Congress reconsiders the urban interstate
It’s not every day that an infrastructure project makes a grown man cry. But when Annie Williams gave me a big hug that day in September of 2010, I couldn’t help but shed a tear with her. Actually, it wasn’t the infrastructure project itself, but the demolition of infrastructure that had us both so moved. When Interstate 170 was built through West Baltimore in the early 1970s, Annie’s family was one of more than 1,200 moved out of their homes to make way for a road that was never fully built. The “Highway to Nowhere” left an unimaginable scar through the heart of West Baltimore. On this day, the most obnoxious part of the highway – a three block concrete wall restricting access between two neighborhoods – was being torn down.
Families in New Orleans, Buffalo, Portland, Oakland and dozens of other cities across the country – mostly inhabited by Black and Brown residents – suffered the same fate Annie did as Eisenhower-era advocates promoted urban highways as expedient for shipping companies and suburban commuters.
I couldn’t help but think of Annie last week when we started on a project that may end up making it simpler to reimagine or decommission many sections of urban interstates. As part of this year’s federal budget, Congress directed the US Department of Transportation to study the issue of removing sections of roadway from the Interstate Highway System. Mead & Hunt is part of the team that will conduct a thorough study of federal regulations, and develop case studies and economic analysis to help policy makers better understand how these imperatives can be met while also achieving goals of community health, safety and livability.
In its stewardship role of the Interstate Highway System, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) must review any proposal to decommission a federally funded freeway; understanding the impacts to mobility, the economy and national defense are paramount. Meanwhile, community leaders around the country have been advocating opportunities to reclaim the land consumed by the freeways and put it to more productive use. They have been bolstered by the Congress for New Urbanism Freeways without Futures project. Their goal: restore urban street grids and achieve human-scale alternatives to freeways that cut through cities.
Built in the 1950s – 1970s, many of the highways are reaching the end of their “useful life” and require major rehabilitation or reconstruction that will cost as much, if not more than the original construction. The next decade will determine their fate.
Thinking back to that September day 10 years ago, it was obvious that transportation planners and engineers didn’t always achieve that balance. Assisting with this project speaks to our values at Mead & Hunt. We strive always to take care of people, do the right thing, do what makes sense. In this case, we must balance national mobility and economic needs with the real, human impact of infrastructure.
As we help to navigate the future of our highway system, we will continue to search for solutions that put people first.
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