As Baltimore City leaders explore ways to reimagine the “Highway to Nowhere” thanks to a $2 million federal grant, some community groups are wondering: What’s taking so long?

Repurposing the infamous 1 1/2-mile stretch of U.S. 40 took an important step forward last year when Baltimore City received federal funds to help study the proposal, which is backed by Mayor Brandon Scott and members of the Maryland congressional delegation.

The city’s Department of Transportation is now exploring whether to rip up the below-grade highway — a relic of urban renewal and a traumatic scar on a predominantly Black area — and transform the corridor.

The agency recently opened applications to join its Stakeholder Workgroup, a collection of small-business owners, advocates, residents and others that will serve as a bridge between the community and the project team at West Baltimore United, the official name for the city initiative.

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Members will receive $1,600 for their participation, committing to monthly meetings that should begin in February. Though the planning study was supposed to begin last summer, the convening of the workgroup — intended to ensure the alignment of the community’s wishes with project goals — along with two coming community forums, represent the first major movement since the grant was announced nearly a year ago by U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen.

Several factors have contributed to the delays, including Gov. Wes Moore’s renewal of the Red Line project, said Stuart Sirota, interim director of planning for Baltimore’s DOT.

Next week, the Board of Estimates is set to authorize the grant along with additional local funding. The team can begin spending the grant money shortly thereafter.

In the meantime, community activists have stayed busy. Several neighborhood associations and advocacy groups, including Fayette Street Outreach and Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, have come together under their own Reconnecting Communities in West Baltimore Coalition.

The groups say their mission is to unite the disparate communities along the stretch of U.S. 40 and advocate for equitable transportation and economic development. They’ve been organizing and educating residents about the highway’s history.

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More funding is available through the same federal program for design, environmental studies and even new construction, but the grant program sunsets in 2026. Local officials could make funding pitches through other programs, but the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program — born out of the 2021 infrastructure bill — was designed specifically for projects like this one.

And major infrastructure projects always take time to study and build. Given the uncertainty, some in the area worry that Baltimore might miss its chance to transform the blight.

A ‘first of its kind investment’

Minister Glenn Smith was 19 and about to join the Marines when his family lost their West Baltimore home. His family was among hundreds of mostly Black residents of West Baltimore who were forced to move when construction started on a project to connect Interstates 70 and 83.

“It was a thriving community, man, I likened it to a Norman Rockwell picture. We had everything we needed, life was good, and they had labeled us a ghetto. I think that was the reason they gave for destroying a thriving Black community,” said Smith, reminiscing about the house that was taken from his family, yet still stands today. “The ‘Highway to Nowhere’ definitely divided north and south. It was a trench that daily reminds us, as a monument of what happened to a thriving community.”

The Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program is meant to repair harm done to communities, many of them predominantly Black, by large infrastructure projects that drove away residents and caused investment to dry up. Federal officials call the $1 billion program — which has funded similar projects in Boston, Tampa and across the country — a “first-of-its-kind investment.”

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A pedestrian pass over a bridge above U.S. Route 40 in Baltimore, Wednesday, March 8, 2023.
A pedestrian pass over a bridge above U.S. Route 40 in Baltimore, Wednesday, March 8, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

The city DOT has ambitious goals for its $2 million for West Baltimore. The scope of work includes a topographic survey, utility designations, traffic analysis, an environmental inventory and more. The idea is to lay the groundwork for future grant applications to pay for design and ultimately construction.

Sirota is confident that his team is well-positioned to go after future grants. Baltimore City will have three more chances — this, next fall and in late 2026 — to take advantage of the program to fund things such as infrastructure design, which typically happens in stages.

“Even though our planning work won’t be completed by [this fall], we will be far enough along that we will have a preliminary concept that we can use as a basis for the application while the work moves forward,” Sirota said. The goal is to apply for construction dollars in 2026, he added.

However, officials have yet to request bids from potential contractors to help them in the initial planning work. That lag has contributed to some frustration in the community about the process so far.

“What proposals have been made, tried, failed, or partially succeeded? We need to know. But they don’t bring that information to us. They bring the agency mechanics and personnel, and something about the decision process that does not include us as co-partners,” said Samuel Jordan, president of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition. “This is not a program in which they can expect the Reconnecting Communities in West Baltimore Coalition to be satisfied with just being told you have a seat at the table. Great. What about decision making when we sit down at the table?”

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Jordan, Smith and other community leaders don’t want the city DOT to come in and tell West Baltimoreans what they are going to get, but rather to decide with them what to do.

First on the list for the scope of coming planning work is “robust and multi-faceted stakeholder engagement,” according to the West Baltimore United’s web page. Sirota and other project leaders hope the stakeholder workgroup and community forums kickstart that robust collaboration in earnest.

Red Line on separate track

Any effort to transform the “Highway to Nowhere” won’t happen in a vacuum.

As Amtrak moves forward with plans to build a new passenger rail tunnel beneath West Baltimore, the state is studying how to connect East Baltimore and West Baltimore through either light rail or bus rapid transit. All six of the potential routes go through or under the Highway to Nowhere, making the Maryland Transit Administration a key partner in West Baltimore United.

Sirota stressed that the city DOT and MTA work well together. And consultants working with the state’s Red Line team have chipped in to help plan the city DOT’s coming community engagement efforts.

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“I’ve never seen such close coordination and working well with our partners there as I do now, and it’s really been great,” Sirota said.

Allison Scott, the MTA’s lead for the development of the Red Line, agreed. “There’s no Red Line without a great city partner. … We’re planning to be with them [West Baltimore United] every step of the way.”

A proposed map of the Red Line, called Maximum Tunnel. (MDOT MTA)
A proposed map of the Red Line called Maximum Tunnel. (MDOT MTA)

Jordan, who strongly backed the Red Line’s original design before it was canceled by former Gov. Larry Hogan in 2015, has criticized the MTA for, among other things, considering bus rapid transit for what had been envisioned and funded as a light rail project. Jordan said the communities along the Highway to Nowhere did years of work through station area advisory committees for the original Red Line that informed the MTA about what they wanted to see near future train stations. He doesn’t want to see that work go to waste.

“It was well-thought-out and not just, ‘Let’s throw something on the corner and call it development,’” said Jordan, adding that he thinks light rail will generate more and better transit-oriented development than a bus line.

Scott said that her team will resume the station area advisory committee meetings once Red Line planning is further along, building on past work. She said she believes the Red Line will spark new transit-oriented development like housing and retail regardless of what mode of transportation is picked. That’s why the partnership with both the city and federal transportation departments is so important, she said.

“We know what each agency is planning to do as a part of our open communication and synergies with the project,” Scott said.

She and Sirota believe the strong coordination will ensure steady progress on both projects. The updates to the Red Line’s environmental impact study, for example, won’t get held up in the event that the city DOT proposes ripping up a major roadway the previous EIS accounted for, Scott said.

Still, Sirota acknowledged that West Baltimore United has taken longer to get off the ground because of the needing to involve the state’s Red Line team.

Until West Baltimoreans see shovels in the ground, some will wonder how long the highway will continue to lead to nowhere.

Want to go?

The city is seeking input on how it can transform the stretch of U.S. 40 known as the Highway to Nowhere.

A public meeting will be held Thursday, Jan. 25, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Excel Academy, 1001 W. Saratoga St.

A meeting scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 20, at Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts has been postponed due to coming inclement weather.