Connecting state and local government leaders
In places like Tulsa and New Orleans, community advocates are pushing for interstates that split apart Black communities to be torn down. But public agencies are floating more modest plans as they look to tap funding from a new federal program.
The recent 100-year anniversary commemorations of the Tulsa Race Massacre brought national attention to the grave injustices the city’s Greenwood neighborhood has faced for years. A white mob killed as many as 300 Black residents there in 1921, while looting and burning most of the area to ground. It was one of the most violent episodes of racist terrorism in the U.S. since slavery.
Remarkably, that’s not what spelled the end of economic vibrance for the area that became known—after the massacre—as Black Wall Street. The Black residents of Oklahoma’s second-biggest city rebuilt Greenwood into a bustling commercial district, despite active opposition from Tulsa’s white leaders.
Then the highways came. Greenwood sits at the northeast corner of a rectangle of highways that surround downtown Tulsa. Interstate 244, an east-west road, cleaves Greenwood in two, bringing the noise and pollution of 75,000 vehicles a day over a viaduct where homes and businesses once stood.
“Any story that you tell when it comes to an expressway coming through a Black community is the same story as here in Greenwood. It’s just that Greenwood had already suffered the tragedy and the trauma of the 1921 race massacre. Everything was destroyed,” said Oklahoma state Rep. Regina Goodwin, whose family survived the massacre. “Then you take houses and businesses out again with the expressway. There was a double harm there.”
Goodwin wants to strengthen the Greenwood community by taking down the interstate, something that last year’s federal infrastructure law is designed to make easier through its new Reconnecting Communities grant program. The Biden administration touts the $1 billion initiative as a way to mitigate historical injustices created by freeway construction. Goodwin and local residents applied for one of those grants, so they could study the possibility of taking down the highway.
But the Oklahoma Department of Transportation submitted its own application, one that downplayed the likelihood of highway removal. Instead, the state agency touted many aesthetic improvements it could make near the interstate as a way of mitigating the divide.
The dueling applications present a fraught question for the Biden administration: whether Reconnecting Communities should focus on ambitious highway removals or on lessening the harm of existing highways or, even, in a few cases, making highway expansions more palatable to neighbors.
The answer could determine the fate of Black neighborhoods across the country, from Tremé in New Orleans to the Rose Quarter in Portland, Oregon.
“Proposals like these leave in place the structures that cause damage—or even worse, expand them. For that reason, they address neither environmental justice nor equitable development,” wrote representatives of more than 100 environmental, neighborhood and active transportation groups, in a November letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
Biden administration officials have offered few clues about how they will weigh competing applications. They have praised proposals that have expanded highways below grade but included “caps” with parks and other amenities on top.
Stephanie Pollack, the deputy administrator who ran the Federal Highway Administration during much of the first half of President Biden’s term, praised a Denver project that expanded an interstate through a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, because it included one of those caps.
The project “is a great example of how we can make future-looking infrastructure investments that actually also address some mistakes that were made in the past,” she told Colorado Public Radio during an interview published last month. Shailen Bhatt, the former Colorado transportation secretary who oversaw that project, was recently sworn in as Pollack’s boss as the FHWA administrator.
When judging Reconnecting Communities applications, Buttigieg said the administration will look favorably on projects that included buy-in from nearby residents.
“There’s nothing sacred about the status quo,” Buttigieg said when opening applications in July. “These highways, roads, and railways are not rivers, lakes, or mountains, they’re not divinely ordained. They’re decisions. And we can make better decisions than what came before.”
New Orleans’s Black Wall Street
“Claiborne was New Orleans’s Black Wall Street,” a group of activists wrote in their application for a Reconnecting Communities grant. “In its heyday, North Claiborne Avenue was the heart, soul and economic engine of Black New Orleans. It was home to a myriad of businesses.”
The loss of that vibrancy still stings for many residents, wrote the Claiborne Avenue Alliance.
“Many still remember that fateful day in 1966, when century-old oak trees were destroyed, and homes and businesses were razed to make way for an urban highway. Much to the chagrin of the neighborhood, the concrete viaduct was plopped down on what had been a beautiful, tree-lined median that defined Claiborne and served as a community gathering space,” the group recalled.
“The massive highway, built to serve suburbanites, gutted the Black community and triggered more than 50 years of disinvestment,” they added.
The group wants to evaluate the benefits of removing the city’s most notorious interstate highway, a portion of Interstate 10 that cuts through the Tremé neighborhood just northwest of the French Quarter.
The story of the Claiborne Expressway is so poignant that the Biden administration referenced it when the president unveiled the idea for Reconnecting Communities.
Mitch Landrieu, Biden’s infrastructure coordinator, served two terms as New Orleans’ mayor. He once called the idea of removing the viaduct a “game changer.” Landrieu, though, later worried about the enormous costs of taking down the interstate and backed a plan to rehabilitate the area under and around the overhead road.
Shawn Wilson, Louisiana’s secretary of transportation and development, had similar concerns. Wilson promoted racial equity in the transportation industry when he became the first Black president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. But the state agency he leads submitted a grant application that would leave the Claiborne Expressway intact but possibly remove a few ramps.
Wilson told Route Fifty in a statement that taking down the viaduct was not financially feasible. The Reconnecting Communities program was cut from $20 billion in Biden’s original proposal to $1 billion in the five-year infrastructure law. That amounts to $195 million a year, and only $145 million is available for construction, Wilson explained. (The Inflation Reduction Act, which passed this summer, has $3 billion for a similar program, but that money is not yet available.)
