Now is our chance to fix Baltimore’s ‘Highway to Nowhere’

Sen. Van Hollen outlines steps to remove roadway blamed for isolating West Baltimore neighborhoods

Published on: October 28, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: November 02, 2022 6:37 PM EDT

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, touts the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act while visiting the headquarters of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative in Baltimore's Canton neighborhood on Monday, Aug. 15, 2022.

For decades, the stretch of roadway known as the Highway to Nowhere has split West Baltimore in half. Its origins date back to the 1950s, when the Federal-Aid Highway Act incentivized towns and cities across America to build out the growing interstate highway system. With federal highway funds nearly guaranteed, and later secured, Baltimore officials moved forward with a plan to link Interstate 70 and Interstate 95 with a crosstown expressway. Project leaders broke ground on the west side of the city and bulldozed through Black neighborhoods to make room for the new highway — razing 971 homes, destroying 62 businesses, and displacing 1,500 residents.

As demolition progressed, community outrage spread. In the face of public opposition, the city scrapped the east side portion of the project, leaving the highway half-finished. But the damage was already done. Today, the Highway to Nowhere haunts West Baltimore as an enduring symbol of racial bias in the siting of infrastructure. And the construction of the unfinished highway left in its wake generations of stunted economic growth and financial distress that continues to exact a daily toll.

The federal government played a major role in the injustice of the Highway to Nowhere, and I strongly believe that the federal government has a duty to help make West Baltimore whole again. For years, I’ve been fighting to do just that — and now, Congress has finally passed a law to start healing that wound.

This journey began for me after I was elected to the Senate in 2016 and met with community stakeholders committed to righting this historic wrong. Two years later, I authored a provision in legislation to establish a pilot program that would help turn past infrastructure that divided communities into unifying infrastructure of the future. My program was incorporated within a larger bill and passed out of committee but didn’t pass the full Senate.

Finally, we achieved a breakthrough.

Last year, I joined Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), my fellow Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), and other senators to introduce standalone legislation, based on my original pilot program, called the Reconnecting Communities Act. We then teamed up with colleagues in the Maryland congressional delegation to include the key elements of that provision in the larger infrastructure bill that President Biden signed into law last November. Our vision for a national fund to reconnect communities such as West Baltimore became a reality.

This new grant initiative, the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program, offers a golden opportunity to rectify the harm caused by the Highway to Nowhere. With money from this program, the city of Baltimore would be able to work with community partners to develop a comprehensive consensus plan to transform a 1.3-mile concrete scar into a site of healing and growth.

Scores of Baltimoreans have offered suggestions about what to do with the highway. This is our shot to deliver on the ambition of those dreams.

The Baltimore City Department of Transportation has officially applied for a planning grant through the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program, and I am doing everything in my power to help deliver that funding. Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) and I have led federal Team Maryland in writing a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to support the city’s bid. In public hearings and private meetings, our congressional delegation has kept up pressure on federal transportation leaders.

We’ve extended a hand to Baltimore officials navigating the application process and will do so again when the plan is complete and it’s time to apply for federal construction funds. Mayor Brandon Scott, the City Council, and other Baltimore partners have worked with us to get this initiative moving. As we push ahead, I’ll continue enlisting the help of Marylanders ready to say goodbye to the Highway to Nowhere and hello to a brighter era of opportunity and growth in West Baltimore.

This has been a long fight. Progress hasn’t come easy. But now we have a chance to undo some mistakes of the past and build a better future. We must ensure that this new chapter in American infrastructure lifts all Marylanders and all Americans, leaving no one behind.

That work demands that we address the Highway to Nowhere here and now. I will continue working with partners in Congress and leaders in the community to get this done.

Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, is the junior U.S. senator from Maryland.