The Highway to Nowhere has been an inescapable piece of infrastructure for over 50 years that historically caused more damage than any good. But a $2 million federal grant in 2023 brought renewed hope for re-envisioning what the 1-1/2-mile stretch of U.S. 40 in West Baltimore could be.

And since then, people have slowly been following the breadcrumbs, the planning phase of the project. It’s a process that’s moving slower than some people would like. Considering what it took to build the stretch of highway – 1,000 predominantly Black residents displaced, and 971 homes and 62 businesses demolished –people believe they have reason to see expedited efforts to right those wrongs if there’s an opportunity to do so.

“I would encourage people to participate and come out and learn and listen and also offer their views. This process is still in the early stages and will be continuing through the end of this year and well into 2025,” said Stuart Sirota, deputy director for planning and sustainable transportation for the Baltimore City Department of Transportation.

The project team, also known as West Baltimore United, is a collaboration between the City of Baltimore, Baltimore City Department of Transportation, Baltimore Department of Planning, Baltimore Development Corporation, and Maryland Transit Administration. The team started the year off with two interactive, community workshops in January and February.

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Altogether, the workshops welcomed a little over 75 people who brainstormed opportunities, challenges and areas of preservation in regard to the project area. Small groups also looked ahead to map out what they thought the corridor would welcome in 10 years, including market rate housing, commercial development and better access to transportation.

On Wednesday, the project team gathered the public at Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts to discuss what they heard and learned from the community workshops. Here are five takeaways from the feedback they received, what they’ve been doing since the workshops and what’s next in the process.

1. The West Baltimore United Stakeholder Workgroup is in full swing

The stakeholder group is comprised of 14 residents, business owners, and other members of the community that serve as liaisons between the project team and the public. Members will receive $1,600 for their participation and held their first meeting on June 3. The goal is to ensure that there’s continuous and active community involvement throughout the process in the months to come.

“I think that the first meeting we held went very well. People are extremely engaged and ready to work. I’m feeling very positive about it,” Sirota said.

2. There are mockups of several potential alternatives for the highway

Wesley Mitchell with the city’s department of transportation design team introduced four alternatives the team is currently considering. They include completely filling the trench, partially filling it, a complete deck over which is involves capping the roadway or a partial deck over that partially caps it.

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One attendee was concerned about bringing in dirt to fill in the trench as someone who experienced the disruption caused by the initial installation of the highway beyond just the displacement. Another resident worried that the potential designs didn’t illustrate what people want to see developed along the corridors and that the project would only center transportation and not reinvestment into neighborhoods.

“We’re identifying what the community already said they want and are interested in....Those come after, once the actual surface is figured out,” said Tabia Gamble, who is also working with the city’s department of transportation team.

3. People want the highway’s history preserved in some way

While residents welcome a renewal of the area of the highway, they do not want the pains of the past erased for generations to come. People questioned if that meant a mural or some other public art that represents what happened with the highway before it was undertaken by the current initiative.

Mitchell acknowledged that it isn’t lost on the team that there needs to be a way to integrate the history of the area in the project and they “want to work with community to figure out the best way to do that.”

Sirota emphasized that preserving the past touches on one of the core values of the project, which reiterates “reflecting and honoring the memory of the communities that were damaged by the highway and celebrate the culture of West Baltimore today,” according to the project’s website.

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4. Skepticism about the project continues to prevail

Several attendees worried that the current plans are yet another promised “pipe dream” that won’t come to fruition. Some wondered if they’d even be alive to see it. Even though there were examples of potential alternatives for the highway, residents felt as though they’ve been in similar situations before and want something more concrete.

One person mentioned the years of community work put into the original design of the Red Line before it was nixed by former Gov. Larry Hogan in 2015. They don’t want to see a waste of community meetings, specialized groups for the project or federal dollars.

5. The project team is confident about the next phase

The team expects to get into the second phase of the project after the summer break and implement more community workshops after Labor Day. The next phase includes engineering design and there’s an RFP out for a permanent team to oversee it and be hired by late summer, according to Sirota. Sirota added that the plan is to apply for the next round of funds through the federal Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program, which was established by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and is dedicated to reconnecting communities negatively impacted by transportation infrastructure decisions.

“We are fully ready for it, and we feel we will have a very strong application,” Sirota said.