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Feds Seek to Heal Community Scars from Interstate Highways

The Reconnecting Communities program is giving $3.3 billion to help cities address problems caused by highways. But in most cases, the projects stop short of removing highways altogether.

Philadelphia's Vine Street Expressway connects interstates 95 and 76
The Vine Street Expressway cut Philadelphia's Chinatown in two. (Jared Brey/Governing)
In Brief:
  • The U.S. Department of Transportation announced $3.3 billion in grants to address harms from past infrastructure investments.

  • The program responds to decades of advocacy for highway removal and mitigation in urban areas.

  • Some of the projects are paired with highway expansions.

  • A lot of the original urban fabric in Philadelphia’s central downtown core is still intact. In parts of Center City, you can walk a mile at a stretch without even crossing a two-way street. But when you reach Vine Street, at the northern edge of Chinatown, you’re suddenly standing at the edge of a sunken highway. Twelve lanes of traffic separate one side of the neighborhood from the other — six lanes at grade, and six on the fast-moving interstate down below.

    Chinatown originally developed on both sides of Vine Street, and the gradual expansion of the road — first into a boulevard in the 1950s and then into an interstate highway — has come at the expense of neighborhood cohesion. When the Vine Street Expressway was completed in 1991, it severed Chinatown into two pieces. Homes and businesses were destroyed in the process. The expressway has become an obstacle to the neighborhood’s growth and residents’ basic mobility.

    “Even today you cannot cross Vine Street in one signal light,” says John Chin, director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation.

    While the core of Chinatown, south of the expressway, has remained a vibrant, thriving neighborhood, the northern half has had to fight harder to maintain its character. With moderate success, residents have branded that section as “Chinatown North,” trying to protect its cultural identity from encroaching gentrification in the surrounding industrial neighborhoods.

    This whole story might sound familiar. Urban neighborhoods all over America were damaged, penned in or destroyed so that interstate highways could be built in the 20th century. They were usually places filled with the most marginalized people in American society. Often they were communities of color that planners thought of as slums.

    The federal government has recently started to recognize the extent of the damage it did to cities while building out the interstate highway system. Earlier this month, the Department of Transportation (DOT) awarded $3.33 billion to dozens of cities through its Reconnecting Communities grant program, which is aimed at ameliorating the harms of past transportation infrastructure projects.

    “While the purpose of transportation is to connect, in too many communities past infrastructure decisions have served instead to divide,” federal Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a news release announcing the awards.

    Among the projects being funded is the Chinatown Stitch, an effort to build a cap over two-and-a-half blocks of the Vine Street Expressway and a gesture toward putting the neighborhood back together. The grant is a culminating moment for Chinatown residents, who have spent decades pushing for a solution to the problems of separation, pollution and disrupted mobility caused by the expressway. It’s a step forward — if not an outright victory — for a growing movement to undo the worst excesses of the highway program.

    “All of a sudden there is money, where once there was not even acknowledgement from the federal government about the impacts of these highways," says Lauren Mayer, communications manager at the Congress for the New Urbanism.
    Crossing Vine Street in Philadelphia can be a risky business
    Philadelphia residents say they can't cross Vine Street in the length of a single traffic light. (Jared Brey/Governing)

    Addressing Past Harms

    The Reconnecting Communities program was established through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in 2021, an explicit response to decades of research and activism that has explored the environmental, economic and social harms to cities from highway construction. The White House has estimated that “at least 1 million people and businesses were displaced by decades of harmful urban renewal projects and legacy policy decisions in the build-out of the federal highway system.”

    The proposal initially called for $20 billion worth of projects to remove and cap over highways, or otherwise help people build new connections across infrastructural divides. It shrunk to $1 billion before the bill was passed. DOT began making grants last year, with $185 million to 45 cities, mostly for planning work. This year’s grants were boosted with funding from the Neighborhood Access and Equity Program, part of the Inflation Reduction Act, which Congress passed in 2022. The programs are aimed specifically at undoing damage from previous federal investments in transportation.

