Biden Pledges $20 Billion to Dismantle Highways, Racial Justice Activists Cautiously Celebrate

Claiborne Expressway divides New Orleans neighborhoods       Photo: The Advocate

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

President Biden’s new infrastructure plan contains something surprising — funding for “construction” projects to remove highways. Why?  Because for decades, Black communities in cities across the U.S. have been cut off and/or divided by highways and major roads that were built without regard to their impact on those neighborhoods. Now nearing the end of their 50-year life span,  the Biden administration is recognizing that it may be time to scrap these highways altogether.  The plan designates $20 billion to reconnect neighborhoods cut off by outdated infrastructure projects. Experts and advocates say this is just the first step to creating more walkable, equitable cities, according to The Washington Post.

Why This Matters: Highways built in the 50s and 60s often came at the expense of communities of color. Their impact enforced segregation, disrupt thriving communities, and distanced Black people from city resources and job opportunities. Black-owned businesses were devastated and pollution plagued surrounding neighborhoods. “We lost families, we lost homeowners, we lost businesses, and we lost churches,” said Denise Johnson, a community organizer from West Baltimore, where State Route 40 was nicknamed the “road to nowhere.” She continues, “and we lost people. People who were stable. People who didn’t plan to leave the community.” 

Road Warriors

After decades of protests by residents, many highway projects across the nation are finally under scrutiny.

  • The Claiborne Expressway in Louisiana has been singled out in President Biden’s infrastructure plan as one of many “racist” highways.
  • An expansion project on Interstate 45 in Houston has been halted pending a civil rights evaluation. 67% of communities along I-45 are predominantly low-income and Black and Latino.
  • Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh has discussed removing a 1.5 mile stretch of Interstate 81 with the Department of Transportation, citing its path across a predominantly Black neighborhood.

Those fighting against the highways say that without thoughtful highway policy, nothing will change. “We need to be just as intentional in how we rebuild as the federal government was when they first built the highway,” said Walsh. Nowadays, cities are required to engage with impacted communities before enacting highway projects, but activists say that engagement has been rare and performative. “I call it the falseness of community engagement,” said Johnson.

Organizers like Johnson from across the country are excited to have a spotlight but worry that new plans may still miss the mark. Activists worry that developers will buy up the liberated land, gentrifying it and removing opportunities for communities nearby. There is hope, however, that with the backing of the presidential administration, many expensive highway dismantling projects will have the funding they need, not only to reroute or remove highways but to ensure the communities most affected are the first to reclaim the resulting blank space.

All Hands On Deck

“This is the first time that we’ve seen highway and transportation infrastructure considered through a social lens as well as a transportation lens,” said Ben Crowther, a program director at the Congress for the New Urbanism. Activists like Crowther are joined by lawmakers like Senator Chuck Schumer (D – N.Y.) who last year introduced a bill that included $10 billion for highway removal. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has also pledged to focus on racial and environmental justice during his tenure. Experts are happy for the support, but know that this is just the beginning. “It’s moving the needle,” said Crowther. “It’s not, obviously, taking out every urban highway in America.”

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