A Highway Split Their Community. Efforts to Fix That Face Opposition.

The Biden administration is spending billions to reconnect communities of color that have been fragmented by highways. Some projects have stirred debates over how to mend longstanding harms.

A view down a sidewalk and a barrier separating a local street on the left and a highway on the right. Both roads are lined with houses on one side.
The six-lane Kensington Expressway, built in the 1950s and ’60s, has long depressed property values and stifled economic development on Buffalo’s East Side.Credit…Joshua Rashaad McFadden for The New York Times

Madeleine Ngo

Around 6:30 every morning, David Richardson is usually awakened by the swelling sound of traffic. Steps from his front yard, thousands of cars rumble past each day as they travel along the Kensington Expressway, an expansive six-lane highway that slices through his neighborhood on Buffalo’s East Side.

The expressway, built in the 1950s and ’60s to move cars faster between downtown Buffalo and its suburbs, has long depressed property values and stifled economic development in this low-income and predominantly Black community. It has also posed a physical barrier, making it harder for residents to reach grocery stores and parks.

New York State is now trying to revitalize the neighborhood with support from a new Biden administration program meant to stitch together primarily disadvantaged communities that have long been splintered by transportation projects. The state plans to reconnect the neighborhood by essentially converting a portion of the highway into a tunnel with green space on top that would link both sides. State officials say the $1 billion project, backed by a $55.6 million federal grant, will enhance pedestrian access and stimulate economic growth.

The effort has spurred intense backlash among some residents, who believe it will do little to address air pollution or increase access to economic opportunities. They include Mr. Richardson, 69, a retired electrician who moved to the neighborhood nearly a decade ago. He said that he did not think covering a section of the highway would do much to improve the area’s air quality and that he would rather see the highway completely torn out.


“If they’re going to restore the community, they should do it right,” said David Richardson, who has lived in the neighborhood nearly a decade.Credit…Joshua Rashaad McFadden for The New York Times

The Biden administration has vowed to reverse longstanding racial disparities through the new program. But in some cities, projects meant to restore neighborhoods have ignited divisive debates over how to best rectify the harms left by highways. In Buffalo, the state’s project, which would essentially create a tunnel to encase a three-quarter-mile stretch of the highway, has prompted concerns that pollution could worsen near the ends of the tunnel.

“NO TOXIC TUNNEL” signs are scattered throughout front lawns on the East Side, and some residents have organized protests against the project. Yet others who live in the area view the project as an overdue improvement to the neighborhood and the best solution.

Sydney Brown, the board chair of the Restore Our Community Coalition, which has long pushed for building a so-called highway cap, said she was confident it would improve the neighborhood’s walkability, bring additional small businesses to the area and increase property values, which would help families build generational wealth.

During a visit to Buffalo last year, Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, said the project would help “reconnect this community to places that people count on every day” and “reduce pollution from the highway, so that fewer children in this area have the health effects of breathing that air.”

Still, some have questioned the effectiveness of the roughly $4 billion federal initiative, noting that many of the grants are funding projects that leave highways in place. In March, the Transportation Department announced $3.3 billion in grants for 132 construction and planning projects across the country. Many would include the addition of freeway caps, pedestrian bridges and underpasses.

“The majority of these projects are leaving in place the root cause of disinvestment, pollution and dangerous driving — the highway,” said Ben Crowther, the policy director for America Walks, a transportation advocacy group. “They’re certainly better than the infrastructure as it currently exists, but still it’s really an uphill battle.”

Nearly 26 percent of the funds for construction projects awarded this year will support the removal or reduction of dividing infrastructure, according to Transportation Department data. Department officials said they awarded every applicant that submitted those types of projects and that had the buy-in of the relevant state transportation department, which typically owns the infrastructure.

Although Mr. Crowther said federal officials could do more to encourage applications that involved highway removal, he added that a “lack of vision” from state officials was limiting.

Yonah Freemark, a researcher at the Urban Institute, said the initiative had been a “mixed bag.” He said a $180 million grant to help New York State demolish a 1.4-mile viaduct in Syracuse would substantially benefit the community. But he thought some projects were more problematic because they aimed to mitigate the impacts of highways that are undergoing expansions, including a federal grant to help Austin build a cap over Interstate 35, which the Texas Department of Transportation is spending billions to widen.


Signs opposing the project are scattered throughout front lawns on the East Side, and some residents have organized protests against it.Credit…Joshua Rashaad McFadden for The New York Times

Federal transportation officials said there was “no one-size-fits-all” solution, although they expected award recipients to be responsive to community input. “Project sponsors are required to meaningfully engage with local organizations and residents,” Sean Manning, a Transportation Department spokesman, said in a statement.

Candace Moppins, who grew up near the Kensington Expressway and is a founding member of the East Side Parkways Coalition, a group opposed to the state’s project, said the effort would do little to repair the harm caused to the area.

“I don’t think it reconnects the community at all,” Ms. Moppins said during a recent walk through the neighborhood. “This was once a thriving community. Now we have vacant lots and debris.”

State officials have said the project would help restore green space that was “wrongfully taken” away during the highway’s construction, which included the razing of Humboldt Parkway, a wide tree-lined boulevard, and more than 600 homes. But the East Side Parkways Coalition argues that the project would fall short of fully restoring the parkway, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.

Ms. Moppins said she also worried that air quality could worsen near the tunnel’s proposed entrances, where some homes and schools are. The area within a half mile of the expressway is in the 98th percentile for asthma rates and 82nd percentile for low life expectancy when compared with the nation, according to data compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency.

According to the state’s environmental assessment, concentrations of particulate matter could increase up to 6 percent near the tunnel’s exits compared with a scenario in which the tunnel was not built, although concentrations would remain below federal air quality standards and decrease along the length of the tunnel. State officials said the estimate was based on “conservative” modeling.

Although state officials said they were considering future enhancements along the expressway, Marie Therese Dominguez, the commissioner of New York’s Department of Transportation, said removing it was not feasible because it supported about 75,000 vehicle trips daily.

“What do you do with the traffic?” Ms. Dominguez said. “This is a very, very significant roadway.”

Some residents shared similar concerns. Alonzo Thompson, 74, a retired county election official whose home faces the highway, said he worried that removing it could clog up traffic on other roads. He said the plan to cover the highway would still give his neighbors and grandchildren a space to spend time outdoors.

“I’d rather compromise and turn it into a tunnel,” he said.

Roy Walsh

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