Officials are looking to spend significantly to address transportation infrastructure which has created societal divides, in cities like Wilmington where interstate highways run directly through communities.
Delaware’s U.S. Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester is working with U.S. Representative Dwight Evans (D-Pennsylvania) to try and send communities like Wilmington and Philadelphia $3 billion to reconnect.
“The purpose of legislation is really to go back and fix some of the wrongs from before, when communities were separated by I-95 going through them,” Blunt Rochester said Monday. “This bill is really to do three things: it is to provide grants for community engagement and education; and then it’s about planning; and lastly about infrastructure itself, and making sure that we are connecting those communities–for all kinds of reasons. Everything from environmental justice and health, to economics and making sure that the economy is strong, and also to make sure that our neighborhoods are healthy.”
U.S. Senator Chris Coons, at a separate event Monday, touched on the topic. He noted there’s historical evidence that would suggest the decisions on where to place I-95 weren’t made under the most equitable of considerations, and that there needs to be a reconciliation of that lasting damage that’s occurred.
“There are cities all over this country where, when the interstate highway system was expanded in the 60s, it was used to divide neighborhoods–and, in particular, to do what at the time was called slum clearance or urban renewal, and knocked down historic neighborhoods that were overwhelmingly Black and brown neighborhoods,” Coons said. “I’m not speaking to the specific history of where 95 got put in Wilmington–but it sure does seem to divide neighborhoods. And my impression, looking at the history, was that it destroyed some historic churches, homes, neighborhoods, you can’t put those neighborhoods back.”
Democratic State Senator Sarah McBride, who represents part of Wilmington, said the highway is one of two major incidents in the city’s history that resulted in a disparity within the population, and it’s about time it was addressed.
“This infrastructure legislation is a game changer. In the 60s, Wilmington suffered from two major detrimental events to our health and to our unity as a city: the construction of 95 through the heart of Wilmington, and the occupation of Wilmington by the National Guard for a year, the longest occupation in our country’s history by a military force since the Civil War,” she said. “What those events did is they destroyed many neighborhoods, they undermined communities, and they divided the city. This legislation will take help take an important step for cities like Wilmington to heal those divides.”
McBride said the move would be part of a larger effort to address he history and contemporary impact of racial injustice while facilitating growth within Wilmington, both at its core and its fringes. It doesn’t necessarily mean I-95 will face ever more construction as it’s torn down and rebuilt. Coons said connecting communities can be taken through different approaches.
“I-95 goes right through the center of Wilmington,” Coons said. “And [a Republican colleague said,] ‘You’re going to tear up the highway and rebuild?’ and I said no, but there’s a chance we might put a cap over it and try and use that as a park to connect neighborhoods. There’s a chance we might make other investments in other places in and around Wilmington that would better connect neighborhoods that would create opportunities for pedestrians to go over what is an incredibly busy highway, safely…You can’t tear up the freeway and rebuild the neighborhood. But you can make investments that address equity, access, and community connectivity.”
Reconnecting means a lot of things to different people, Blunt Rochester said, and she wants to make sure the communities themselves are as involved in any decision-making process as possible, so they can express exactly what an equitable approach would mean to them.
“This is really about community-based involvement in education, and communities determining what works best for them. For some, it might be the creation of a park. For others, it might be a physical capping. It just depends on the needs of that community,” Blunt Rochester said. “Which is why one of the major components of the grant is community engagement and involvement, so that it’s not just coming from the government, that it’s coming from the people that are affected by I-95 going through these corridors, going through their their communities.”
Senate Majority Whip Sen. Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman for the 3rd District, “which 95 pretty much bisects,” says she grew up needing to traverse neighborhoods in Wilmington separated by I-95 and knows the importance of brining those communities together.
“95 just was such a part of the fabric of growing up, in my life, and when my daughter was little, I didn’t have a car and she went to preschool at the YMCA, so I had to walk back and forth across the highway hundreds of times,” Lockman said. “I was just thinking about, yes, it’s part of this fabric of our city, but what a tear it is. What an inhibitor to the kind of lifestyle I know I wanted to live as a young parent. Just sort of a walkable, bikable, not-car-centric lifestyle, and what a different message that that bisection sends to us.”
The $3 billion plan has already passed as part of the INVEST Act in the U.S. House of Representatives, and awaits consideration in the Senate.