The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A woman called for a highway’s removal in a Black neighborhood. The White House singled it out in its infrastructure plan.

A ramp to the Claiborne Expressway is visible from Amy Stelly’s second-floor porch. (Amy Stelly)
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Since she moved back home to Tremé almost a decade ago, Amy Stelly has waged a campaign for the removal of a highway that cuts through her New Orleans neighborhood.

She struggled to get support from local leaders. Neighbors considered the quest to be wishful thinking.

“Nobody thinks you can get rid of a highway,” she said.

On Wednesday, Stelly’s effort gained a considerable boost when the White House named the highway, the Claiborne Expressway, an example of a historic inequity that President Biden’s new infrastructure plan would seek to address through billions in new spending.

Stelly didn’t know the road had been singled out until a reporter called.

“I’m floored,” she said. “I’m thrilled to hear President Biden would call out the Claiborne Expressway as a racist highway.”

Stelly, an architectural designer, is part of a growing movement across the country to take down highways bored through neighborhoods predominantly home to people of color. Most were created as the federal government worked to connect the nation after the birth of the interstate highway system. Many such highways are reaching the end of their 50-year life spans, raising the question of whether they should be rebuilt or reimagined.

“It’s the same in many Black communities, not only in Louisiana,” Stelly said. “It’s great the federal government and this administration is recognizing that this is something that must be corrected if we are to be fair and just in America.”

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The elevated Claiborne Expressway was built atop Claiborne Avenue and completed in 1968. From her second-floor porch, Stelly can see a ramp to the highway rising up from the street. She said air pollutants stick to her home.

“I live with the ills of the highway every day,” Stelly said.

Beneath the highway, the wide median of the old Claiborne Avenue is still largely intact. It used to be a busy thoroughfare. Stelly wants it restored to something like its former condition.

A spokesman for New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said she appreciated the Biden administration’s acknowledgment of “the devastation to surrounding African American businesses” the highway construction has caused. “Since taking office, our administration has focused on improving the city’s aging infrastructure, and doing so in a manner responsive to the needs of all of our residents,” the spokesman said.

Rodney Mallett, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, said the agency is aware of the road’s history and would try to take advantage of the equity fund other proposed elements of the infrastructure plan.

Biden’s plan calls for a $20 billion fund to “reconnect” neighborhoods cut off by old transportation projects. Documents released Wednesday by the White House provided little detail about how the money could be used, but the projected cost of taking down highways varies from a few hundred million dollars to billions.

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Ben Crowther, who runs a program called Highways to Boulevards at the Congress for the New Urbanism, an organization that advocates for walkable cities, said the funds proposed by the president would represent a down payment on a national highway removal program.

“It’s moving the needle,” he said. “It’s not, obviously, taking out every urban highway in America.”

Crowther said the money also could be used to help activists like Stelly push for change. He said campaigns to remove highways struggle to get off the ground, often for a lack of funds to help spread the message.

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Support in Washington for taking down highways or mitigating problems they caused has grown in recent years. Senate Democrats, including Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), included $10 billion for highway removal in an economic justice bill introduced late last year. During the Obama administration, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx launched a program that encouraged communities to rethink highways and design ways to cross them.

But Crowther said the new infrastructure plan is a departure.

“This is the first time that we’ve seen highway and transportation infrastructure considered through a social lens as well as a transportation lens,” he said.

The White House plan is part of an effort by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to advance racial equity alongside work on the environment and safety. Communities of color often suffer most from highway pollution.

While the construction of highways through neighborhoods often is framed in historical terms, some communities are battling new proposals.

The Federal Highway Administration recently asked Texas transportation officials to halt an effort to widen Interstate 45 in Houston so the agency could examine civil rights concerns. State officials say the project is needed to relieve congestion and speed commutes in a growing region.

The White House also pointed to Interstate 81 in Syracuse — a 1.5-mile stretch of elevated highway on the city’s predominantly Black south side — where community and city leaders advanced a plan to take part of the highway down. Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh, an independent, has discussed the $2 billion project with staffers at the U.S. Transportation Department.

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“We need to be just as intentional in how we rebuild as the federal government was when they first built the highway,” he said.

While activists’ goal, in many cases, is to remove a highway, they say they also want communities most harmed by their construction to enjoy the benefits as their neighborhoods become more desirable. That could mean help for renters to buy their homes or property tax advantages.

“We can’t remove highways in neighborhoods that would otherwise have been very desirable and leave it to the real estate market to govern,” Stelly said. “The people of Tremé should have the right to return when it’s beautiful.”