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How Biden’s Infrastructure Bill Starts to Fix the Racist Legacy of “Bulldozing and Bisecting”

We used to call the cautious approach to fixing long-term problems “governing.”
November 16, 2021
How Biden’s Infrastructure Bill Starts to Fix the Racist Legacy of “Bulldozing and Bisecting”
Freeway bridge under construction showing falsework. (Photo by Gary Moon/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images)

In 1975, Robert Caro’s biography of Robert Moses described, in punishing detail, how New York City’s unelected “master builder” transformed the Big Apple:

To build his highways, Moses threw out of their homes 250,000 persons—more people than lived in Albany or Chattanooga, or in Spokane, Tacoma, Duluth, Akron, Baton Rouge, Mobile, Nashville or Sacramento. . . . He tore out the hearts of a score of neighborhoods. . . . The dispossessed, barred from many areas of the city by their color and their poverty, had no place to go . . . [and Moses] created new slums as fast as they were clearing the old.

This cautionary tale is relevant today because of the Biden administration’s new infrastructure law in which $1 billion—(out of $1.2 trillion)—is set aside for fixing the legacy of such planning decisions. In announcing the law, the White House explained, “Too often, past transportation investments divided communities. . . . In particular, significant portions of the interstate highway system were built through Black neighborhoods.”

What this language really means—and what particular highways will be fixed, and how that should be done—is vague. But it is already being transformed into a political fight.

Last week, in explaining what this program aims to do, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said “If a highway was built for the purpose of dividing a white and a Black neighborhood, or if an underpass was constructed such that a bus carrying mostly Black and Puerto Rican kids to a beach . . . was designed too low for it to pass by, that obviously reflects racism that went into those design choices.”

Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz responded with the good-faith, solutions-oriented stance that has become his hallmark as a United States senator/shitposter:

The reality as always, is somewhere in between. One billion dollars is not going to fix a legacy freeway problem. But that doesn’t mean that the origin of this problem wasn’t based in racist policy choices.

It’s been about seven decades since the interstate highway system build-out started. We’re now at 47,000 miles (and counting). One of the issues that was present in just about every dense metro area was the need to move commuting workers into and out of urban cores. In order to come up with solutions, a complex web of actors—including federal, state, and local elected officials, influential business leaders, property owners, real estate developers, engineers, architects, and bureaucratic functionaries—tried to hammer out what parts of the city these highways would punch through.

Whether intentional or unintentional, racism and classism absolutely became part of the process. And you may be shocked to learn that the people who had less money, or were minorities, got stepped on.

The question is how do we fix this legacy?

Is moving some highways—or closing some down and filling in the old trench—enough to transform a neighborhood?

“The point is, you could pick from dozens of examples,” said Joseph Kane, a senior research associate at the Brookings Institution in an interview last year. “You could do a deep dive on Detroit or New Haven or Syracuse. But to me, the bigger story is the number of them. This was a national trend that all types of places are still dealing with.”

For more than a decade, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), an advocate for urban city design that favors more transportation options than car-centric designs, has put out a list of 15 highways that need to be completely removed or transformed from highways to boulevards. The reasoning in most cases being that these interstate highways were in urban neighborhoods and created an unneeded bisection when they were built.

The CNU 2021 list shows that this perceived urban highway problem is present in big and medium-sized cities across the country: From I-81 in Syracuse to the Claiborne Expressway (I-10) in New Orleans; from I-35 in Austin to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in New York.

And trying to fix mistakes that have generations of development around them creates its own problems. For starters, there’s the cost. The original infrastructure bill’s reconnecting communities funding was $20 billion, but was knocked down to $1 billion during all of the congressional negotiations.

Then there’s the timeline. The process of highway redesign, where the feds and states and locals all have some say, often take a very long time. Consider Seattle’s quest to put a “lid” on the I-5 through downtown Seattle: The leadership in the state of Washington and Seattle have been working for decades on building a cap over slightly less than a mile of various parts of the freeway as it cuts through downtown—creating a tunnel out of what is currently an open trench.

The cost? In a study finished late last year, various options on putting in a lid on the I-5 comes in between $966 million and $2.5 billion. That’s one project.

So the infrastructure bill’s $1 billion isn’t going to go very far.

The other problem is what some have called “tactical urbanism,” a movement that has defanged the urban planning profession. It’s a hyped-up NIMBY-ism that seeks to protect bike lanes, changing pavement to plaza parks on the weekends, food-truck accommodations, and what have you. All of which is fine, except that it hinders long-range planning.

“This is what passes for planning today,” Cornell University’s Thomas Campanella wrote a few years ago. “We have become a caretaker profession—reactive rather than proactive, corrective instead of preemptive, rule bound and hamstrung and anything but visionary. If we lived in Nirvana, this would be fine. But we don’t. We are entering the uncharted waters of global urbanization on a scale never seen. And we are not in the wheelhouse, let alone steering the ship. We may not even be on board.”

Let’s hope that Ted Cruz doesn’t succeed in turning the issue into another front in the culture war. Because Biden’s infrastructure plan seems to be doing what most people want:

Identifying a real problem and making a cautious initial overture to eventually undo it. It’s not a grand, revolutionary plan. It’s a start.

The practice of bulldozing and bisecting neighborhoods was bad policy seventy years ago. We should rectify it, if we can do so smartly and cost-effectively. The infrastructure bill won’t fix too many ditches this time around.

But it is a beginning, if clearer heads take charge. It’s the kind of cautious, prudent action that we used to call “governing.”


Daniel McGraw

Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1.