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U.S. cities might be getting federal money soon to tear down inner-city highways that federal dollars built in the first place, and use that money to reinvest in communities of color that those highways destroyed.
Before the holiday recess, then-Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and a group of Democratic senators reportedly introduced S5065, a $435 billion economic justice bill, that included a $10-billion pilot program aimed at helping communities tear down urban highways and rebuild the surrounding neighborhoods with the needs of underserved communities in mind. Known also as the “Highways to Boulevards” initiative, the Restoring Neighborhoods and Strengthening Communities Program is exclusively designed for projects in regions with a high concentration of low income residents or residents of color.
Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, the initiative would make significant funds available specifically for the “community engagement and capacity building” necessary to identify what underserved residents actually want to do with all the valuable land freed up when freeways are torn down.
Lynn Richards, president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, which collaborated on the writing of the bill, was quoted by Streetsblog USA saying: “There’s already funding available for highway deconstruction in various other pots of money at the Department of Transportation, especially as so many of our highways reach the end of their life. And of course, there always seems to be money for highway construction. What there’s almost no money for are for the feasibility studies, the capacity building, and the coalition building with the people who are actually impacted by highway projects — or by highway removal projects. That’s what’s really special about this bill.”
The new program will reportedly strive to ensure that Highways to Boulevards projects are undertaken at a community’s discretion, unlike the Federal Highway Act of 1956, which essentially handed communities 90% of the money they needed to build freeways wherever they wanted, even when they destroyed Black neighborhoods with that money. Funds from the pilot can be used for bike lanes, sidewalks, transit improvements, and basically any transportation project that “doesn’t increase net capacity for vehicular travel.”
Richards highlighted the importance of having the community be heard on their wants and needs: “If you just provide money for highway removal, you’re just repeating the mistakes of the past. The last thing you want is a bunch of outsiders coming and saying, ‘We’re going to do this, and we don’t care what the neighbors want.’”
And the removal of highways is not a novelty nor far-fetched idea. In the past, at least 18 American cities have reportedly already have done it, and advocates are fighting for their state and local leaders to consider their own teardowns as an alternative to replacing the countless crumbling roads and bridges that different groups have said are a looming threat to public safety. What is new, however, is projects like these securing federal funds.
Ben Crowther, program manager for CNU’s Highways to Boulevards effort pointed out how many highways are past their 50-year lifespan: “A lot of communities just don’t want to keep repairing them. … I can’t think of a single time it has cost more for a community to remove an aging highway than to rebuild it.” In fact, many studies have confirmed that adding or maintaining urban highway capacity has only a negligible impact on commute times, and those few saved minutes often come at steep costs for communities of color.
In a recent tweet, the incoming Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg wrote: “Black and brown neighborhoods have been disproportionately divided by highway projects or left isolated by the lack of adequate transit and transportation resources. In the Biden-Harris administration, we will make righting these wrongs an imperative.”
And while the larger bill that contains the Highways to Boulevards program still needs to pass the Senate Committee on Finance and the Senate at large, with the leading sponsor of the bill poised to become the Senate majority leader, Richards is optimistic about the future saying he thinks it can happen.
Furthermore, highways present other types of burdens for communities — they also cost many lives due to accidents. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, speeding is at the top of the list of related factors for drivers involved in fatal crashes. In 2018, 8,596 drivers who were involved in fatal crashes (or almost 17 percent) were speeding. In addition, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has found that rising state speed limits over the 25 years from 1993 to 2017 have cost nearly 37,000 lives, including more than 1,900 in 2017 alone.