By Michael Laris, The Washington Post. Originally published February 28, 2023.
The Kensington Expressway, a highway project built in 1958, effectively cut off much of Buffalo’s East Side, an area housing the majority of Buffalo’s Black population, from the rest of the city. (Libby March for The Washington Post)
The construction of Interstate 94 sliced through St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood starting in the 1950s, destroying or displacing hundreds of homes and businesses in an African American enclave that a local newspaper editor once called “a riot of warmth, and color, and feeling, and sound.”
On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded a group run by descendants of that Minnesota community — those who were displaced and those who remain — a $2 million grant to develop detailed plans to reverse some of the damage.
The group envisions creating 21 acres of new land on a structure built above the freeway, which the community coulduse to build hundreds of new homes, park space, and perhaps an amphitheater, cultural museum or library, saidKeith Baker, executive director of the nonprofit ReConnect Rondo.
“What we’re doing is rebuilding a space and ensuring a connective tissue to the neighborhood for greater prosperity overall,” Baker said. Local residents were excluded or marginalized from planning for a freeway that devastated their community 60 years ago, he said,adding “what we want to really do is demonstrate that communities can lead.”
Federal transportation officials on Tuesday announced dozens of cities and communities, from Anchorage to Tucson, selected for planning grants under the infrastructure law’s Reconnecting Communities program, a $1 billion effortmeant to undo harm caused by decades-old transportation projects. Projects in New York, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey and California that were closer to breaking ground are receiving the first construction grants under the five-year program.
The $185 million in awards for 45 projects represents a fraction of the demand for funds from the program. The department received 109 applications seeking $1.7 billion for construction projects, and another 326 applications for planning grants totaling $313 million.
As communities have increasingly begun to wrestle with what it would take to revitalize areas severed by highways, train tracks and other infrastructure, the soaring costs of such overhauls has put a damper on some of the most ambitious plans. Early in the Biden administration, the White House sought billions of dollars for its dedicated program to reconnect communities, citingthe Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans as an example of a potential beneficiary.
Louisiana received a $500,000 planning grant to further develop its $95 million Reconnecting Claiborne project, which includes dismantling ramps to and from Interstate 10 in the city to remove “a barrier that currently disrupts the street grid and creates unsafe conditions,” according to project documents.
Transportation officials said other federal funds, including those controlled by states, can be used for projects with the same aims. Department leaders have argued that Reconnecting Communities is partof a broader principle, and they note that a Federal Highway Administration program created under last year’s Inflation Reduction Act dedicates $3 billion to similar work.
“Transportation should connect, not divide, people and communities,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. The objective, he said, is to “unite neighborhoods, ensure the future is better than the past, and provide Americans with better access” to health care, jobs andfood.
The largest grant in this first round of Reconnecting Communities awards will go to the Kensington Expressway project in Buffalo. The state transportation department is receiving $56 million toward a $1 billion project to essentially build a lid over the highway to “provide continuous green space and reestablish community character and cohesiveness,” according to project documents, which also describe related efforts to reconstruct the historic Humboldt Parkway and address the displacement of African American communities in the 1960s.
Other projects include $12 million to help reimagine a high-speed one-way street system that cut off access to Northside, a predominantly Black neighborhood in Kalamazoo, Mich., and $13 million to remove an at-grade rail crossing and add a pedestrian tunnel at New Jersey Transit’s Long Branch station, built in 1875.
Tampa will receive $5 million to remove a flyover and ramp from Interstate 275, a highway configuration that hascontributed to “decades of economic and social isolation for the historically Black neighborhoods it separated,” according to project documents.
Long Beach, Calif., was awarded $30 million for its $69 million Shoreline Drive Gateway project, where the road blocks a large, grassy area. Reorienting it will increase safety as well as the size and accessibility of nearby Cesar Chavez Park, while creating opportunities for affordable housing, said Mayor Rex Richardson.
“The road itself divides two mirroring open-space parcels,” he said. Moving it will promote “better health outcomes, and more positive social interactions within the community … That’s why people move to cities.”
The changes will effectively double the availability of usable open space in a part of town where it’s limited, he said. The grant will also help to attract more money for future improvements, Richardson said.
“It’s going to be a lot easier to identify the rest of the resources to make the project happen,” he said. “It’s a big deal.”