    Projects that won this year’s awards range from small planning grants for site-specific efforts, to large awards funding a variety of improvements across large cityscapes. Los Angeles, for example, received $139 million to help build new transit, bike and pedestrian connections across highway barriers throughout the county. The funding will likely dovetail with Measure HLA, a ballot referendum that L.A. voters approved this month, requiring the city to implement a plan to build safer streets for bikers, pedestrians and transit riders.

    Highways Will Endure

    Critics complain that many Reconnecting Communities grants will support a “Band-Aid” approach to highway infrastructure. Many of the projects will help build connections across existing automobile infrastructure rather than dismantling it altogether. In other cases, Reconnecting Communities grants will fund projects that are paired with highway expansions.

    Portland, Ore., received $450 million — the largest grant in the bunch — to build a cap over Interstate 5. The Oregon Department of Transportation has acknowledged that “generations of Black Portland families are still negatively impacted by the original construction of I-5 in the 1950s,” even as it seeks to add new lanes to the highway.

    "Many of the scars of the highway program are far more about a history of automobile dependence, and a combination of destructive land uses and associated negative outcomes like pollution, that a cap or pedestrian bridge will not resolve," says Yonah Freemark, a researcher at the Urban Institute. "My critique of the program is that it’s going to do very little to reduce the car dependence of our cities."

    Still, the federal Transportation Department can only fund projects that cities apply for. Those projects require consensus-building within communities and between state and local agencies with different missions. Projects such as highway caps help cities achieve some urban mobility objectives without disrupting traffic flow on state-owned highways. “They’re one of the easier ways to get something done,” says Mayer, of the Congress for the New Urbanism.
    A plaza in Philadelphia's Chinatown
    The Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. built a plaza to make up for public space lost to the expressway. (Jared Brey/Governing)

    A Longstanding Demand in Chinatown

    Chinatown residents have organized advocacy efforts around the highway for decades, first to oppose its proposed route and later to address some of the problems it caused. Their initial efforts successfully led planners to adjust the route to save some important institutions from the wrecking ball, including the Holy Redeemer Chinese Catholic Church on the north side of Vine Street. But the placement of the highway still cleaved the community in half, says Chin, who grew up going to the church.

    Now, he says, “We’re just resolved to living with it because it exists. We have to deal with it. We have to cross it.”

    Starting in the early 2000s, the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation began including highway caps in neighborhood plans. The goals were to re-establish links that were lost to the highway; to make it safer to cross Vine Street; and to create new public space in a neighborhood that has very little of it.

    The group has worked to establish affordable housing and institutional anchors in different parts of Chinatown. A few years ago, it built a public plaza on one of the highway bridges to reclaim some space for the Chinatown community. But funding for a more comprehensive cap always seemed like a longshot until the Reconnecting Communities program was established.

    The city’s planning and transportation agencies had expressed soft support for the highway cap in various ways over the last decade. But the city didn’t enter the fray until the Reconnecting Communities applications were opened.

    The Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability received a planning grant from the program last year to study the cap. And this year it received $158 million, which officials say will fully cover the first phase of construction, including two blocks of highway caps. The eventual use of those new spaces is to be determined, but is certain to include public park space, and could include new land for development. The city is also coordinating with the state Department of Transportation to make safety and mobility improvements on Vine Street, including reducing vehicular lanes.

    Megan Clarkin, an infrastructure program director for the city, says that plenty of people in Chinatown would rather see the highway removed altogether and the street grid restored. To some degree, planners would prefer that too. “We certainly recognize that it would be great if we could try again from scratch,” Clarkin says.

    In the meantime, neighborhood surveys show more than 80 percent of people support the Chinatown Stitch project. For many Chinatown residents, it’s a payoff for long years of organizing around a local vision for the neighborhood.

    “I personally am just ecstatic,” says Chin.

    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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