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Highway to Somewhere? No easy fixes for abandoned Baltimore roadway | COMMENTARY

U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, speaking, held a news conference against the backdrop of the "Highway to Nowhere" that harmed West Baltimore, with members of Maryland's congressional delegation, Mayor Brandon Scott, and city officials. May 17, 2021. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun).
U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, speaking, held a news conference against the backdrop of the "Highway to Nowhere" that harmed West Baltimore, with members of Maryland's congressional delegation, Mayor Brandon Scott, and city officials. May 17, 2021. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun). (Amy Davis)

Mayor Brandon Scott and members of the region’s congressional delegation assembled recently to condemn West Baltimore’s so-called “Highway to Nowhere” and speculate on how the federal government might heal this particular open wound. For those unfamiliar with the decades-old thoroughfare, it’s a 1.39-mile-long stretch of road that was originally intended as an extension of Interstate 70 to downtown Baltimore. Yet the connection at either end was never built, and, so, it’s something like a concrete ditch with a series of overpasses and a stranded, divided highway inside carrying local U.S. 40 traffic. Its creation ruined predominantly Black neighborhoods in West Baltimore, displacing families and creating a major barrier to renewal in the area.

On Monday, the mayor and Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, along with Rep. Kweisi Mfume and other Democrats pitched their vision of at least two paths toward addressing this long-standing abomination. The first would steer a portion of President Joe Biden’s proposed infrastructure spending, the $2 trillion American Jobs Plan, toward ameliorating the highway’s worst effects. And the second would turn to the federal Reconnecting Communities Act, which would similarly finance efforts targeted to address transportation projects that did more harm than good — of which the Highway to Nowhere is clearly one. As it happens, both of Maryland’s senators, as well as Rep. Anthony Brown of Prince George’s County and Representative Mfume, are prominent co-sponsors of the measure, which would promote more inclusive, equitable infrastructure nationwide.

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Neither bill has yet been approved by Congress, however, and Republican opposition is apparent. Yet the more fundamental question is, assuming Baltimore eventually qualifies for financial assistance under either measure: Exactly what should be done?

In a perfect world, one might tear out all that concrete and restore the area to a more functioning grid, rebuilding homes and businesses lost. Such a monumental undertaking seems beyond unlikely, however. The scale of any effort will undoubtedly be smaller and more cost-effective.

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One plan on the table would turn the road into a park or greenway, with ball fields and at least one large retail center that would include a grocery store to serve a notorious food desert. The excavated road would essentially continue to be a valley, but a far more attractive one with inviting amenities. The proposal, developed several years ago by the Urban Land Institute Baltimore, has merit. But what it lacks is a clear strategy to upgrade transportation options for local residents.

A possible revival of the Red Line plan, the $2.9 billion east-west light rail line that Gov. Larry Hogan axed six years ago, or something similar — even a bus rapid transit, or BRT, line with an exclusive corridor and signal priority — would be an essential fix. It would both create jobs in construction and ultimately allow local residents better access to the region’s employment centers.

It would also provide a real economic lifeline. The original highway plan catered more to affluent white suburbanites, promising to zip them along between home and work downtown. This plan would be about boosting opportunities for people who live along this route today, most of whom are African American and take home lower pay. Making things right for them requires more than fixing aesthetics, it means providing opportunities.

Baltimore residents surely have reason to be skeptical that much will become of this effort. After all, the Highway to Nowhere has existed since 1979, with the project it was proposed for canceled just two years later in the face of public opposition. That’s 40 years of stagnation.

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What’s different now? The truth is, maybe nothing. But there is a possibility of something, as Democrats push forward with massive infrastructure spending post-pandemic. And in that possibility is promise for what could be. We must take it seriously and give it our best shot.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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