EDIT: Thanks for participating, everyone. This was fun and we hope you continue to follow our reporting.

Hi, we’re NBC News reporters Suzanne Gamboa, Phil McCausland, Josh Lederman, and Ben Popken

We reported on how some communities are taking down or starting to consider removing federal highways that bulldozed and bisected predominantly minority neighborhoods starting in the 1950s, displacing over 1 million people.

Our research looked at the dozens of highways under consideration and highlighted three that represented different stages of the process:

  • The I-81 in Syracuse, New York
  • The Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans, Louisiana,
  • The multiple interchanges dividing the Boyle Heights neighborhood in Los Angeles, California.

We spoke to residents on the ground and policymakers, combed through archive photos, built interactive maps, flew a drone over the highway, and recorded audio from a highway 130 feet from an elementary school.

With over 41,000 miles of interstates we couldn’t cover all the highways, but hoped to give an overview of how these highways came to be, where they stand, and where they might go as the administration earmarks $20 billion for highway renewal.

Many of these highways no longer meet their intended function or have reached their end of life. The debate about what to do with the highways reopens old wounds. It raises questions about who would stand to gain community resources or lose business. Our reporting showed that some of these highways were deliberately built in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

We’ll be here Tuesday, August 3rd at 3pm EST to answer your questions.

Proof here: https://twitter.com/JoshNBCNews/status/1420782005109891073

Comments: 98 • Responses: 8  • Date: 

SpinToWin36068 karma

I read that the current infrastructure bill has stripped $19 billion out of this $20 billion dollar initiative. What specific projects will be funded this 1/20th of the initial proposed budget?

nbcnews67 karma

Josh: You're correct. President Biden had initially proposed $20 billion for "reconnecting communities" previously divided by transportation projects. What ended up in the bipartisan agreement after all the haggling between the White House and the Senate was $1 billion. Although it's not year clear exactly which projects will benefit from that funding, the White House has name-checked two of them specifically: I-81 in Syracuse, and the Clairborne Expressway in New Orleans, both of which NBC News wrote about in our special report.

You're also correct that $1 billion is unlikely to be enough to cover the full cost of any of these projects, much less all of them. The Syracuse project alone is projected to cost north of $2 billion. But federal funding from the infrastructure deal is just one piece of the puzzle. State transportation departments and other local government entities often share a large portion of the costs of major projects like these. And beyond the $1 trillion in federal dollars set aside specifically for reconnecting communities, these projects will also likely be eligible for other funding through traditional federal highway and transportation programs.

N3ws_h0und37 karma

It makes sense that people wouldn't want to be living with a freeway in their backyard, but did any benefits come to the neighborhoods from having such close access to an interstate? Or was it all to the detriment of the communities?

nbcnews39 karma

Phil: In New Orleans, new businesses did develop along the expressway and certainly other types of businesses found opportunities, but the small community that developed around those black-owned businesses has largely disappeared. Likely more significant, however, is how the neighborhood and elements of the city's culture adapted to and adopted the area underneath the highway and used it for their own means, from Mardi Gras celebrations and brass band jam sessions to daily games of dominos and cards.

pudgy_taco32 karma

New Orleans checking in (I live about a mile from I-10). I agree with your assessment, the interstate has connected areas like New Orleans East better to employment hotbeds like downtown and the ports, new businesses have developed on Claiborne ave and the neighborhood does use the area as personal party space pretty frequently (MG, weekend cook outs etc). While there is no perfect way to right a historic wrong but my personal take is rather than take the highway down examine how the neighborhood adapted to it and build actual infrastructure in the space that was created. Sidewalks are barely existent along Claiborne, you can park your car under the underpass but then you still have to get across a two lane street to actually get to a lot of businesses. Addition of walk/bike ways, dedicated parking areas with cross walks, fenced in areas that could become playgrounds/sportish areas, trash cans, sitting areas, people already use the space as a park/gathering type space so why not put in the actual work needed for it to be a clean safe place for the community?

