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Highway to Nowhere coming down? Not really.

How a small worthy project was hyped as huge and heroic by government press releases and a compliant media.

highway to nowhere east from schroeder

“Highway to Nowhere,” looking east from the Schroeder Street overpass.

Photo by: A project Schaefer supported, Baltimore’s “Highway to Nowhere.” View is looking east, from the Schroeder Street overpass. (Photo by Gerald Neily)

Huge Baltimore news had seemingly been committed.

“Highway to Nowhere Meets its End” the Baltimore Sun announced, on Sept. 11, the day after a ceremony that drew city officials in dress suits and high heels to a weedy piece of elevated interstate highway in West Baltimore, the stub end of a road that was never used.

Highway to Nowhere Heads to the Dump” said another headline, on the Sun’s website.

Could it be? Was someone dropping mega-bucks to un-do the mother of all post-war, highway building-boom mistakes – an interstate project halted by community protest in the 1970s but not before construction of a 1.4 mile portion that caused the demolition of 20 blocks of row-houses and churches on Baltimore’s west side. Entire neighborhoods were wiped out and nearly 3,000 people displaced.

Sending the “Highway to Nowhere” to “the dump” would be major.

It’s not just that it’s a puzzling gash in the city’s landscape, a strangely-widened segment of Franklin and Mulberry streets that suddenly drops down into a concrete canyon and then, after a-mile-and-a-half, resumes life as a surface street.

It’s also the source of decades of mistrust by Baltimore’s African-American residents toward government transportation projects that seem, in practice, more like slum-clearing campaigns.

Could someone actually now be filling in this canyon, healing the wound?

Well, no, not really

Turns out, they’re just tearing down the elevated end of the highway, from Pulaski to Monroe streets (a two-block portion of the 16-block highway that ends at Greene Street) in order to enlarge the Maryland Transit Administration parking lot for the West Baltimore MARC station.

The other 14 blocks — far from “meeting their end” or going to the “the dump” — are in fact being further cemented into the city’s permanent landscape because they are part of the $1.8 billion Red Line plan.

West MARC Station parking (Google Maps)

West MARC Station parking is yellow, the place they're expanding is purple.

The controversial east-west light rail transit line is planned to run right through the middle of the Franklin-Mulberry “Highway to Nowhere” trench. Puffy headlines aside, the big ditch isn’t going to be filled in, it’s just going to have a light rail line join the cars already whooshing through it.

Filling in the huge canyon is not, of course, a notion that anyone has ever suggested seriously, although there has been planner-talk since 1970 of building “caps,” develop-able land-bridges across the highway. (A dusty plan for this idea has a projected completion date of 2043.)

The $2.5 million demolition project they are undertaking does restore a part of what was destroyed – with a parking lot for train commuters as its centerpiece. It’s an idea that critics of the original highway fiasco support: one side of Payson Street will be connected at surface level to the other. When it’s done, they will have united two city blocks that have had an elevated highway dividing them for almost 40 years.

What they’re uniting them with is, basically, an asphalt parking lot for commuters who are from outside the neighborhood, so to build good will, the MTA has organized a weekend farmer’s market there. The highway demolition and parking lot expansion is scheduled for completion at the end of next summer but in the meantime, these farmers’ markets, the product of months of collaboration between the MTA, neighborhood groups and the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, have already begun.

What residents will have at the end of all this is: Payson Street turned into a though-street, two blocks connected by a landscaped parking area instead of an elevated highway, a farmer’s market and a layout the MTA says would suit future mixed-use transit-oriented development, should any ever come along.

It’s a worthy project but it’s kind of galling that its presentation by politicians and the press, blip though it was in the Baltimore news cycle, made it seem like so much more . . .

Rhetoric vs. reality

Within the press release on the day of the event, there was mention high-up that the groundbreaking was for “a segment of the infamous Highway to Nowhere.”

But pretty much everything else gave the impression the whole thing was going to come down, that ancient wrongs were going to be righted.

“The demolition of the roadway will reunite the communities of West Baltimore that have been physically separated since the highway’s construction in the early 1970’s,” the O’Malley press release said.

“The communities of West Baltimore have been frustrated and divided by this concrete wall for nearly four decades,” the release quoted  O’Malley saying. “It is time to remove the unnecessary divider, reunite communities. . .”

The Sun’s story reflected the same overall spin.

“Gov. Martin O’Malley, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other officials announced a $2.5 million plan to demolish the hulking dead end that has become known as “The Highway to Nowhere,” the Sun’s Julie Scharper wrote. She quoted several residents describing the grocery stores and other amenities the neighborhood lost and expressing skepticism  about the ballyhooed project, but never quite put together the reason why.

