Democratic members of Maryland’s congressional delegation expressed hope Monday that — for the first time in decades — there may be an opportunity for funding to redress damage done by West Baltimore’s so-called Highway to Nowhere.
U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume and Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin stood in a parking lot overlooking a weed-filled field, the site of a project the lawmakers called a “monstrosity” that uprooted surrounding communities. The original plan was to connect Interstate 70 coming from the west with Interstate 95, but the project was halted in the early 1970s amid opposition from threatened neighborhoods along the proposed route and environmentalists.
Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott appeared at the news conference and called the failed project a “poster child” for racial and economic inequities.
“For those who cannot recognize these disparities, I can point you to 18 blocks of highway running right through West Baltimore,” the mayor said.
The senators — along with Mfume and fellow representatives John Sarbanes and Anthony Brown — are pushing legislation called the Reconnecting Communities Act. It would establish a multibillion- dollar grant program to help communities identify and remove highway projects that did more harm than good.
The legislation has been introduced on its own and also as part of Democratic President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion package being negotiated with congressional Republicans to rebuild highways, bridges and other infrastructure.
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The separate “reconnecting” bill has not received GOP backing.
“I’m not terribly optimistic that, in regard to this particular program, we’re going to get a lot of Republican support,” Cardin said.
But Cardin and Van Hollen said Biden’s infrastructure legislation may prove a good vehicle for their plan.
“The reason we have such a great opportunity right now is because President Biden has put the American Jobs Plan on the table,” Van Hollen said. “I’m confident that we can include this as part of the plan. It was federal dollars that helped create this monstrosity.”
It’s not known what might become of the site if money were appropriated. It could become a park or development of some sort.
The Senate is divided 50-50 between the parties, but Democrats hold an advantage because Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris can cast a tiebreaking vote. While Democrats normally need 60 votes to head off a GOP filibuster on contested legislation, the infrastructure bill — or at least pieces of it — could require a simple majority because of a process called reconciliation that is used in federal budgeting.
“It’s going to take some negotiating and a little bit of horse trading, but we’re all committed to getting it done,” Mfume said of the Reconnecting Communities Act.