After razing homes and uprooting hundreds of residents more than a half-century ago, West Baltimore’s 1.4-mile ditch known as the “Highway to Nowhere” could — finally — be nearing its end.

Baltimore leaders have long recognized the damage the short stretch of U.S. 40 has dealt to the predominantly Black, low-income communities it splits apart. But a push to remove disruptive highways is finding new energy on the national stage, thanks in large part to federal funding meant to atone for the harm these roads have caused.

Repurposing the infamous Highway to Nowhere took an important step forward last week when Baltimore landed a $2 million federal grant to help study the proposal, which is backed by Mayor Brandon Scott and members of the Maryland congressional delegation.

That may be small change in the grand scheme of an expensive infrastructure project, Baltimore Department of Transportation Deputy Director Theo Ngongang said, but the study could open doors for the city to tap much larger pools of federal money earmarked for this kind of work. That money, combined with the recent alignment of priorities in Washington, Annapolis and City Hall, has created what feels like “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really right the wrongs of the past,” Ngongang said.

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“This is almost like a new day for Baltimore,” he added.

Once Baltimore has completed an initial $3.2 million planning study, which is funded by the federal grant and a mix of city, state and Baltimore Development Corporation input, it may apply for grants out of an up to $1 billion pool established under President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act aimed at bridging divides created by developments like the Highway to Nowhere. On top of that $1 billion, which would be doled out over five years, last year’s Inflation Reduction Act is funding a similar, multibillion-dollar program. And Maryland is expected to receive more than $4 billion over five years in infrastructure bill funding for roads and bridges — money that could go towards highway removal if Baltimore is able to draw any of it.

West Baltimore’s Highway to Nowhere is a remnant of America’s highway-building era, in which cities around the country sought to connect suburbs with declining downtowns by building multilane freeways, often at the expense of predominantly Black neighborhoods in their way. In Baltimore, an attempt to connect Interstate 70 to interstates 83 and 95 by building a crosstown expressway resulted in a six-lane trench through the western part of town. The project displaced some 1,500 people and demolished hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses.

But the connection to the other interstates was never completed, and today the disconnected stretch of U.S. 40 divides neighborhoods while shuttling local traffic between Martin Luther King Boulevard and West Baltimore’s MARC train station.

Ngongang said it’s too soon to say how much a project to transform the Highway to Nowhere would cost, and he stressed that the city is in the early stages of meeting with community members to hear what they would like to see happen.

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The city held its first listening session earlier this month, and Ngongang said a primary takeaway was the message that many near U.S. 40 don’t trust the city, in part because of its involvement in construction of the highway in the first place. Some residents have expressed concern that the city will simply build another highway or redevelop the area in a way that brings in white newcomers while further displacing Black residents who remain.

What exactly the city intends to do once the highway is removed is an open question, Ngongang said. His agency is focused on ways to expand public transit infrastructure, including through a possible marriage between Highway to Nowhere removal and a resurrected Red Line, an east-west rail project that former Gov. Larry Hogan killed during his first term. But the status of the Red Line under Gov. Wes Moore’s Democratic administration remains unclear, and Ngongang said the city will prioritize what the community wants.

Though the infrastructure bill has put historic funding into reconnecting communities divided by transportation infrastructure, it’s far less than advocates and the Biden administration had once hoped: An earlier version of the package included $20 billion for the program, but that allocation was whittled down to $1 billion by the time the bill passed Congress.

Still, advocates argue these projects are relatively cheap when compared to the wide-ranging, long-lasting benefits they deliver.

“$2 million is not a lot, but it is enough to actually determine that it’s a good idea,” Rob Steuteville of Congress for the New Urbanism said of Baltimore’s federal grant.

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Steuteville, whose organization was advocating for highway removal projects long before the recent federal commitments, said cities haven’t tended to look seriously at taking out disruptive interstates in the past. But growing appreciation for the damage these roads have caused — as well as the federal funding to investigate the scope of the problem — is creating national momentum around highway removal, he said.

And Ben Crowther, advocacy manager with the organization America Walks, likened Baltimore’s Highway to Nowhere to a recent project in Rochester, New York, where the city removed a two-thirds of a mile section of the sunken highway known as the Inner Loop for just $25 million. The payoff has been quick: In just a six years since removing the east portion of the loop, Rochester says it has reclaimed six acres of land and built 500 units of new housing, while the U.S. Federal Highway Administration reports the project has spurred close to $230 million in economic development.

Building and maintaining highway infrastructure turns out to be highly expensive, Crowther explained, and many of America’s freeways have surpassed their 50-year lifespan. So when cities decide to remove a highway rather than invest in its upkeep, they take a liability off the books, he said.

Both Baltimore’s $2 million grant and the hundreds of millions available for these removal projects come from the Reconnecting Communities program, a provision of Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was first written and proposed as separate legislation by Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen.

The Reconnecting Communities program “offers a golden opportunity to rectify the harm caused by the Highway to Nowhere,” Van Hollen wrote last year in an op-ed in The Banner, calling the funds a chance to plan transformation of West Baltimore’s “concrete scar” into “a site of healing and growth.”

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“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 second-term Democrat wrote.

But the surging interest in highway removal could also pose a challenge for Baltimore’s vision.

Assuming highway removal projects cost between $20 million and $50 million — and some will come with a heftier price tag — Crowther noted the infrastructure law should allow for only handful of projects a year. Baltimore will likely compete for grants with cities around the country, leaving “potential for a bit of a logjam,” Crowther said. And Baltimore’s project could cost more if it involves building a transit line.

For Ngongang, limited federal funds aren’t much of a concern at this stage. The city secured money for its key first step — an indication, he said, that money could keep flowing to Baltimore.

“We won right?” he said. “So we are in a better position now to say that this is only the beginning.”

adam.willis@thebaltimorebanner.com

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government. 

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