One afternoon Anthony Roberts walked to a convenience store on the opposite side of a busy highway in Kansas City, Missouri. It hasn’t been an easy journey.
First, he had to take a detour to get to an intersection. Then she had to wait for the light to change. When the pedestrian signal finally came on, she had little time to cross several lanes of traffic and reach the wide highway reservation. Eventually, she had to cross the other set of lanes to complete her journey.
« For a person who doesn’t have a car, it’s very difficult, especially in the winter, » said Mr. Roberts. « Nobody wants to take a risk with their life trying to cross the highway. »
Mr. Roberts’ trip is a small example of the lasting consequences of highway construction cutting through urban neighborhoods in cities across the country. Completed in 2001 after decades of construction, the highway in Kansas City, US 71, has displaced thousands of residents and cut off predominantly black neighborhoods from grocery stores, health care and jobs.
Kansas City officials are now trying to repair some of the damage done to the highway and reconnect the neighborhoods surrounding it. To date, the city has received $5 million in funding from the Biden administration to help develop plans for potential changes, such as building overpasses that could improve pedestrian safety and better connect people to mass transit.
The funding is one example of the administration’s efforts to address racial disparities resulting from the way the United States has built its physical infrastructure in past decades. The Department of Transportation has awarded funding to dozens of projects with the goal of reconnecting communities, including $185 million in grants as part of a pilot program created under the $1 trillion bipartisan Infrastructure Act.
But the Kansas City project also shows how difficult and costly it can be to reverse long-ago decisions to build highways that cut through communities of color and divided neighborhoods. Many of the projects funded by the Biden administration would leave freeways intact but seek to lessen the damage they have caused to surrounding areas. And even clearing a roadway is only a first step in reinvigorating a neighborhood.
« Once you’ve destroyed a community, putting it back together is a lot more work than just removing a highway, » said Beth Osborne, who served as an interim assistant secretary at the Department of Transportation during the Obama administration and is now director of Transportation for America, a defense group.
The United States has a long history of highway projects dividing urban communities dating back to the construction of the federal interstate highway system in the mid-20th century. In recent years, the idea of removing some of those roads has caught on in cities across the country, including DetroitNew Orleans and Syracuse, New York
In his first year in office, as part of his infrastructure plan, President Biden proposed a $15 billion federal program to help improve communities harmed by the construction of transportation infrastructure. The original proposal of him was reduced to a much smaller programwith funding of $1 billion, in the bipartisan infrastructure package subsequently approved by Congress.
The Department of Transportation announced the first round of grants under the program in February, awarding $185 million to 45 projects. The grants included approximately $56 million to help build a bridge over a freeway in Buffalo and $30 million to go towards redesign an urban highway in Long Beach, Calif.
In a visit to Buffalo following the announcement of the grants, Pete Buttigieg, the secretary of transportation, said that the planners of some highways had « built them straight through the heart of vibrant communities, sometimes to enforce segregation, sometimes because it was the path of least resistance, almost always because black neighborhoods and low-income neighborhoods lacked the power to resist or remodel those projects.
« Now, most of the people who made those decisions today aren’t around, » Buttigieg continued. “No one here today is responsible for creating that situation in the first place. But we are all responsible for what we do in our time to fix it, and that’s why we’re here today. »
Kansas City officials received just over $1 million from that program to study how to reconnect another part of the city, the Westside neighborhood, which is separated from other areas by another highway, Interstate 35.
The Department of Transportation is also using other grants to support projects intended to mend communities. THE $5 million prize that Kansas City received to address the impact of US 71 came from a program called Rebuilding America’s infrastructure with sustainability and equityor RAISE.
The grant is intended to help the city develop improvement plans along a stretch of the highway. City officials aren’t looking to remove the roadway altogether, but they do want to make it safer for pedestrians to move from one end to the other. Overpass construction could spare residents the perilous walk across the highway and make it easier to reach a nearby bus route.
The idea of what is now US 71 can be traced back to the 1950s when it was conceived as a way to connect downtown Kansas City with areas to the south. A legal battle in the 1970s and 1980s delayed construction for more than a decade, and part of the route was eventually remodeled into more of a parkway. Thousands of people, including many black families, were displaced to make way for the 10-mile roadway, also known as Bruce R. Watkins Drive.
Its construction has left a lasting impression on Kansas City. The city’s Country Club District, a group of historic neighborhoods west of the turnpike where homes typically cost more than $1 million, was untouched by the roadway. The area east of the freeway is markedly different, with lower home values and more abandoned and foreclosed homes.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said it was impossible to live in his city and not know about the scar the highway has left on the black community. Churches, schools and businesses disappeared after it was built, he said.
Mr. Lucas said fighting to repair the damage caused by the roadway — and righting the wrongs that had affected the city’s Black residents — was a top priority for him.
« It’s like making sure we’re connecting businesses on both sides, how to make it easier for people to get through without a car, and how to engage a neighborhood and not just make it known as a highway, » she said.
Ron Hunt, who for decades lived in the Blue Hills neighborhood west of US 71, said he has seen the highway cripple the area economically, increase crime and limit access to grocery stores. Mr. Hunt said that as other parts of the city continued to grow and flourish, it pained him to see his community wither after the highway was built.
Residents like Lisa Ray are trying to preserve what’s left of the neighborhoods they loved. Mrs. Ray grew up in Town Fork Creek just east of US 71, which was once a pleasant middle-class area filled with black-owned businesses. But the highway destroyed it, she said.
« It sounded good 40 years ago when they started this project, » he said. « She didn’t go the way any of us thought. »
Now, she and other members of the Town Fork Creek Neighborhood Association are volunteering to provide food and other necessities to elderly residents the highway has cut off from grocery stores. They also buy garbage bags and organize cleaning to prevent bottles, car parts and paper littering the streets. The neighborhood association spent money buying security bars on the doors to help prevent burglaries in the area.
« All we do is try, » Ms. Ray said. “I try every day, block by block. I can’t help everyone, but I try. »
Kitty Bennett contributed to the research.