Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg speaks at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Sept. 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)
Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg speaks at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Sept. 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

WASHINGTON—A long-delayed plan to dismantle Interstate 375, a 1-mile depressed freeway in Detroit that was built by demolishing Black neighborhoods 60 years ago, was a big winner of federal money Thursday, and the first Biden administration grant awarded to tear down a racially divisive roadway.

The $104.6 million is among $1.5 billion in transportation grants handed out to 26 projects nationwide thanks to increased funding from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law.

It allows Michigan to move forward on a $270 million effort to transform the highway into a street-level boulevard, reconnecting surrounding neighborhoods and adding amenities, such as bike lanes.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has said he would make racial justice a priority in his department’s funding awards, pledging wide-ranging help to communities. Black Bottom and Paradise Valley—two of the city’s predominantly African American neighborhoods—were razed as part of the 1950s creation of an interstate highway system, displacing 100,000 Black residents and erecting a decades-long barrier between the downtown and communities to the east.

Hailed by city and state leaders as helping rectify a past racial wrong, the federal money represents a key first step that advocacy groups say will inspire dozens of citizen-led efforts underway in other cities to dismantle highways. Still, advocates cautioned that the plan to build a six-lane city boulevard risks simply replacing one busy roadway with another. And long-time Black residents say they will be priced out of the city by new business development and shiny condo buildings that promise direct links to downtown.

After years of planning dating back to 2013, the highway removal is now estimated to begin as soon as 2025, two years earlier than expected, with construction finished by 2028.

“This stretch of I-375 cuts like a gash through the neighborhood, one of many examples I have seen in communities across the country where a piece of infrastructure has become a barrier,” Buttigieg said. “With these funds, we’re now partnering with the state and the community to transform it into a road that will connect rather than divide.”

Other winners Thursday of the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America, or INFRA, grants include $32.5 million to build pedestrian underpasses to reconnect lower-income neighborhoods in Arizona; $100 million in Colorado for upgrades to 8 miles of highway, including electric vehicle charging stations; $110 million to New York for expanded warehouse space; and $70 million to improve rail track in Chicago.

Detroit’s project would create a slower-speed boulevard that aims to improve safety by removing a steep curve and adding LED lighting, while also removing 15 old bridges and two stormwater runoff pump stations and building out wider sidewalks, in effect protected bike lanes and pedestrian crossings.

Whitmer originally sought $180 million in federal cash for the project. Because that would have been a tall order under the Biden administration’s $1 billion Reconnecting Communities pilot program, the Department of Transportation opted instead to award $104 million to Michigan under the federal INFRA discretionary grant program—which has a bigger total pot of $8 billion over five years.

Christopher Coes, assistant secretary for transportation policy, said the Detroit grant reflected Buttigieg’s pledge to make Reconnecting Communities a broad “principle” of his department—not just a single program—with many efforts underway. More cash will be awarded late this year or early next.

Ben Crowther, advocacy manager for America Walks and coordinator for the Freeway Fighters Network, praised the new federal grant. While there are over 50 grassroots efforts around the country aimed at removing or repurposing highways, only three cities—Detroit, Syracuse, New York and Somerville, Massachusetts—have demolition plans that are shovel-ready, making them prime candidates for federal funding.

“The fact the Detroit project is now moving forward really speaks to the priorities that U.S. DOT has set for reconnecting communities that are trickling down to the state level,” Crowther said. While community debate will likely continue over the best design and whether a six-lane boulevard is a good approach, he said, the new federal focus on equity is “a lot of inspiration for local groups for that reason alone.”

Still, some Black residents worry the new boulevard could only create more problems.

Sam Riddle, political director of the Michigan National Action Network and a longtime resident of the area, says to truly address racial inequity, city officials need to take a more holistic approach to improving Black livelihood, such as building affordable housing.

“They’re not going to right a historical wrong where Black businesses were wiped out,” Riddle said. “What they’re going to do is repeat the same mistake that prices out majority-Black Detroit.”