Could Biden’s infrastructure bill help heal scars created by freeways?

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From the interstate highway system to public housing, some of America’s most discriminatory and damaging policies have been implemented under the auspices of the need for better infrastructure. That’s why US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg made his first stop on a visit to Virginia to tout Democrats Law on investment in infrastructure and employment a Jackson Ward walking tour a district of Richmond known as the “Harlem of the South”, devastated in the 1950s by the construction of Interstate 95.

“Transportation is all about connection,” Buttigieg said. “What you see in Jackson Ward is how transportation dollars can disconnect communities. What you see is a community crossed by a highway. Whether it’s more crossings or a highway cap, transportation should always be about connecting, not dividing. Planning for the 21st century must focus on how any new transportation asset integrates with surrounding areas. How do you knit all of this in a way that benefits everyone? “

Originally built by city and state rulers as the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike, the highway corridor through the heart of Virginia’s capital destroyed approximately 1,000 homes and businesses in favor of a highway to serve largely white commuters fleeing to the suburbs. Instead of following the natural contours of Shockoe Valley around downtown Richmond, transportation planners have intentionally targeted Black Richmond’s financial and cultural heart: Jackson Ward. By the time I-95 was completed, about 10 percent of the city’s black population had been displaced due to the demolitions.

Atonement by investment

Seeking to keep a campaign pledge to usher in more equitable government intervention in Americans’ lives – and especially those of people of color, the new federal bill on infrastructure establishes $ 1 billion for highway plugging and removal. Even at just 5% of the original $ 20 billion proposal, the new funding could prove transformational if it were focused on a few communities across the country.

We’re talking over $ 1 billion for communities like Jackson Ward in terms of reconnecting, ”said US Representative Donald McEachin, D-Richmond. “We, as a governmentwhen and where we canneed to repair and correct the mistakes of the past. It is not enough to say, “I’m sorry. You must support the regret with remedial actions. It is a way for us as a nation to atone for what we have done to this community and to help current residents come together and once again become that vibrant center of entertainment, business and culture that ‘it once was.

While leading the walking tour with Secretary Buttigieg, Maritza Pechindeputy director of the city’s equitable development office – underlined how insulating the highway is. The 2,522 residents of Gilpin Court (increasingly referred to by city officials as “North Jackson Ward”) have only two roads that connect them south to the rest of the city. After being told that an I-95 exit ramp takes drivers directly to Gilpin without even offering residents an access ramp to access the freeway themselves, Buttigieg replied, “It’s embarrassing.”

To sew up the neighborhood, this summer the city Richmond 300 The master planning process proposed a single block ceiling on I-95 that would add new green space to the area and restore the St. James Street connection to the south. The plan also recommended that the city explore two more one-block caps of the highway at Second and Seventh Streets to further increase connectivity.

Repair via redevelopment?

Richmond 300 describes the bridge decks reconnecting Jackson Ward as one of six “big moves” the city could make to meet its broader goals in the plan on housing, green spaces and more as a result of the wave of redevelopment that such a transformation project would probably trigger. With the support of the city, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority recently won a Planning grant of $ 450,000 Department of Housing and Urban Development to reinvent Gilpin Court public housing into mixed-use, mixed-income development.

A render of a proposed park on Interstate 95 in downtown Richmond. (Richmond 300)

We worked with RRHA to make them competitive for this grant, ”said Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney. “There have been a few failures in the past, but this one really shows promise for the residents of Gilpin. We want to deconcentrate poverty because we know that these conditions are not the ones that everyone in this city should be living in. Gilpin will soon be 80 and Creighton almost 70 without any major overhauls of these properties in decades. The time has come for us to do something.

In the absence of a one-for-one replacement guarantee from the RRHA, Gilpin residents and housing advocates have expressed concern that redevelopment of the area could simply displace existing residents in favor of richer ones. Despite these fears, local officials believe the cap on I-95 would be an overall victory for public housing residents and the city as a whole.

“We are very pleased that this can become a reality as part of the Gilpin redevelopment,” said Barrett Hardiman, vice chairman of the RRHA and head of the authority’s property committee. “The two halves of the neighborhood should be reconnected. We’re trying to come up with a redevelopment plan that will help meet the city’s goal of 10,000 new affordable units and we need to assess how much of that is ours and what the market can offer.

Given that of Richmond appalling save to follow through on promises of alternative social housing, it’s no wonder residents are worried. McEachin is convinced that with federal support this time can be different. “There is a lot of excitement and some trepidation that Washington might come in and do something without listening to them. We want to make sure our constituents know this is going to be done with their wants and needs first. “

Fast vs. Right

As Democrats bet their hopes of maintaining their majority in Congress in 2022 on the success of this historic infrastructure investment, the tension between the rapid distribution of funding and the efficiency of spending is palpable.

“We are very aware of the need to strike a balance between getting it out quickly and doing it right,” Buttigieg said during the second half of his visit to a road construction site in Henrico County. “One of the most important things is the commitment from day one to ensure that these investments are not made in communities but by and with them. If we get the right results, it will create value for the communities, businesses and people who have been there from the start, not just for the new people who will join them. “

With $ 1.2 trillion in new spending in the bipartisan infrastructure bill on everything from Amtrak and transit to bridge repairs and highway expansions, ensuring a fair commitment around such huge investments. will not be an easy task. With 577 bridges and over 2,124 miles of highways in disrepair across the Commonwealth, however, funding can’t come too soon according to funders like US Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Henrico.

“It’s all about competitiveness, pivoting to the future, creating jobs and expanding the literal connections between our people,” Spanberger said. “When we talk about roads, bridges and broadband, this is a fundamental part of our country’s physical infrastructure. I am happy that we have demonstrated the value of responsible governance. This is cleaning that we should have done years ago.

Despite the massive sums included in the deal negotiated between President Joe Biden and Congress, the scale of the nation’s need to cap and remove highways can be overwhelming. Destroying a freeway that decimated New Orleans’ Tremé neighborhood was estimated to cost $ 500 million alone. Fill two-thirds of a mile of the freeway in Rochester and establish a new urban neighborhood on the fair highest cost $ 22 million in comparison. A one-block cap of I-95 would likely prove even cheaper.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks with the State of Virginia and local officials including, left to right, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, Mayor Levar Stoney, Governor Ralph Northam and U.S. Representative Don McEachin (background). (Wyatt Gordon / For the Virginia Mercury)

Recognizing that almost every city across America has its own storyif not severalSimilar to what happened to Jackson Ward, Buttigieg pitched the $ 1 billion for reconnecting communities as a first step towards restoration. “I would characterize it as a start, ”he said. “We have to demonstrate the effectiveness of these strategies and then we will get more money to continue.”

In this fight, he has an ally in McEachin, for whom Jackson Ward’s restoration is also personal: “This church in St. James and Leigh Street was my grandfather’s church. My family has been in this region for generations, right after the War of Independence.

That’s why McEachin recently submitted a letter to Maryland Congressman Anthony Brown asking for even more funding for the recently passed freeway removal program. “We know there are many regions across the country that have faced similar challenges that need to be addressed as well,” McEachin said. “The Jackson neighborhood is not the only one. It will take a lot more money to right these wrongs than this initial down payment.

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