The federal government has approved Baltimore’s request for $2 million to begin addressing damage done by the “Highway to Nowhere,” an infamous project that uprooted communities and is regarded by Mayor Brandon Scott as a “poster child” for racial and economic inequities.
More than 50 years after the first 1.4-mile stretch of highway was built, the U.S. Department of Transportation grant will allow the city to begin studying options for redeveloping the West Baltimore site.
The project was halted in the early 1970s amid opposition from threatened neighborhoods along the proposed route.
“It’s never too late to undo the wrongs of the past if we have a clear and renewed vision for the future,” said U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat, in a Tuesday news release, obtained in advance by The Baltimore Sun, announcing approval of the city’s October grant application.
The city said in its application that it will use the grant for planning “to realize the communities’ vision for a unified West Baltimore.” It said the unfinished highway “removed 14 contiguous blocks of a predominantly middle-class African-American community causing the demolition of 971 homes, 62 businesses, and displacing over 1,500 people.”
The original plan was to connect Interstate 70, which now ends west of the city, with Interstate 95.
“It was meant to be a highway to get people through Baltimore without having to be in Baltimore, basically, so the suburbs could get in and out of Baltimore through a transportation network,” U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin said in an interview.
“This was our federal delegation’s highest priority from the point of view of social justice programs,” the Maryland Democrat said.
“We used every opportunity we could to talk to the secretary,” said Cardin, referring to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
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In May 2021, Cardin and fellow Maryland Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen stood at the site — in a parking lot overlooking a weed-filled field — and told reporters they were pushing legislation called the Reconnecting Communities Act to establish a grant program to help communities identify and remove highway projects that did more harm than good.
Their legislation was introduced on its own, but became part of Democratic President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion bill, approved by Congress in November 2021, to rebuild highways, bridges and other infrastructure. It also included money for Maryland to repair and replace bridges, improve transit and water infrastructure, and replace a 4-mile section of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, including the milelong, 19th-century Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel near Penn Station.
The “Highway to Nowhere” site could ultimately become a park or development of some sort.
The planning grant is a “critical first step toward addressing this historical injustice,” Van Hollen said Tuesday.
[ Baltimore seeks a federal grant to kick-start demolition of ‘Highway to Nowhere’ expressway ]
Additional funding could come from private investors, the federal government, the city or the state. The funding sources will depend on what shape the development takes, Cardin said.
Democratic Gov. Wes Moore was quoted in the release expressing his commitment to the redevelopment.
Scott said the city “can finally begin to heal from the devastating impact of the callous and discriminatory highway project that separated communities, displaced families, and shuttered small businesses over 50 years ago.”