In 1956, the Federal-Aid Highway Act established dedicated, long-term support for the construction of freeways nationwide, which, along with subsequent laws, funded 47,000 miles of fast new highways that radically transformed how people traveled across the country. In promoting more efficient car travel, state and local officials often used highway funds to create new rights-of-way through the nation’s cities.
These new roads cut through existing neighborhoods, displacing half a million residents between 1957 and 1977 (even more in the following decades) and destroying businesses and homes. Local leaders often chose to route highways through neighborhoods disproportionately inhabited by people of color and households with low incomes, causing population loss, disrupting local economies, and permanently severing pedestrian links between different parts of the city. Highway construction also spurred car dependency while increasing exposure to cancer-causing particulate pollution—particularly for people who are least likely to be drivers themselves.
To remedy these troublesome outcomes, cities across the United States have for years evaluated efforts to redesign or eliminate certain segments of highways. In 2021, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocated $1 billion for a new Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program, designed to fund planning and construction of such projects. So far, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) has made awards for the first of five years of grants, and the initial proposals are promising.
But the demand from states and localities to do more is overwhelming. To improve urban vitality and help repair the communities exposed to the worst harms of highway construction, federal, state, and local governments can provide additional dedicated funding for projects that reconnect communities while finding creative ways to repurpose or flex other funding sources.
Experience suggests highway redesigns benefit affected neighborhoods
The new Reconnecting Communities Program comes on the heels of several decades of individual highway redesign projects. In some cities, like Boston and Pittsburgh, highways have been “capped” and placed underground. These projects make room for nearby development and have improved property values by reducing the noise and air pollution associated with roadways.
Dallas built a large park over a highway, connecting two parts of the central business district. And Philadelphia now has a $329 million project underway to connect Old City with the Delaware River. Other cities have used highway redesign projects to improve city services. In Portland, portions of a highway along the waterfront created room for promenades and connections to nature. In San Francisco, a new boulevard includes a light rail line.
Together, these projects have helped improve affected communities, increase walkability, reduce pollution, and create new opportunities for nearby real estate development.
Cities nationwide want to redesign their highways
Following the successes of previous highway redesign projects, the DOT made about $150 million available in fiscal year 2022 for capital projects through Reconnecting Communities. Between 2023 and 2026, another approximately $600 million will be made available by the DOT and distributed through an open competition. Although this is the largest amount of federal funding ever committed to this purpose, it’s less than 1 percent of the infrastructure law’s total $1.2 trillion in expenditures, much of which, ironically, will be used for the expansion of highways elsewhere.
Even so, local governments from across the nation responded enthusiastically to the Reconnecting Communities Program’s first call for proposals. Entities—mostly local governments—from 32 states put forward their ideas for 90 separate construction projects. These applications varied in nature: more than half proposed tunneling highways or creating pedestrian bridges over them, and another quarter recommended removing a significant portion of the highway infrastructure entirely.
Given the limited funds available, the DOT could provide support for only 6 of the 90 capital projects that applied:
- a reconstruction of the Kensington Expressway in Buffalo that could tunnel a highway alignment through a working-class neighborhood
- Long Beach’s Shoreline Drive Gateway, which will add significant park space and improve pedestrian safety
- the removal of a highway ramp, which will eliminate the barrier between Downtown Tampa and its riverfront
- the redesign of two major roadways in Kalamazoo from high-volume, one-way roads to two-way roads with bike lanes, parking, turning lanes, and pedestrian infrastructure
- the construction of a plaza over the interstate that bisects the Orthodox Jewish community in Oak Park, Michigan
- the construction of a pedestrian tunnel to improve safe access to New Jersey Transit’s Long Branch Station.
The DOT also accepted applications for planning grants, receiving 321 applications from 47 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The agency awarded only 39 planning grants to these proposals that require further study, such as a project that would remove a portion of I-244 in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood, home of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, and one that would place decking over of a portion of I-30 in downtown Little Rock. These projects and others like them could receive funding through future capital grants from the federal government or other sources of revenue.
The demand for reconnecting community projects suggests more funding is needed
The sheer number of applications from cities across the country makes clear the demand for redesigning, rebuilding, or removing highways in ways that acknowledge and mitigate their historical damage. When they’re designed well, these reconstructions can increase access to green space, reduce car dependency, eliminate air pollution, and improve quality of life, particularly in neighborhoods disproportionately inhabited by people of color and households with low incomes.
Unfortunately, the Reconnecting Communities Program is currently far too small to address the national need. To address this gap, federal policymakers could increase the size of the federal program. The original proposal for the Reconnecting Communities Program from the Biden administration would have allocated $20 billion to such projects over five years—an amount that would have been better scaled to meet local need.
In the absence of more funding through the Reconnecting Communities Program, state and local policymakers could pursue the following approaches instead:
- Leverage other federal discretionary programs to support the goal of renovating highways. The DOT funded a highway-to-boulevard conversion in Detroit through the INFRA grant program and could make similar choices through competitive grants like the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity and Mega
- “Flex” federal funds allocated by “formula” to states. State DOTs receive billions of dollars each year through programs that typically allocate most funds to roadways, including the National Highway Performance Program and Surface Transportation Block Grants. Federal law allows states to “flex” these funds to other needs, like transit and pedestrian improvements, but most states rarely do so. States could take advantage of this flexibility to fund their own competitive community reconnection grant programs.
- Promote the use of public transportation. Cities whose residents are less dependent on driving have greater opportunities to downsize their highway infrastructure and reconnect communities.