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Highways have cut through city after city. Can the United States make amends?

Anthony Roberts set out to walk one afternoon to a convenience store on the opposite side of a busy highway in Kansas City, Missouri. It was not an easy journey.

First, he had to swerve out of his way to reach an intersection. Then she had to wait for the light to change. When the walk signal finally came on, he had little time to cross several lanes of traffic and reach the wide median of the highway. Ultimately, he had to cross the other set of lanes to complete his trip.

“For a person who doesn’t have a car, it’s very difficult, especially during the winter,” Mr. Roberts said. “Nobody wants to risk their life trying to cross the road.”

Mr. Roberts’ trip is one small example of the lasting consequences of building highways through urban neighborhoods in cities across the country. Completed in 2001 after decades of construction, the highway in Kansas City, US 71, displaced thousands of residents and cut off predominantly black neighborhoods from groceries, health care and jobs.

Kansas City officials are now looking to repair some of the damage caused by the highway and reconnect the neighborhoods that surround 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 public transportation. .

The funding is one example of the administration’s efforts to address racial disparities resulting from how the United States built physical infrastructure in recent decades. The Department of Transportation has awarded funds to dozens of projects with the goal of reconnecting communities, including $185 million in grants as part of a pilot program created by the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill.

But the Kansas City project also shows how difficult and expensive it can be to reverse decisions made long ago to build highways that cut through communities of color and divided neighborhoods. Many of the projects funded by the Biden administration would leave roads intact but seek to lessen the damage they have caused to surrounding areas. And even removing a road is just a first step in revitalizing a neighborhood.

“Once you destroy a community, rebuilding it is a lot more work than just removing an interstate highway,” said Beth Osborne, who served as acting assistant secretary at the Department of Transportation during the Obama administration and is now director of Transportation for America. , an advocacy 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 gained traction in cities across the country, including detroit, New 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 bring improvements to communities harmed by the construction of transportation infrastructure. His original proposal boiled down to a much smaller programwith $1 billion in funding, in the bipartisan infrastructure package that Congress later approved.

The Department of Transportation announced the first batch of grants under the program in February, awarding $185 million to 45 projects. The grants included about $56 million to help build a deck over a highway in Buffalo and $30 million to go toward redesign of an urban highway in Long Beach, Calif.

On a visit to Buffalo after the grants were announced, Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, said planners of some highways had “built straight through the heart of vibrant communities, sometimes to reinforce segregation, sometimes because it was the path of least resistance. , almost always because black neighborhoods and low-income neighborhoods did not have the power to resist or redevelop those projects.

“Now most of the people who made those decisions are gone,” 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 repair it, and that is why we are 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 a different highway, Interstate 35.

The Department of Transportation is also using other grant funds to support projects aimed at bringing communities together. He $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 UP.

The grant is intended to help the city design plans for improvements along a stretch of highway. City officials aren’t looking to remove the roadway entirely, but they want to make it safer for pedestrians to move from one side to the other. The construction of overpasses could spare residents the dangerous journey on foot on the highway and facilitate access to a nearby bus route.

The idea for what is now US 71 dates back to the 1950s, when it was envisioned as a way to connect downtown Kansas City to areas to the south. A legal battle in the 1970s and 1980s delayed construction for more than a decade, and a portion of the route was eventually turned into a parkway of sorts. Thousands of people, including many black families, were displaced to make way for the 10-mile highway, also known as Bruce R. Watkins Drive.

Its construction left a lasting mark on Kansas City. The city’s Country Club District, a group of historic neighborhoods west of the highway where homes typically cost more than $1 million, was not affected by the highway. The area east of the highway is markedly different, with lower property values ​​and more abandoned and foreclosed homes.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said it was impossible to live in his city and not know the scar the road left on the black community. Churches, schools and businesses disappeared after it was built, he said.

Mr. Lucas said that fighting to repair the damage caused by the highway, and righting the wrongs that had affected the city’s black residents, was a priority for him.

“It’s about how to make sure that we’re connecting businesses on both sides, how do we make it easier for people who can get across without a car, and how to engage a neighborhood and not recognize it as just a highway,” he said.

Ron Hunt, who for decades has lived in the Blue Hills neighborhood west of US 71, said he had seen the highway cripple the area financially, increase crime and limit access to grocery stores. Mr. Hunt said that while 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. Ms. Ray grew up in Town Fork Creek, just east of US 71, 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. “It didn’t turn out how any of us thought it would.”

Now, she and other members of the Town Fork Creek Neighborhood Association volunteer to provide food and other necessities for older residents cut off from grocery stores by the road. They also buy garbage bags and organize clean-ups to keep the streets from being littered with bottles, car parts and papers. The neighborhood association has spent money buying security bars on the doors to help prevent theft in the area.

“All we do is try,” Ray said. “I try every day, block by block. I can’t help everyone, but I try.”

kitty bennett contributed research.

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