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Highway Removal a High Hurdle, Even With New Funding

Removing highways is a tricky business, a costly and time-consuming physical feat, but advocates say even a small commitment to addressing the harms of legacy highway infrastructure is a positive sign.

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Interstate 345 divides Deep Ellum from downtown Dallas.
When Patrick Kennedy first moved to Dallas, he lived in Deep Ellum, a historic freedmen’s town established by former slaves after the Civil War that has seen its fortunes as a music-and-arts district rise and fall in cycles for the last hundred years or so. To get to work he had to walk beneath Interstate 345, a short stretch of highway that divides Deep Ellum from downtown Dallas. The highway underpass was visibly aging, he says. Worse than that was the accumulation of surface parking lots, boarded-up buildings and vacant parcels adjacent to the highway.

Kennedy, an urban planner, had taken up blogging at the height of the early-2000s blogosphere, and began writing about ways he thought the city could be improved. The big one: Remove I-345 altogether. Inspired by the transformations of the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco and the Cheonggye Freeway in Seoul, South Korea, Kennedy thought removing the 1.4-mile stretch of freeway could help fuse a disconnected part of the city and generate lots of development in the surrounding areas.

The idea created some buzz, and over the next decade it took a certain kind of hold. In 2016, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) completed a Master Assessment Process, CityMAP, that looked at the future of downtown Dallas and its roadways. As recently as last year, many candidates for political office said they were in favor of replacing I-345 with “a mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood that restores the community grid and reconnects East and South Dallas,” according to the Coalition for a New Dallas, an advocacy group that Kennedy co-founded. TxDOT even included removal among five options for the highway’s future in a feasibility study that it completed this summer. But it’s now seeking to move ahead with a different alternative, which would lower the highway into a trench and partly cap it to create new usable space — a hybrid plan that it says would accomplish some of the goals of the removal while keeping car traffic flowing across the city.

The process is coming to head at a time when many more cities are considering removing portions of the interstates that were paved across their neighborhoods in the middle of the 20th century, and when the federal government has made new funding available to help them plan those types of projects.

New Funding, But Less Than Hoped

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that President Biden signed last fall includes $1 billion for a program called Reconnecting Communities, which is meant to help states and cities fix some of the harms caused by big infrastructure or so-called urban renewal projects of the past. That includes highway projects that often reinforced the segregation of Black and brown communities, or destroyed them altogether, and which still disproportionately cause health problems for communities of color today. In his remarks announcing the launch of Reconnecting Communities earlier this summer, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called the program “the first-ever dedicated federal initiative to take places that were divided by past infrastructure choices and reconnect them for a better future.”

The program is much smaller than originally envisioned, when it was included in Biden’s Build Back Better proposal with $20 billion of funding. But the Federal Highway Administration has begun accepting applications for planning and capital projects grants. And the Inflation Reduction Act that was recently approved by the Senate includes an additional $3 billion for Neighborhood Access and Equity grants, which will fund similar projects to undo divisions caused by infrastructure projects.

Advocates have welcomed the funding while being clear about its limitations.

“It’s a good start for sure,” says Desiree Powell, a Texas-based city planner and programs coordinator with the Congress for the New Urbanism, which has advocated for dozens of highway removal projects. “But a lot of this is generational. You unfortunately won’t be able to cure that generational trauma with [this] amount of dollars, and in your most impacted communities that money will be eaten up pretty quick.”

Many Potential Projects

The projects in San Francisco and Seoul were early examples of how removing highways could transform urban space. In recent years, many more cities have begun seriously considering the possibilities, and some are moving ahead with removals. The city of Rochester, N.Y., is currently working to remove a portion of its Inner Loop expressway and re-establish the neighborhood street grid in its place. Detroit received federal approval for a similar project this spring. Some advocates are pushing to remove portions of I-980 in Oakland. New Orleanians perennially discuss plans to remove the highway over Claiborne Avenue, a historic center of Black commerce. A grassroots non-profit in Seattle has been working for years to put a lid on I-5 to redeem some green space in the city. Last week, a Twitter user posted that part of Interstate 20 was going to be removed in car-centric Atlanta; it turned out to be a joke, but the fact that hundreds of people appeared to believe it suggests how much momentum the trend seems to have at the moment.

Still, removing large-scale automotive infrastructure is tricky business. Interstate travel and commerce have evolved around the highway system, and local conditions have often adapted — although mostly for the worse — to the presence of highway infrastructure as well. Highway engineers tend to be most concerned with keeping traffic moving at current service levels. Maintaining highways is a costly and time-consuming physical feat, but so is removing them. And it leaves open tough questions about what should be done with the new space that it creates: How it should be used and by whom, for whose benefit and profit. The scale of new funding won’t capture the full range of possibilities. As the advocacy group Transportation for America wrote, there “will likely only be a handful” of Reconnecting Communities grants issued this year.

But even a small commitment to addressing harmful highway infrastructure is a positive sign from the federal government, says Rick Cole, executive director of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

“I think we’ll learn a lot from this first $4 billion, and that can and should inform a much bigger commitment down the road,” Cole says.

Future of I-345

In Dallas, TxDOT is hoping to move ahead with a plan to sink portions of I-345 but keep the highway intact. The agency has estimated that removing the highway altogether would create “19,000 hours of additional weekday congestion” downtown.

“That was something that we did not think that the users of the roadway could sustain,” says Ceason Clemens, a deputy district engineer at TxDOT.

When the department completed the CityMAP process in 2016, which entertained the idea of removing I-345, Clemens says, “it was the art of the possible — anything was thrown out there.” Through the more detailed planning work of the feasibility study, it opted for a different plan, one that it believes could still help re-connect Deep Ellum to downtown and create new space for amenities and possibly development. As an example, TxDOT points to Klyde Warren Park, built over a capped portion of Woodall Rodgers Freeway in downtown Dallas.

The project has a long way to go before it’s funded and permitted. Despite having said they supported removing the highway during the last election, most of Dallas’ city council members appear to be onboard with TxDOT’s preferred alternative, as D Magazine reported. But the council hasn’t signed off on the project just yet. And Kennedy says he’s hoping the city’s elected leaders can slow down the process, or at least get TxDOT to take the removal option through the environmental review process, alongside its preferred plan.

When he was first exploring the possibilities of removing I-345 in Dallas, Kennedy says he was thinking about it solely in terms of economic development: “This is a business town that reacts to dollar signs and opportunity,” he says. But there’s much more at stake in highway removal, from potential health benefits to adjacent communities to the possibility of ever-more-rapid gentrification. The Reconnecting Communities program should give cities a chance to make more comprehensive, inclusive, community-led plans for how to fix harmful infrastructure, and in some cases, the money to implement them. That’s what Dallas needs too, he says.

“I think the planning portion of it will be key in kick-starting a lot of efforts around the country,” he says. “I just hope that they’re ambitious.”
Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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