Velie-Velia Sando | August 15, 2022
Affordable, convenient, reliable transportation is more important to economic mobility and stability than any other issue. It should be no surprise, then, that America’s transportation system benefitted certain groups more than others. This seems obvious today, but the roots of route racism go back beyond when many modern urbanists point to – the Federal Interstate Highway Act of 1956. In fact, as far back as the late 1920s, limited-access “parkways” may have been intentionally built with low bridge overpass clearances to hinder buses – the primary transportation mode of most low-income and minority individuals – from benefitting from them.
In the 1930s, highways and other physical barriers were exploited to separate low-income and communities of color from access to capital and resources – the practice known today as redlining. The US Federal Housing Administration’s 1938 Underwriting Manual was created to help implement the New Deal-era National Housing Act of 1934. It had tremendous influence over which communities benefited from investment and who was left behind. It suggested that “protection from the adverse influences of… lower class occupancy, and inharmonious racial groups” by “a high-speed traffic artery or a wide street parkway may prevent the expansion of inharmonious use.” The Interstate Highway Act accelerated and institutionalized this practice as freeways manifested across the nation. Single-occupancy, high-speed vehicle mobility was prioritized, and disadvantaged communities – indeed, America’s cities as a whole – suffered the consequences.
Inevitably, backlash started building. Residents and mayors grew tired of the damages inflicted upon their communities by these highways. Infrastructure justice movements increased, yielding success for certain communities as their advocacy efforts first halted urban highway construction and later contributed to the removal of the highways that tore their communities apart. Subsequently, these success stories have become case studies for other advocacy groups to follow. Mobilify has been analyzing the Park East Freeway in Milwaukee, the Interstate 81 Viaduct in Syracuse, and the Interstate 490 Inner Loop East in Rochester in hopes to apply best practices towards the conversion of State Route 65 into an at-grate boulevard.
Park East Freeway—Milwaukee, WI
Milwaukee’s Park East freeway was supposed to encircle the city’s downtown and link to Interstate 43. However, strong opposition from the community halted construction in the mid-1970s, leaving a 0.8-mile spur Consequently, the remnant of the intended highway was underutilized, therefore inhibiting development in neighboring communities and devaluing property. Then-Governor Tommy Thompson became the leading advocate for the removal of the highway. Gov. Thompson was interested in making downtown Milwaukee the site for a development project by Harley Davidson, which could only be possible if the Park East Freeway was removed. Governor Thompson’s advocacy efforts led to the initiation of the removal project, which began after his tenure. With then-Mayor John Norquist’s campaign for the complete demolition of the highway, the removal process began in 2002 and was completed in 2003.
Interstate 490 Inner Loop – Rochester, NY
Popularly referred to as the noose around Rochester’s neck, Rochester’s Interstate 490 Inner Loop surrounds the city’s central business district. Constructed in 1965, this highway posed as a physical barrier between downtown and neighboring communities, resulting in heightened levels of blight and underutilized land observed outside of the business district. Seeing that the eastern section of the Loop carried significantly lower traffic volumes than others, it was targeted to be converted into an at-grade boulevard. The Inner Loop East removal project garnered massive support from elected officials, Rochester’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, real estate developers, community organizers, regional associations, and businesses. Removing the Inner Loop first surfaced in 1999, in the Rochester 2010: The Renaissance Plan. A plan to fill in the loop surfaced in 2009 and, with support from then-Mayor Tom Richards, the project acquired funding in 2012. Removal efforts began in 2014 and were completed in 2017. Where the highway once cut a moat around downtown now sits hundreds of units of new housing, a neighborhood street with an adjacent cycleway, and a new university facility. Rochester has now shifted to dismantling Inner Loop North.
Interstate 81 Viaduct – Syracuse, NY
A heavily used trucking corridor spanning the length of the Appalachians, Interstate 81’s Syracuse Viaduct section razed the entire the 15th ward of the city, which was a close-knit community of predominantly Black families and businesses. 90% of Syracuse’s Black population lived in the 15th ward. The Viaduct also caused a host of prominent issues such as air pollution-induced respiratory illness, forced dislocation of residents, and an exacerbated racial and socioeconomic segregation that left the community with fewer resources. Local nonprofits, businesses, school districts, and elected officials have supported the removal of the viaduct, but effective planning to do so was not initiated until the viaduct reached the end of its life span. The Viaduct Alternative and the Community Grid Alternative were proposed to alleviate the effects of the highway, with the Community Grid alternative going one step farther and restoring much of the 15th Ward’s Street network while removing viaduct altogether. The Community Grid Alternative was selected and the final environmental impact statement (released in April 2022) outlines the project’s design and plan. New York Department of Transportation put the first phase of the $2.25 billion contract out to bid this past spring.
These projects are no easy feat and require cooperation and collaboration from stakeholders with different levels of influence. Although these three case studies were unique in their own way, certain patterns emerged:
- Community advocates can raise noise, draw attention to the problem and seed initiatives but must build alliances with others – particularly elected officials – to succeed;
- Elected officials must embrace community visions and champion them, and secure the funds and provide the planning capacity for a project to come forward;
- These projects take lots of time, effort, and patience, and timing is everything.
In all three scenarios, community organizers advocated for the removal of the highways, but it was the support of elected officials that brought the agency that eventually rendered the projects successful. With their involvement, productive communication with state departments of transportation were facilitated and funds seemed to have been acquired shortly after, proving that their involvement was critical in moving from idea to plan to project. It is worth noting that there are other benefits that may have influenced elected officials’ support towards such projects aside from inequity; the highway’s obsolescence was often noted, and cities can benefit from the increased tax revenue that stable communities and real estate that was previously underneath the highway can generate.
To the casual observer, it seems like highway removal projects happen in just a few years. We often only see the final result, however, not what went into getting there. Despite appearances, it took many years – sometimes decades – for communities to build a movement and eventually obtain the support of their mayor and/or governor. Finally, although these projects can work as blueprints for subsequent projects in other communities, the reality stands that others must navigate certain intricacies that cannot be accounted for other than by embarking on their own journey towards highway removal.
Advocacy efforts can be advantageous, though they seldom are the root cause for highway removal. As such, these projects require vigorous effort and dedication. Moreover, the journey to removal is long and exhausting; the earlier the start, the better!