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Could Biden infrastructure bill turn Baltimore’s Highway to Nowhere into a city park? | COMMENTARY

Viewed from the 13th floor of the Metro West office building, the Highway to Nowhere runs 1.2 miles through West Baltimore.
Viewed from the 13th floor of the Metro West office building, the Highway to Nowhere runs 1.2 miles through West Baltimore. (Dan Rodricks / Baltimore Sun)

Gov. Larry Hogan and the so-called moderates he treated to crab cakes in Annapolis last week think of infrastructure in the most conventional terms — fixing roads and bridges. Hogan is a 20th Century road warrior when it comes to prioritizing public dollars; he killed a major transit system for Baltimore, put the money into suburban and rural roads instead, advocated wider highways and a third bridge over the Chesapeake Bay.

When you’re a Republican, you tend to think inside the box, and it’s a small, colorless box. You’re stuck with cutting taxes and keeping the government small and weak — even when the nation needs (and the public wants) bold action.

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So, of course, most Republicans oppose President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion American Jobs Plan. They say it’s too expensive (for the corporations Biden wants to tax to pay for it) and goes too far (because Biden wants $400 billion for the “caretaker economy” — home and community-based care for the elderly and disabled.)

Given that, it’s hard to imagine them supporting what a group of progressive Democrats, led by Maryland’s senators, have proposed — that, in addition to everything else on Biden’s agenda, some $20 billion be set aside to correct infrastructure that in the past destabilized, divided or destroyed communities. It’s considered a way of redressing historical inequities.

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Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin cite, as Exhibit No. 1, the Highway To Nowhere, the concrete canyon along the Franklin-Mulberry corridor in West Baltimore. About 3,000 people, the vast majority of them Black, were displaced as the highway construction started in the 1960s. Community opposition eventually stopped the road from cutting through Leakin Park and connecting downtown with Interstate 70 in Woodlawn. But the damage had been done: Hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses demolished.

So Cardin and Van Hollen are pushing a bill called the Reconnecting Communities Act. It represents what most Republicans would probably dismiss as tax-and-spend liberalism, but it carries much deeper meaning for Baltimore, and particularly the west side.

The idea is to remove or reconfigure urban highways that did more bad than good, and that’s easily provable with the HTN.

“For years, Baltimore’s Highway to Nowhere has scarred the city, dividing communities and serving as a stark example of the long history of inequity in infrastructure,” says Van Hollen. “Reversing this history by creating infrastructure that brings people together instead of holding communities back is vital to our success as a nation.”

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Says Cardin: “We need to reconnect neighborhoods in Baltimore and elsewhere that have suffered the harmful impacts of past infrastructure projects while receiving none of the benefits.”

The HTN sits in Rep. Kweisi Mfume’s 7th District. He’s planning to introduce legislation this week similar to the one in the Senate. “I remember,” he says, “the vibrant and connected community before the highway to nowhere. The vacated space has troubled me since I was in the Baltimore City Council. I am looking for ways to unite the communities split by the highway, including legislation in the House as well as the president’s American Jobs Plan. ... It’s never too late to undo the wrongs of the past.”

I’ve suggested that the HTN be closed to traffic and turned into a 1.2-mile city park, the Westside Greenway, with plenty of trees, space for recreation, including biking and wall climbing, and a connection to the still-developing Baltimore Green Network.

Arsh Mirmiran of Caves Valley Partners broached that possibility as he gave me a tour of the massive, vacant buildings his development company purchased at the HTN’s eastern terminus on Greene Street — the old Metro West federal office complex.

Caves pitched the idea of a Westside Greenway to Van Hollen a couple of years ago.

He, Cardin and Mfume see the HTN as a prime example of infrastructure gone wrong. Transforming the sunken highway into a park or knocking it down and building something more useful would serve as an example to the nation.

Interstate highways, constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, have divided or destroyed large swathes of U.S. cities, often low-income neighborhoods and communities of people of color, forcing them to relocate. They’ve also increased noise and pollution.

Senate Majority leader Charles Schumer of New York cited an example in his state — Interstate 81 in Syracuse, where there’s an effort underway to remove, redesign and rebuild aging sections of that elevated highway. In Wilmington, there’s a push to put a roof on a stretch of the city-splitting Interstate 95 and build an urban park on top. The elevated section of the Jones Falls Expressway, from midtown Baltimore south, is also a community divider and an obstacle to new development.

The HTN could become the Westside Greenway relatively easily, without major interruptions to traffic on Mulberry and Franklin streets.

“The end result,” says Mfume, “has to be clean, safe and usable open space for people to enjoy in a united way. We need more unity and less division in our communities.”

Once the highway is transformed, then the potential for new development in the corridor grows. West Baltimore gets greener; the public gets a new gathering place.

It won’t provide financial redress to the thousands who were pushed out of their homes and businesses so long ago. But if any of those displaced are still around, if their descendants remain in or near Baltimore, they would see their government finally acknowledge, and at long last right, an old wrong.

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