Back in the real world

Driving around “The Highway to Nowhere” on Sept. 11 seemed especially apt. As with gaping hole where New York’s twin towers used to be before terrorists blew them up, all that empty West Baltimore  space where structures and people used to be had a sad and haunted feel.

Relaxing in front of her Mulberry Street home after work, Rita Fisher discusses the planned demolition of elevated highway that is basically her front yard. (Photo by Fern Shen.

Relaxing in front of her Mulberry Street home after work, Rita Fisher is looking forward to the planned demolition of the elevated highway that is basically her front yard. (Photo by Fern Shen.)

The raised part of the highway destined for the wrecking ball was empty on that day, except for a few crows hopping in the grass. Residents say kids play football up there and that trucks dumped snow there during last winter’s record-breaking storms.

Rita Fisher, who lives on Mulberry Street, welcomes plans to knock it down: “That area ain’t doing nothing now. I don’t know who would build there, but it couldn’t be worse than it is.”

Having grown up in the neighborhood, she remembers playing in the area where the highway was built, remembers the basketball court that was there. An aunt of her whose house was in the way was relocated.

Fisher has worked for 20 years for LSG Sky Chefs, the company at Baltimore Washington Airport that makes food served on airlines.  When she doesn’t have a late night shift, she takes the light rail to work and said she would take the Red Line, if it were built.

“I’m glad they’ve got light rail,” she said. “It helps a lot of people.”  Perhaps a new light rail project would employ people, she said. “A lot of people are out of work.”

Patsy Jones and James Henry, on Payson Street, doubt the project will help them. (Photo by Fern Shen.)

Patsy Jones and James Henry, on Payson Street, doubt the project will help them. (Photo by Fern Shen.)

On the other side of the elevated highway, on Payson Street, a group of people were having a childrens’ birthday party on the sidewalk. The trees were decorated with balloons. Most in this group were dismissive of the project.

“We’ve got a highway to nowhere. They knocked down all my peoples’ houses for it,” said James Henry, 57, who was sitting on his front steps. “When I was a little boy coming up we had basketball courts. They knocked em down. My mother had to sell her house.”

“The highway ain’t going nowhere!” Henry said, looking south down Payson and gesturing back toward the blocks of the big road that will indeed remain unchanged. “And the Red Line? That’s not for us.”

“It can be a good thing, if they execute it right,” countered Patsy Jones, 55. “Maybe it could bring jobs?”

“They always say they’re going to hire people from the neighborhood,” Henry replied, “but they never do.”

“They don’t listen to what we say,” he added. “It’s already mapped out.”

“We have to attend meetings,” Jones said. “Tell them what we think.”

Communitygroups are discussing ways to re-make this Pulaski Street mural, painted on the part of the highway to be torn down. (Photo by Fern Shen.)

Community groups are discussing ways to re-make this Pulaski Street mural, painted on the part of the highway to be torn down. (Photo by Fern Shen.)

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  • Artc12health

    This article puts things into perspective – geographically and economically. Geographically, it was disingenuous to use a headline which would lead the readers to think the entire 1.4 miles of the “Franklin-Mulberry Route 40 Corridor” – the ditch – was about to come down. In fact, as the Brew states, only the westernmost end of the ditch will be eliminated at this point. Economically, it has been too easy for Baltimore residents to forget, if they were ever aware, that lives and livelihoods were destroyed when the ditch was originally cut. Around 17 north-south street (and with them, neighborhood) connections were severed at that time, all in the “400 north” blocks east and west across the length of the ditch. There were houses here, full of owners and tenants, and the 400 blocks were considered among the best in what was still a lively, bustling area at the time. So, now in the 21st Century, it is wise for the residents who remain in this area to get and stay organized, and to keep pressing government agencies and their political representatives to make good on their word that the devastated ditch areas will generate employment, new commerce, and needed community facilities as the Red Line gets built. Some of this organization has already taken place – with long-standing community and neighborhood associations in this area, and the newer West Baltimore MARC TOD/ Transportation, Inc. group which brings ten of these associations into a coalition to insist on a better outcome for local residents – not just MARC commuters. Healthy skepticism and ongoing vigilance will be needed for quite some time as each part of the complicated Red Line transportation project moves from drawing board to building contractors. – Art Cohen, b'more mobile

    • Michele Rosenberg

      I've just joined the station advisory committee for the Red Line station that will be located at the end of I-70. I want to be aware of anything which might infringe on Leakin Park. Stay in touch.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_SXS2KHWUDYK5BKB4XNCCAAQDLE Gerald Neily

        Good, Michele. The end of I-70 between Cooks Lane and the Beltway is yet another “Highway to Nowhere” – 6 to 8 lanes of concrete built for no ultimate purpose. That highway also needs to be torn out and eliminated, just like the Franklin-Mulberry monstrosity. Fortunately, the Red Line is not proposed to be built within the I-70 stub, unlike the Franklin-Mulberry portion that the Red Line will forever embalm as a monument to the City and MTA's continued community deceptions and failed planning of which Fern Shen wrote.

