Reworking the “greatest public works project in history”

By Megan Link

The interstate highway system is arguably the largest and most impactful project in American history—not just in terms of its cost and the way it connected businesses and cities across the country, but also because of the devastating impact it had on people of color and low-income communities in central cities. All levels of government played a role in pushing interstates through cities. Now it is everyone’s responsibility to confront the long-term consequences. The federal Reconnecting Communities program marks an important turning point in addressing these impacts, but also represents the beginning of a decades-long process to address and correct past damages.  

Beginning in 1956, federal funds fueled what is often called the “greatest public works project in history,” the interstate system, but only recently federal funds are aiming to repair the damages. The interstate system we see today represents decades of decisions to prioritize vehicle movement through cities, along with the continuous pushback against the resulting destruction and calls for just compensation for displaced community members.  

During its conception, both state and federal agencies agreed an interstate system was the best way to tackle growing congestion while connecting cities across the country. There was less agreement on what this system would look like within city boundaries, although there was plenty of pressure at the federal and local levels to drive them through the centers. Leaders at the Bureau of Public Roads (a precursor to FHWA) were strong proponents of freeways being built through city centers, and even advocated for them to “pass through ‘blighted’ sections where property values are low, and most of the buildings are of the type that should be torn down in any case, to rid the city of its slums.” Their Yellow Book, published in 1955, showed freeways cutting through the center of cities across the country.  


Source: City Guidelines from the Yellow Book

State DOTs were not as explicit, but also reinforced the idea that freeways should cut through cities.  AASHO (now AASHTO) published A Policy on Arterial Highways in Urban Areas one year after the 1956 Federal Highway Act. The guidebook stated:  

“Many cities have blighted areas slated for redevelopment. Where they are near general desire lines of travel, arterial routes might be located through them in coordination with slum clearance and redevelopment programs. In other instances, the location of a highway through a blighted district may instigate plans for its redevelopment. In some cities blighted areas adjacent to the central business district are good locations for inner belts.”   

Source: AASHO, 1957, A Policy on Arterial Highways in Urban Areas.

As plans solidified, many community members and leaders voiced their concerns over decisions to build highways through low-income neighborhoods and the impact this would have on displaced families and businesses. Public concern was pushed aside in efforts to build interstates quickly and at low cost. To move the system forward amidst calls to end the program, President Kennedy appointed FHWA administrator, Rex Whitton. Whitton spoke to the three main challenges he felt the interstate system was facing:  

  • Scandals” undermining public support. Negative press coverage accused highway officials of fraud, poor judgement, dishonesty, and abusing rights-of-way. The federal government launched an investigation into these scandals that concluded, “The areas in which we have found…faults are only a small fraction of the total of this great program.”   
  • Public apathy. Highway officials felt that public apathy and a lack of support for the interstate was caused by a lack of understanding of the importance of the system. This led to public education campaigns like  National Highway Week to remind the public of the “vital role of highway transportation in our way of life.”  

As construction geared up, protests against the resulting displacement intensified. Initially, officials decided that a $200 displacement fee for families would be sufficient, even though there would be no enforcement. Ten years after interstate construction began, only 32 states were paying any moving costs for displaced families and businesses. In the absence of state assistance, Whitton threatened to make displacement fees mandatory. By 1970, states were required to pay displacement fees, 14 years after initial federal funding for the interstate system.  

Movements to stop highway construction in cities were often unsuccessful during this period, although there are a few success stories. Ever since, many cities have experienced the negative impacts, leading to efforts to stop expansions or remove highway segments altogether. Cities like Rochester, New York are taking steps to create a meaningful space where the highway once stood. Through several community groups, local needs are being incorporated into the final design of the area, with special consideration to concerns of gentrification.  

Although removing or reconnecting freeways can be costly and take many years, in the few cities where freeways have been removed—intentionally or by act of nature—there have been positive impacts on the local economy and quality of life. The figure below summarizes several freeway removal projects with vastly different timelines and costs depending on location, geography, and urgency. 

Freeway removal projects across the United States. Source: An analysis for SSTI (State Smart Transportation Initiative) done by Policy Lab

Despite their expenses, removing freeway segments and reconnecting communities across them only represent a small fraction of the system’s total cost. The initial 1956 federal contribution to construct the interstate system was $24.8 billion across 13 years. Although reports differ on the total final cost of the freeways, estimates range from $130 billion in 1991 to $425 billion in 2006.  

A significant portion of federal funding goes to road and street improvements today with much less investment in repairing the negative impacts of interstates on communities. The latest infrastructure bill dedicates over half of the federal funds toward surface transportation; two thirds of this goes towards conventional highway programs. Reconnecting Communities accounts for less than 0.01% of the total funding.  

States are also stepping up to fund reconnecting communities. A new program in California aims to match funds for federal proposals and focus on key under-utilized highways in the state.  

The first round of Reconnecting Communities grants, 45 recipients with six construction projects, has been announced across the United States and Puerto Rico. Although the grants (shown below) typically account for less than half of the construction projects, this is the first of many steps toward addressing the reality of the interstate system on communities and largely people of color. 

The grant amount received compared to the total estimated project amount for the six construction projects awarded by Reconnecting Communities.

  Photo Credit: Aleksejs Bergmanis via Pexels, unmodified. License