Biden gives Michigan over $100 million for a project to address highway's racist legacy

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The funding is part of a Biden administration effort to address racial injustices in urban planning.

The Department of Transportation on Thursday announced a $104.6 million grant for a project in Detroit, Michigan, to convert Interstate 375 into a boulevard connecting neighborhoods in the area. The highway, built in the 1960s, cut a vibrant Black community in half as a result of racist construction policies.

The funding is part of the Biden administration's efforts to address racial injustices ingrained in cities, towns, and other localities from their planning to the present. It will cover a little over a third of the $300 million projected cost of the conversion.

Funding for the project comes from the $1.9 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which passed Congress with broad Democratic support and votes from a few Republicans. President Biden signed the bill into law in November.

Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan accompanied Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg as he announced the grant during a press conference in Detroit.

In a press release from Whitmer's office, Buttigieg highlighted the highway as an example of infrastructure "becoming a barrier."

"This stretch of I-375 cuts like a gash through the neighborhood," he said. "With these funds, we're now partnering with the state and the community to transform it into a road that will connect rather than divide."

I-375 is just a little over a mile long and was constructed in 1962. The highway was routed through majority-Black communities as part of a strategy of targeting areas of cities that were considered slums.

In a December 2017 op-ed in the Detroit Free Press, Wayne State University associate professor of urban studies and planning Carolyn G. Loh said the highway construction was a deliberate effort to separate areas where Black residents lived from those where wealthy people lived.

"Using urban freeway building as a reason for demolishing black neighborhoods was seen as accomplishing two goals at once — in other words, it was deliberate, not incidental," Loh wrote. "Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, two vibrant African-American neighborhoods, were simply scraped off the face of the earth to accommodate the new urban freeways."

Urban planning throughout the United States has a history of racism, with mostly white decision-makers implementing construction policy specifically intended to destroy and displace Black and Latino neighborhoods. In the 1940s, urban planning proposals for Tampa, Florida, said, "There are several other, smaller areas, occupied now by colored people that should be eliminated and moved to other areas" and referred to the center of Tampa's Black community as a "a cancerous infection ripe for a major operation to transform it into something economically sound and worthwhile from a civic standpoint."

The Detroit project, which the Federal Highway Administration approved in March, will convert the highway into a boulevard to better connect local businesses and residences.

"While we cannot change the past, we must work harder to build a more just future, and that starts with listening to and engaging with the community, and taking deliberate steps to get this done right,” Whitmer said in the press release.

Michigan Department of Transportation spokesperson Jeff Cranson told the Detroit News that the department will work with the state Legislature and other local partners to secure the remainder of the funds necessary for the project. Cranson said that with the money allocated under the infrastructure law, the department expects that construction could begin by 2025.

The Biden administration's efforts to address past injustices with the infrastructure law have come under attack from Republican elected officials.

"They're saying that highways are racially discriminatory, I don't know how a road can be that," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at an event in February.

DeSantis ignores the reality of the situation: In his own state, the thriving Black business district in Tampa called "the Scrub" survived from the 1910s until the 1960s, when the construction of I-275 destroyed it.

Biden has affirmed a commitment to equity since his first day in office, when he signed an executive order that read in part:

It is ... the policy of my Administration that the Federal Government should pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality. Affirmatively advancing equity, civil rights, racial justice, and equal opportunity is the responsibility of the whole of our Government.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.