A 2014 study concluded it would cost $1 billion to remove the freeway, a price tag that has likely grown because of inflation, he added.
“The cost of removing the expressway would far exceed the available funds of the program,” Wilson said. “More importantly, the discussions on removing the entire corridor rarely mention the impacts to the 125,000 freight and passenger vehicles that travel thru the corridor daily or the sensitive geo-technical implications of tunneling or depressing highways in Louisiana.”
The 2014 study of the area around Claiborne Expressway found “no general consensus on how to mitigate the impacts of the expressway, with the community being divided over whether or not to remove the structure,” Wilson added.
With that in mind, the state transportation department and the city of New Orleans decided on a $95 million plan that includes the removal of up to four ramps, neighborhood enhancements and expressway improvements, he said. The federal government would pay $58 million of the project’s costs. Wilson argued the approach “was the best option to effect change now to ensure current and future residents reap meaningful benefits.”
But Amy Stelly, an urban planner and co-founder of the Claiborne Avenue Alliance design studio, said state and local officials shouldn’t be basing their decisions on an outdated study. The conversations researchers had with neighborhood residents took place nearly a decade ago, she noted. Attitudes in the area have changed since then, said Stelly, who lives just 450 feet from the overpass in the house she grew up in.
But she said state and local officials did not try to get community input before submitting their application—even though they knew the Claiborne Avenue Alliance was working on its own proposal.
“You’re not talking to me, but also you’re not talking to my neighbors who are going to be impacted by the $95 million decision also,” she said of the transportation officials. “I think when you’re going to impact the community to that degree, the discussion starts ahead of time, not after the fact.”
Stelly also said the state’s concerns about costs ignore that the overpass is past its useful life and doesn’t meet modern standards including, for example, left shoulders. In fact, $60 million of the $95 million proposal from the state would pay for improvements to the highway, such as better lighting, pavement sealing and drainage upgrades to prevent leaks below the bridge.
The state proposal includes support for beautification efforts beneath the 100-foot-wide viaduct. It seeks workforce training money for local residents to work on the construction, and social service support for people who are living under the interstate.
Stelly noted that efforts to revitalize the area underneath the viaduct have been tried before. “It failed,” she said. “Miserably.”
Even though there are many pop-up vendors that do business under the highway, conditions are far from ideal. There is no running water for workers who handle food to wash their hands and no bathrooms. Runoff from the highway is polluted and some of it falls onto areas below where people gather. Vendors who can’t get electricity had to resort to gas-powered generators, adding to noise amid the concrete pillars.
Rather than a major construction effort, Stelly wants the federal government to spend $2 million to help evaluate several options for revitalizing the neighborhood, including the ramp removal and renovations proposed by the state. Those options would be judged on a series of standard metrics and community feedback.
“As a designer, planner and resident, I would love to see the highway removed. I think that is the best thing that will change the public health threats that we get every day… It will be how we get the most bang for our buck,” she said. “We’re confident in our position, but we’re certainly willing to put it to the test.”
Competing Visions in Tulsa
In Tulsa, the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and the city government filed a Reconnecting Communities application, requesting $2 million in planning funds to study ways to “mitigate” the effects of I-244 and options to improve how people get around the region. The plan calls for getting community input to develop specific ideas, but it mentions possibilities such as improving lighting in underpasses, adding landscaping, preparing for light rail or widening the underpasses.
The agencies said they could also look at the long-term prospect of removing the highway, but they indicated that would be 30 or more years in the future.
“This heavily utilized section of interstate highway helps provide access to and through downtown Tulsa, however its design represents a visible physical barrier to north Tulsa and the historic Greenwood district,” said T.J. Gerlach, a spokesperson for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, in an email. “Local partners have worked on studies to improve adjacent neighborhoods, local mobility, quality of life and equity, but have not had an opportunity to fully study options with respect to I-244.”
But Cody Brandt, one of the organizers of the competing bid, said the real goal of the state proposal seems to be to block the community’s efforts to tear down the interstate quickly. The organizers are applying for a $2 million planning grant, which would be used for traffic studies, engineering analyses and other preparatory work before construction could begin.
“The important question to study is how does it affect us today if I-244 is not there,” Brandt said.
Ultimately, ODOT would have to agree to remove the highway before it could be taken down.
But Brandt said, based on initial studies, removing the highway should take less than five years and cost about $250 million. Recapturing the land would add to the neighborhood’s wealth and contribute to local tax collections, he pointed out.
The land that is opened up could be handed over to a community land trust, which could then research deeds and return real estate to the original families that owned it, Brandt said.
The trust could also use the assets to promote small businesses and allow the construction of both affordable and market-rate housing, he added. The goal would be to make sure that the newly opened land wouldn’t simply spur gentrification, which is already occurring in much of Greenwood.
Federal officials are aware of the stakes of the Tulsa highway fight. During a visit to Greenwood last year to commemorate the race massacre, President Biden noted how the “highway was built right through the heart of the community.” Buttigieg toured the neighborhood and met with Goodwin, the state legislator, and discussed the interstate’s effects on the surrounding community.
Buttigieg and other federal officials encouraged both sides to work together. But Goodwin said that’s much easier said than done. Black lawmakers have long said the state agency discriminated against Black contractors, and the state transportation department was responsible for building the interstate through Greenwood in the first place.
“There are two very different visions,” Goodwin said.
“It’s very difficult to collaborate with the department of transportation when they want to expand and when we want to do removal. They don’t want to look at removal for 30 years. I might not be alive in 30 years, but I guarantee you an interstate could be built in 30 years,” she added. “They have no intention of removing that segment.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.