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Transportation

How the Federal Government Could Help Kill the Highways It Built

A new Senate bill includes a $10 billion program aimed at cities that are considering removing urban freeways and repairing the damage these projects inflicted on vulnerable communities decades ago. 

San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway in April 1990, shortly before it was demolished. 

San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway in April 1990, shortly before it was demolished. 

Photographer: Brant Ward/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Corrected

In 1956, the U.S. Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, the $25 billion program that launched the Interstate Highway System. The law, which encouraged highway construction across the country by offering 90% of the funding needed to build them, left behind a “horrific legacy” in scores of U.S. cities, says University of Virginia historian Peter Norton, author of “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.” As cities embraced the benefits of high-speed thoroughfares for suburban commuters, they razed swaths of downtowns and waterfronts — often targeting low-income areas and neighborhoods of color — to make room for the roadways. 

Now, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has unveiled legislation that would reverse this decades-old infrastructure formula, offering billions in federal dollars for cities willing to demolish those urban highways.