Suppose you are a contractor earning your daily crust reducing highway congestion by adding to California’s 394,383 freeway lane miles. In that case, you may want to consider throwing in another specialty to your company profile—freeway destruction.

Buried in the new federal infrastructure legislation are billions of dollars for freeway removal projects under the heading of “environmental justice.” Since the final bill will be a while in coming (Congress, thankfully, is in recess until September 20), we can’t tell how much funding is coming, but it is coming.

The idea of freeway removal has been around for a while. In the mid1950s , Caltrans started constructing the Embarcadero Freeway to connect the Bay Bridge with the Golden Gate Bridge on San Francisco’s east side. Protests rose immediately, mostly about obstructing views of the bay and cutting off Telegraph Hill from the waterfront. In 1959, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted to cancel further construction.

It took the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake to force demolition of the Embacadero, completed in 1993. Since then, more than a dozen urban freeways were removed around the country, but the idea has remained mostly aspirational, pushed by environmental justice activists and the occasional mayor. 

The Plan

In January, new Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer introduced an “Economic Justice Act,” earmarking $10 billion for highway removal or retrofit and directing agencies “to focus on improvements that will benefit the populations impacted by or previously displaced by the infrastructural barrier.”

In February, the Senate confirmed Pete Buttigieg, President Biden’s nominee as Secretary of Transportation, who promptly barnstormed the country with this notion. At the end of March, Biden doubled down on this effort when he proposed $20 billion to “redress historic inequities and build the future of transportation infrastructure.”

That same month, the Federal Highway Administration stopped the expansion of I-45 in Houston, citing civil rights concerns. It’s coming. 

By Ray Baca, Executive Director Email: [email protected]