Communities hope infrastructure law fixes history of racial inequity

Posted at 4:00 AM, Dec 09, 2021

BALTIMORE, Md. — Building roads and bridges often times comes at a cost to neighborhoods.

A study has estimated that over 1 million Americans were displaced when highways were built decades ago.

Glenn Smith was one of those impacted. He lived in West Baltimore in the 1960s and 1970s.

"There were all good memories here until it was broken up," Smith said in an interview from a bridge overlooking his old neighborhood.

Smith is quite familiar with what has become known as the "highway to nowhere." The 1.5 mile stretch of road was planned and constructed in the 1960s and 1970s. The goal was to connect Interstate 70 with Interstate 95.

However, the only part of the project completed was the stretch of road where Smith used to live. The two interstates were never linked and the overall project was shut down.

Smith says his historically Black community felt the impact, while other communities did not.

"It removed over 570 homeowners out of this community and we have not recovered," Smith said. "I often refer to it as taking the heart of the body."

Since then, elected officials and engineers have pointed to the project, as well as others, as being an example of systemic racism that existed decades ago when it came to planning infrastructure projects. Oftentimes, Black communities suffered the most when new roads were built.

"All around the country they did the same thing," Smith said.

This year, the White House and Congress recognized historic wrongs when they signed the bipartisan infrastructure bill into law.

The legislation includes $1 billion for the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program. The money will be used to invest in areas hurt the most. 

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg recently described where the money will go. In some cases, roads or bridges may go away. In others, perhaps, new bus stops. 

"We don't want to impose a one-size-fits-all answer," Buttigieg said during a recent White House briefing. "We have to listen the community."

Back in Baltimore, Smith acknowledges that $1 billion probably isn't enough to take down the road that ruined his neighborhood. However, he would like some money used to improve transportation in the area or, perhaps, create jobs. 

"We want to see something that benefits the community," Smith said.