Last week, GObike was aproached by Ben Crowther of America Walks.
In the months leading up to the October application deadline for USDOT’s Reconnecting Communities program, we at America Walks heard from community advocates that several state DOTs have submitted plans (now confirmed) that subvert the program’s intent and are requesting funding for projects that perpetuate or increase the division and damage that highways cause (see this Streetsblog article for the full story).
We’ve created a sign-on letter asking USDOT to reject highway-oriented, business-as-usual applications and instead select those that are restorative, transformative, community-driven, and provide meaningful benefits to corridor residents.
The Streetsblog article is right on the nose. State DOT’s around the country are singularly focused on level of service for cars (how fast can we move them, and how many obstacles can we remove like bends, narrow lanes, or trees along the road in case the driver falls asleep etc) in rural, suburban, and urban settings and will not adapt to 21st century needs of individuals who want or need to get anywhere without a car.
The state DOT’s also give no consideration to the destruction these highways or oversized boulevards cause to the surrounding neighborhoods (the residents surrounding the Humboldt Expressway have the highest cancer rates in the entire region). NYSDOT has blocked any effort to get the Humboldt Expressway removed, threatening the surrounding neighborhoods with false claims that no one coming into the city would use any of our multiple arterials in all directions, and that all 74,000 cars per day (NYS DOT 2019) would take a restored Humboldt Parkway into downtown if the expressway were removed.
- Cities that have removed freeways discovered that traffic overall decreased significantly with little to no impact to the surrounding road network.
- According to a 1998 study from University College in London, which examined 60 worldwide cases in which highway capacity was removed, this counterintuitive outcome resulted from either a change in scheduled activities or eliminated trips altogether.
NYSDOT also insists on treating the Scajaquada Expressway and Humboldt Expressway as two separate movements and projects instead of one in order to divide and conquer the advocates involved in both efforts for removal.
So as the USDOT pointed itself in the right direction with the Reconnecting Communities program, state DOT’s sought to get the new government funding to maintain the status quo, or worse – expand it!
US Secretaries of Transportation are not often in the spotlight, but Pete Buttigieg is. He’s saying the right things with regard to the need to rip out urban highways wherever they were planted in the 1950s and 1960s and restore the neighborhoods they destroyed, but if he and his department approve these requests from the state DOT’s submitting them, then his statements have all been for not, and status quo will win the day.
GObike, along with organizations like ours across the country, has signed on to this letter to Secretary Buttigieg, which will be delivered on 10/27/22.
Here’s what the letter said:
Dear Secretary Buttigieg:
We, the undersigned organizations, are keen to see the Reconnecting Communities program succeed in its goal of knitting back together communities divided by overbuilt transportation infrastructure.
However, it has come to our attention that several state departments of transportation and other entities have submitted applications to the program that could threaten to capture its funds to continue the harm caused by highways — not undo it. Some of these proposals seek to retain and even expand highway infrastructure. Some promise to facilitate new connections with improvements that are too minor to address the current challenge. Moreover, these proposals have been developed largely in secret, without any public input or dialogue. Consider the following examples:
- In New Orleans, LA, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (LaDOTD) has bundled an application to study removing one or two of the Claiborne Expressway’s ramps, which would provide community benefits, with maintenance for the highway and a plan to spruce up the area underneath it — a solution that does little to fix the damage done to the Treme neighborhood’s Black community. LaDOTD has declined to consider a community-driven proposal to dismantle the Claiborne Expressway.
- In Tulsa, OK, the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) has prepared an application to study widening underpasses beneath Interstate 244 through Greenwood and improving lighting. The removal of the highway, whose construction destroyed Greenwood’s Black Wall Street and still splits North Tulsa and Greenwood, will only be considered in a very long-term context (30+ years). ODOT has refused to work with State Representative Regina Goodwin and the community coalition Transform Tulsa, who see the existing highway as a barrier to rebuilding historic Black Wall Street.
- In Portland, OR, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is eying Reconnecting Communities funding for its plan to expand 1.8 miles of Interstate 5 through Portland’s historically Black Albina neighborhood. ODOT believes its highway expansion qualifies for the program because it will cap two and a half blocks (about 0.2 miles). The agency only decided to pursue the cap after intense community pressure and will not look at capping the highway if it can’t also add new lanes.
We call on USDOT to reject proposals like these, as they fail to align with the goals of the program laid out in the Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO). Proposals like these leave in place the structures that cause damage — or even worse, expand them. For that reason, they address neither environmental justice nor equitable development and result in either a negligible increase in community connectivity or a net decrease, in the case of proposals that bundle highway expansions into the project.
In order to support Reconnecting Communities applications that are both restorative and transformative, we ask USDOT to weigh more highly proposals that completely remove infrastructure barriers and repurposes the right-of-way for community benefits over those that only cover or mitigate barriers. Applications for projects in corridors where infrastructure barriers are currently being widened, especially when that eats up substantial funding, should be avoided. There is too little funding available to finance projects unlikely to make an impact or where funding is going to other purposes.
The Reconnecting Communities program has the power to remedy the injustices of our previous infrastructure investments and recalibrate our transportation priorities so that they support underserved communities, but it is too small to spend any of its funding on projects that might come at their expense. USDOT needs to send a strong message that only projects up to the task should apply.