IH-345, the stretch of highway dividing Deep Ellum from downtown and connecting interstates 45 and 75, is at the center of debate on how to develop the city's urban core. Photo by Kelsey Shoemaker.

Urban Design

The Feds Might Nudge Cities Toward Highway Removals

Whether it will pass congress remains to be seen, but a new bill funds a significant pilot program that would help pay for removing freeways like I-345.

Good news for the I-345 removal proponents: the federal government is speaking the same language. In December before Congress recessed, more than two dozen Democratic senators signed onto then minority leader Chuck Schumer’s Economic Justice Act, a $435 billion spending bill that included a pilot project for removing highways that decimated communities of color in many major American cities.

The bill, if it’s passed, allots $10 billion over five years to tearing out the freeways and creating community land trusts to help manage land use after the structures are gone. The bill refers to these highways as “infrastructural barriers.” And I-345 is certainly that: an elevated mile-plus of concrete connective tissue between two freeways that divides downtown from Deep Ellum and the Farmers Market. Removing it would free up about the same total acreage as Fair Park, creating opportunity for housing, jobs, and other resources if the city can get the land use right.

The bill anticipates that challenge. As it’s written, local governments would be prioritized if they enter into an agreement with nearby residents to establish an anti-displacement policy or a land trust to help ensure that the removal of the highway won’t re-traumatize the community. That’s a significant inclusion because it would help communities have greater control over how the land around the highway removal is developed.

“Every highway teardown project will be a little different, have different political and market conditions, and these federal tools will have to be evaluated for whether they are appropriate,” says Patrick Kennedy, the DART board member and urban planner who first raised the possibility of removing I-345 about a decade ago.

The federal grants created by the bill would help pay for outright removal or a retrofit as long as it “enhances community connectivity and is sensitive to the context of the surrounding community.” The grants could help pay for replacing existing highways with a new facility or “other transportation improvements that address the mobility needs of the community.” The bill allows for the feds to pay for up to 80 percent of the project. For I-345, burying it below grade is also an option being explored.

It’s not the first time the federal government has considered funding at least some highway teardown efforts. In 2010 and in 2014, the Obama administration’s TIGER grant program—which was a major funding source for public transit, including the Oak Cliff Streetcar—allowed applications for projects that would “reconnect neighborhoods that are unnaturally divided by physical barriers such as highways and railroads.” New Haven and the South Bronx in 2010 both got a little federal money to help turn a couple expressways into boulevards.

In 2017, President Donald Trump renamed the program and began steering money from those grants instead to highway projects in mostly rural areas.

Two years later, Congress considered the reauthorization of the FAST Act, the federal transportation infrastructure spending bill that largely paid for highway work. It was expiring after its five-year lifespan. Inside the updated version of that $287 billion spending bill was a pilot program to help cover the cost of studying, planning, and removing highways. However, because of the pandemic, Congress passed a one-year extension of the bill that left out the highway removal pilot program.

Unlike the FAST Act, the Economic Justice Act isn’t a transportation bill; it includes money for public health initiatives, job creation, childcare, and many other items. The bill is meant to “address systemic racism and historic underinvestment in communities of color.” Putting highway tear-outs in this bucket represents a significant acknowledgement by the federal government of the harm freeways caused many American cities and the potential their removal—or burial—could have in creating new opportunities for jobs and housing.

But that new desire to deal with the impact urban highways have on American cities doesn’t mean urban highway expansion projects aren’t still happening. Look to Houston, where both the city and Harris County have voiced concerns, or outright decried, TxDOT’s plan to expand Interstate 45.

The Houston Chronicle reported last week that the state transportation agency plans to move forward on the $7.5 billion widening of the freeway near downtown, a project that will affect or displace about 1,100 homes and over 340 businesses. The Chronicle notes that those homes are mostly apartments and public housing and describes the job as a “near-total redesign of the freeway system around the central business district.” TxDOT will now begin more detailed design phase, during which it will “have the opportunity to fully explore many of the project refinements requested.”

This disconnect reflects the long lag in how shifts in transportation policy make their way into the nuts and bolts of planning and implementation. Just last week, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tweeted about “highways that literally tore through Black neighborhoods” as part of the “inequity … deep within our transportation system.” But TxDOT follows the direction of a number of Metropolitan Planning Organizations, or MPOs. Here, that’s the North Central Texas Council of Governments. In Houston, that’s the Houston-Galveston Area Council. And as Chronicle writer Dug Begley noted, the widening of I-45 is what Houston’s MPO wanted and it appears that is what TxDOT is trying to deliver.

All of this is to say: the desire to build roads remains entrenched, but federal policymakers at least seem to be moving toward reckoning with what that means and has meant. The future of I-345 is unclear. It is nearing the end of its life cycle. TxDOT is still in the process of finalizing a feasibility study, which will explore what to do with the highway: leave it as is, bury it, or tear it out. Nearly 900 people participated in community meetings before the pandemic, and the three options were just about equally split. The City Council has turned over since this was a hot-button issue at City Hall, and will almost surely cycle through again by the time a solution is presented. That feasibility study is now expected by the end of the year.

The bill’s future, meanwhile, is up in the air. It’s a lot of money, so much so that it will likely require reconciliation to get it funded. But the language is there: “The Secretary shall establish a program to help communities identify infrastructural barriers within the community that create obstacles to mobility or economic development; or expose the community to high levels of particulate matter, noise pollution, and other public health and safety risks.”

“Federal dollars with federal strings are a tool, but not the only tool,” Kennedy said. “But it is still a critical step for the highest levels of government are speaking the language.”

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