nbcnews22 karma

Phil: There is interest in doing all those things, rather than taking down the highway itself. Former Mayor Mitch Landrieu noted to me how surprised he was that many people in the neighborhood expressed a desire to keep the highway in place. It certainly would be lower cost and local activists and lawmakers believe building out greenspaces to help chew up air pollution. There's also interest in bike lanes, walkways, playgrounds, trash cans and even a business district underneath the highway. There are large number of zoning issues, however, and disagreement over what is the best route forward. The pandemic has also caused the effort to lose some momentum since March 2020. The new mayor has also expressed other priorities, as many new administrations often do when they come into office.

nbcnews18 karma

Josh: In Syracuse, we found that certain types of businesses - and the families who rely on those businesses - did benefit from the interstate. Specifically, travel-related businesses like hotels, restaurants and truck stops that cropped up along the interstate's route benefited from the steady and reliable flow of travelers in need of services who patronize their businesses. Although some community groups opposed to the interstate have been quick to criticize those businesses, they do provide real jobs and community investment that might not otherwise be there. That's part of what makes the debate about tearing down interstates and how to replace them so fraught: At the end of the day, there tends to be both winners and losers no matter what route you pick.

nbcnews10 karma

Suzanne: In Boyle Heights, some historians, activists attribute the strong sense of activism and civic engagement to the history of having to fight highway construction. Some of that built on immigrant, union and working class origins. The highway construction and the racism behind it was captured by Chicano artists and others in murals, poetry and communities created a solidarity around preserving their heritage and identity. Eric Avila discusses this in his book, "The Folklore of the Freeway." In addition, because Boyle Heights became so very Mexican American and separated, it could exist as such because others did not want to move in that space, leaving room for Mexican American-owned businesses.

cen-texan21 karma

How much did land acquisition cost factor in to the original routes for these highway projects? IOW, if a government is tasked with a highway project, generally they are required to build the lowest cost, unless there are other stipulations. I would think that the neighborhoods that a lot of these went through were lower value, which in itself could be traced to redlining.

nbcnews25 karma

Suzanne: Sure, cost was a factor when building these neighborhoods. Families in Boyle Heights were paid less than market value for their homes and the market value was lowered because the neighborhood was redlined. Certainly the cost of land purchase and relocation of families is a consideration now.
The question is how do you fairly distribute that cost, keeping in mind how much of the cost has been shouldered by minority communities? Is a city choosing to expand a highway in a low income, minority community, to avoid building in a wealthier neighborhood where costs would be higher. What then is the health cost from pollutants from an expanded highway, or from cutting out a community's sparse green space. In Boyle Heights, there is a push to look at other transportation, electric cars etc. as an option to going for the cheaper option.

viajake-5 karma

In your conversations with government officials, did any of them mention social equity programs like deeding land back to the original residents? Tearing down these freeways is a first step but without actually addressing the violence caused by them, it just seems like a cash cow for developers and investors.

nbcnews15 karma

Phil: Most any highway removal study recommends those types of social equity programs, and there is discussion of it on the federal level.

However, it appears much of the protections of residents in the Reconnecting Communities Initiative was stripped away in the latest version of the infrastructure bill. Most advocates will tell you there is little point in tearing down the highways if you don't have those guardrails in place.

nbcnews8 karma

Suzanne: Boyle Heights already has already seen developers enter and "gentrify" the neighborhood. A rail system that includes stops in the neighborhood has connected the community to other places. Residents were successful in driving out art galleries that were changing the community, but rents in apartments, including where mariachis live — the ones who perform and wait for hire in Mariachi Plaza — an attraction in the neighborhood, have risen and have been forcing some to leave. This too has triggered resistance.

Housing affordability is part of LA's plan for the neighborhood but what is affordable is yet to be defined. Frank Villalobos, who is featured in the article, says the city needs to promote ownership rather than provide apartments for Section 8 users. He experimented with that by building 23 homes at his business' expense and selling them for $105,000 (believe i remember that price correctly), equivalent to Section 8 vouchers at the time. But no one has built on his idea. Here is the LA community plan for Boyle Heights: https://planning.lacity.org/odocument/a21becea-0083-44a8-9864-cef634ef669c/BoyleHeights_Community_Plan-_Summer_2020_Draft.pdf