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As freeways expand, Black and Latino communities bear the brunt

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

In recent days, President Biden has been on the road touting his $1.2 trillion infrastructure package - in it, more than $100 billion for repairing highways, roads and other projects. For many growing cities, that could mean expanding freeways, building more lanes and possibly adding to a troubling and ongoing history of American cities plowing mostly Black and Latino neighborhoods to build freeways. Here's Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaking with the Sacramento Press Club this past week.

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PETE BUTTIGIEG: Well, it's very concerning. It's something that we need to pay attention to so that these dollars are always doing good, not harm, that they are connecting, not dividing...

FLORIDO: He was responding to a recent report from the Los Angeles Times, which found that over the past three decades, more than 200,000 people have been displaced from their homes due to highway expansions, with Black and Latino areas disproportionately bearing the brunt. Ben Poston and Liam Dillon reported the piece, and Dillon is here to tell us more. Hi, Liam.

LIAM DILLON: Hi, Adrian.

FLORIDO: I think some listeners might be aware of the legacy that's stemmed from a lot of our nation's freeways and the communities that they displaced. But I think a lot of people might be surprised to learn that that continues in this century. Based on your reporting, what's the extent to which this continues today?

DILLON: Yeah. And that's something, frankly, that we were surprised at the LA Times when we embarked on this investigation, trying to understand sort of the extent and effects of highway displacements over the past 30 years. And we found that nationwide, more than 200,000 people have lost their homes to road expansions. And that number's an undercount because there's some data that's missing.

And then we also wanted to understand sort of whether some of the neighborhoods that were affected the first time or Black and Latino communities that were affected in the '50s and '60s during the initial area of highway construction were sort of still bearing the brunt of some of these expansions. And what we found in examining some of the largest projects across the country is that, in fact, they were. You know, some major projects, one being planned right now through the city of Houston, 1,000 families in neighborhoods that are 75% Black and Latino would lose their homes. Tampa, Fla. - another 750 families lost their homes to recent interstate expansions - Los Angeles, 850 families in Latino neighborhoods. And so we really are finding that these megaprojects are still affecting Black and Latino neighborhoods in many ways, like they did a half century ago.

FLORIDO: Was there anyone you met or learned of in your reporting who puts a face to this issue?

DILLON: Yeah. So in Florida, Tampa, Fla., there's a gentleman, Willie Dixon, who first lost his home in a Black neighborhood there in the 1960s, when Florida Department of Transportation officials built Interstate 275. Then he moved three miles away, started a new life with his wife, lived there for 40 years. And then Florida transportation officials decided to expand Interstate 275, and he lost his second home. I think that really puts a point on the generational impacts that have occurred from both highway construction and, in more recent years, expansions of those same freeways.

FLORIDO: As I mentioned, President Biden signed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill last month that's putting hundreds of billions of dollars to building and repairing roads. Are there parts of that bill that set out to address these disparities we're talking about?

DILLON: Yeah. So there's a $1 billion new program tucked in there. It's called Reconnecting Communities. And the point of it is to potentially even tear down freeways, sort of address some of the harms from racist planning decisions with respect to where freeways were cited in the past and sort of reconnect, as the program states. But, you know, that amount again, only $1 billion, sort of pales in comparison to the potential hundreds of billions of dollars that are essentially unrestricted where state transportation departments could use it to further expand freeways and, in many cases, continue to displace families.

FLORIDO: It sounds like you're saying the federal government, in making this money available, could have done more to make sure this sort of thing doesn't happen again.

DILLON: Well, indeed. And in earlier versions of the bill, there was provisions that would have required states to dedicate that money to repairing freeways before building new ones. Those provisions were not in the final bill. And also, that $1 billion fund for Reconnecting Communities was also much higher.

FLORIDO: Taking a step back here, states are building and expanding these freeways to deal with congestion and traffic. Is there proof that these sorts of projects ease traffic and congestion over the long term?

DILLON: So that's the - sort of the standard argument is, you know, traffic is so bad on these freeways. We need to expand them. You know, adding lanes means more cars can come through and hopefully ease congestion. But, you know, there's a lot of research that shows that that's not the case, especially in the long term.

In Houston, suburban Houston, there was an expansion over the past couple of decades of Interstate 10 that widened it to 26 lanes across at one point - so one of the widest freeways in the country. And, you know, traffic problems there during rush hour are just as bad as they were, in many cases, before the expansion. You know, in the long term, we're throwing billions of dollars at these expansions. And in many cases, we're not getting the results that were promised.

FLORIDO: That was Liam Dillon. He covers housing for the Los Angeles Times and recently published an investigation with reporter Ben Poston on the ongoing displacement of communities of color due to freeways. Liam Dillon, thanks so much.

DILLON: Thanks, Adrian. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.