Connecting state and local government leaders
Advocates say $4 billion in domestic spending legislation that could help revamp roads that split apart cities is a crucial addition to funding in the infrastructure bill Congress approved last week.
Removing highways carved through city neighborhoods during the heyday of American interstate building, in the 1950s and 1960s, is an idea that has gained traction in communities around the country in recent years, with some projects completed and others in the works.
The roughly $1 trillion infrastructure bill Congress approved last week that is awaiting President Biden’s signature will provide $1 billion to help pay for these types of projects under what's known as the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program. That’s not a small sum, but it’s well short of the $20 billion Biden initially proposed for an initiative like this.
“While significant, it is important to recognize just how small a step this is,” the Congress for the New Urbanism said in a statement following the infrastructure bill’s passage.
CNU and other advocates of erasing and retrofitting troubling segments of urban highways are now urging lawmakers to keep another pot of money in the separate, nearly $2 trillion, domestic spending legislation Democrats are trying to push ahead with next.
The $4 billion Neighborhood Access and Equity Grants Program in that bill would also provide funding states and local governments could tap to overhaul and tear down roads that are considered problematic. These grant funds would be available for other types of projects, too, like pedestrian friendly street infrastructure, multi use trails, and improving access to transportation hubs and other destinations.
“I think we’ve come to a point where there’s a general consensus that highways have caused a lot of damage in the communities that they’ve been routed through,” said Ben Crowther, who works on Congress for the New Urbanism programs focused on removing and revamping highways that cut through city neighborhoods.
“What we’re doing in removing these highways is rebuilding cities. I think that’s the framework that we have to look at it through,” Crowther added. “It’s making an investment. This is not an investment in moving cars fast but an investment in neighborhoods.”
Many Potential Projects
When critics describe the problems highways have caused in urban communities, they often point to issues like air pollution from traffic, dangers for pedestrians, and disinvestment as residents and businesses empty out. On top of that, the roads were often built in poorer and minority areas, tearing community fabric and raising equity concerns that linger decades later.
Meanwhile, the road infrastructure is aging, often into the 60 to 70 year range, and in some cases has seen declining use as cities have changed or seen their populations shrink.
Rochester, New York is an example of a city that has moved to rework one of its highways.
The city’s Inner Loop East Transformation Project converted a two-thirds-mile segment of sunken expressway (Mayor Lovely Warren referred to it as a “moat”) to an at-grade street. Completed in 2017, the project cost about $22 million, with about $17 million covered by federal grant funds. The city estimates that it cleared the way for upwards of $200 million in investment.
Rochester is exploring whether to undertake a similar project on the northern stretch of the expressway.
Crowther pointed out that the cost of the projects can vary widely depending on their scope. For instance, a proposal to overhaul a section of Interstate 81 in Syracuse, New York, including an elevated portion of roadway, is expected to cost close to $2 billion.
CNU has a list of about 50 segments of highway potentially ripe for revamping in cities across the U.S. In some places, discussions about what to do with the roadways are just getting underway or have been simmering. In others, governments are moving ahead with projects.
Funding in the infrastructure bill for the Reconnecting Communities pilot includes $250 million for planning grants and $750 million for capital construction grants. The money is spread over the five years the legislation covers, from 2022 to 2026.
With the $4 billion Neighborhood Access and Equity grants in the domestic spending bill, nearly $1.6 billion is designated specifically for places classified as economically disadvantaged.
Crowther noted that the money available for feasibility studies in the pair of grant programs presents an opportunity for local governments to take a closer look at projects that would fit within the bounds of the initiatives but that may not be “shovel-ready.”
Studies like this offer a chance to examine not just whether drastically remaking a freeway is realistic from a traffic engineering perspective, but also potential economic, public health and economic benefits.
“This is something that all American cities have done,” he added, “build these big roads.”
Bill Lucia is a senior editor for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.