A Highway System That Linked – and Divided – Americans May Be Rerouted

Momentum for removing highways is increasing, with racial justice movements amplifying the issue.

By Anny Oberlink
An image from RetroReport

Built into President Biden's trillion-dollar infrastructure plan, now stalled in Congress, is a small program dedicated to reconnecting communities — particularly communities of color — that were separated and destroyed during construction of the nation's sprawling transportation network: the Interstate Highway System. A daily fixture for 115 million commuters, the highway system is coming under increased scrutiny for its legacy of racial injustice.

In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act, a massive infrastructure project that authorized the building of 41,000 miles of highway. Postwar automobile manufacturing was booming, but the nation's roads were in poor condition. Eisenhower saw the need to modernize, and used Germany's efficient autobahn as the inspiration for a four-lane design. The wide lanes were planned to mitigate congestion and to create evacuation routes in case of nuclear disaster, a looming threat that persisted through the Cold War era.

These high-speed highways connected many rural communities, increased transportation of fuel, and set a path for suburban expansion. But their construction became a twofold initiative: To connect primarily white commuters from suburbs to downtowns, and to remove “urban blight,” a coded designation for low-income Black and brown neighborhoods. Urban planners sent highways straight through these neighborhoods just as racial integration was taking hold.

Residents near the new highways were often forcibly removed by eminent domain, and the damaging effects of the plan are still being felt today. Recent studies have shown that people who live close to a highway are at heightened risk of serious physical and psychological harm.

An image from RetroReport

1951 The Edsel Ford Expressway now known as I-94, divided Detroit. Over 2,800 buildings were demolished during its construction, which disproportionately affected Black neighborhoods. (Photo: National Archives)

Areas that were razed to make way for highways often lacked the political influence to fight back, but by the 1960s, freeway revolts erupted around the country, which put a stop to some construction. The revolts started in San Francisco, and prevented construction in places like Boston, Memphis, Baltimore and New York, (notably in Little Italy and the Lower East Side).

More than half a century after the Interstate system was born, many of its highways are nearing the end of their lifespans. Cities are grappling with expensive decisions on whether to rebuild or remove their aging infrastructure.

“We’re entering into the phase that is the legacy of the original freeway revolts,” said Ben Crowther, project manager for Congress for the New Urbanism and the Freeways Without Futures report. “We’ve been able to see that the places where freeways were stopped have been better off. We’ve learned that lesson.”

Momentum for removing highways is once again increasing, with racial justice movements amplifying the issue. But while the president’s infrastructure plan has made headlines, the Reconnecting Communities initiative has already faced setbacks: It was cut from $20 billion to $1 billion when the bill passed the Senate. Some proposed highway removal projects have hefty price tags, like Syracuse’s I-81, which is estimated at $2.2 billion.

Crowther is encouraged by the administration’s Build Back Better agenda, which includes $4 billion for Neighborhood Access and Equity Grants that can be used for projects like C.N.U.’s effort to convert highways into boulevards. “It makes sure that the people who are living around highways right now are the ones who directly benefit from this highway removal,” Crowther said.

Despite setbacks to the infrastructure plan and the Build Back Better Act, the Reconnecting Communities program is the first federal funding initiative to address inequitable transportation infrastructure, perhaps signaling the end of an era for these concrete and asphalt barriers.

ANNY OBERLINK, an intern at Retro Report, is a degree candidate in documentary filmmaking at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. This article first appeared in Retro Report’s free weekly newsletter. Subscribe and receive lessons from history in your mailbox. Follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.

FOR BACKGROUND A bridge collapse in Florida in 2018 echoed a similar catastrophe in Minnesota in 2007, an early sign of America’s growing infrastructure problem. For years, updating infrastructure has been placed on a back burner.