said Jed Weeks, policy director for Baltimore’s bike advocacy organization, Bikemore. “It just doesn’t feel good to walk around there because it’s just this sort of big empty ditch.”

Both of Maryland Senators, Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, were instrumental in helping introduce the “Community Connect Grant” as part of the transportation bill advancing through the Senate [PDF] in part to deal with problems like The Ditch.

Federal transport policy has come a long way over the last decade on highway teardowns. The Obama Administration funded a number of highway teardowns, including ones in New Haven and Rochester, through its TIGER program, another competitive grant program.

This program would further establish highway teardowns as a legitimate federal funding priority.

“It’s still a grant program, but I think it’s putting more money toward it and really calling it out as an issue,” said Caron Whitaker, VP of government relations at the League of American Bicyclists.

The program would provide $2 million competitive grants technical assistance and planning. One cool aspect of it, said Ben Crowther at the Congress for New Urbanism, is it would allow non-profit organizations and community groups to apply for funding to get the ball rolling on plans. Often highway teardown projects are initiated by design-related groups like Tampa’s Sunshine Citizens or Syracuse’s Moving People Transportation.

In addition, it contains safeguards to help prevent cities or states from replacing highways with roads that are highway-like and unsafe — something we’ve seen emerge as a problem in these cases in cities like Seattle. It would also require the “inclusive economic development” for replacement, which hopefully, would help address concerns about gentrification.

Rochester’s Inner Loop Highway — which has been partially filled in thanks to a $22-million project partially funded by a TIGER grant — is a great example of how dramatic a difference these kinds of projects can make.

This shows what it looks like in the final stages of (de)construction.

With a portion of the Inner Loop highway filled in, Rochester is ready to reconnect its downtown to the East End neighborhood with mixed-use development. Photos: Google Maps
With a portion of the Inner Loop highway filled in, Rochester is ready to reconnect its downtown to the East End neighborhood with mixed-use development. Photos: Google Maps

And here is just one development proposed for the six to eight acres of developable land that was created.

A mix of subsidized and market rate housing will replace once section of the former highway. Image: SWBR Architects via
A mix of subsidized and market rate housing will replace once section of the former highway. Image: SWBR Architects via  Democrat and Chronicle

Correction: Aug. 20, 2019 10 a.m.: The post originally overstated the increase in highway spending in the new transportation bill by 13 percent. 

5 thoughts on Federal Program Would Help Cities Tear Down Highways

  1. New York State is planning to do something like this up in the Bronx with the Sheridan Expressway (I-895). The new street level roadway will be probably be designated ‘Sheridan Blvd / NYS Route# 895’.

  2. We could transform some of these overpasses into pedestrian/bike routes with suicide prevention fences and plantings like the High line in NYC. We could also convert the best placed to serve migratory wild life as land bridges which could save many animals from becoming rad kill victims

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Bakersfield Residents Vow to Fight Retrograde Highway Plan

Many American cities, at this point, are waking up with a sort of hangover from the “Interstate Era” that demolished urban neighborhoods to build life-sapping highways. Heck, some really proactive cities are demolishing their underused, elevated, antiquated urban freeways. Then there are places like Bakersfield, California, where the Interstate Era continues to this day: One […]

12 Freeways to Watch (‘Cause They Might Be Gone Soon)

If you make your home on the Louisiana coastline, upstate New York or the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, chances are you live near a highway that really has it coming. It’s big. It’s ugly. It goes right through city neighborhoods. And it just might be coming down soon. Last week the Congress for New […]

Anthony Foxx Wants to Repair the Damage Done By Urban Highways

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is offering a surprisingly honest appraisal of America’s history of road construction this week, with a high-profile speaking tour that focuses on the damage that highways caused in black urban neighborhoods. Growing up in Charlotte, Foxx’s own street was walled in by highways, he recalled in a speech today at the Center for American Progress. Building big, grade-separated roads through […]