        • Charles N. Martin

          The end of Interstate 70 actually did have a purpose–it was meant to extend to Interstate 95 above Washington Boulevard, which would've ultimately relieved traffic around the southwestern quadrant of the Beltway (which needs serious relief). Personally, I would like to see both highways completed as they were meant to be routed, though in tunnels so they would not damage the neighborhoods any more than they already have been insulted.

          The Red Line, if built, needs to have a station in the middle of the US 40 freeway nub, possibly on one of the pedestrian overpasses. Baltimore has serious traffic congestion, so some sort of traffic solution needs to be implemented for the future, as it will only get worse, period.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_SXS2KHWUDYK5BKB4XNCCAAQDLE Gerald Neily

      Art, your comments certainly show that you appreciate being straight and not disingenuous. So let me clarify where you got it wrong.

      Your comments indicate that you believe that the MTA's Red Line project is a “given”. It is not. It has not been approved by the State legislature or the federal Department of Transportation for construction. It has not been funded. There is no money for this funding. There is no plan to raise the money for this funding. Construction funding is not in the State's recently released proposed six year capital program.

      No plan exists in which, as you state, “the devastated ditch areas will generate employment, new commerce, and needed community facilities as the Red Line gets built.” There is the current MDOT project to expand the MARC parking lot and there is the proposed MTA plan for the Red Line, but there has been no commitment by anyone to build any other facilities in the ditch areas. There are only vague future plans for what might happen when or after the Red Line would be built.

      In fact, building the Red Line as the MTA wants would make it far more difficult to redevelop the ditch because the MTA plan is to build the Red Line inside the existing highway median which occupies the ditch. The entire highway should be dealt with before the Red Line is built, not just the two blocks west of the ditch which don't carry traffic anyway, but the city and the MTA have not done this.

      You would do well to show the same “healthy skepticism” to which you preach. Otherwise, you are making the same mistakes that were made when the highway was approved in the first place four decades ago, which led to the devastation you spoke of.

      • Artc12health

        Gerry – nothing is a “given” about the Red Line, whatever you may have inferred from my comment. Only the sun, moon, death, and taxes qualify as givens. That said, there is a massive set of environmental injustices which have been done in this area, and for which there will someday be an accounting – with or without the Red Line. The “ditch” represents much that was wrong about Baltimore from the 1950's on. During that time, as you know, the City lost 1/3 its previous population, while the Franklin-Mulberry area lost 2/3 of its previous population. People who have grown up and stayed in the area since that time are asking now for employment, community facilities, and the return of commerce which fled in the wake of expressway planning, flight to the suburbs, and Martin Luther King's assassination and its aftermath. If it gets built, the Red Line may enable these improvements. If it does not get built, these improvements will have to be otherwise enabled.

    • http://www.carfreebaltimore.com Mark

      Mr. Cohen – thanks for your work with MAD and being part of the resistance when the highway was first proposed.

  • Antero Pietila

    An excellent overview. Item: I think Danny Henson, when he was Schmoke's housing commissioner, actually suggested seriously that the big dig be filled.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jibreelkriley Jibreel K Riley

    I would park in the ghost ramp and take pictures and just look at the cars wiz on by for there 5 mile Sprint Cup to Downtown Baltimore… I’m kind of sad to see it go, I was going to park in the ghost ramp tonight and it was gone

  • Privacy

    This highway (I-170) should have been completed as planned, as should have I-70 through Leakin Park.  I love how these revisionists attempt to block any and all urban highway projects, then turn around, and with a resultant 50%-implemented design, proclaim, “See?  These highway projects never solved congestion!!!”  If your body’s circulatory system had half of it’s “original design” removed, you wouldn’t be functioning very well, either!!

    A lot of cities, neighborhoods, and even suburbs were thrown together quickly to deal with rapid expansion.  It was only AFTER the fact, that most of these areas realized they never included the appropriate transportation infrastructure to support the population density there.  This required the government to go in and surgically remove some “capillaries”, and replace them with “arteries”.  Some of these became subways, railways, and *gasp* even freeways, such as I-170 (U.S. 40).

    I’ve visited this area… Um… It’s not exactly like they tore down utopia, people.  I do realize that these were some people’s homes, but it was done for the “greater good”.  Otherwise, you’d have all of this traffic on your neighborhood’s side streets!  Unfortunately, this road was never connected to the rest of the Interstate system, so it’s not getting used to its full potential.  That enables people to wring their hands and say, “Why did they build this atrocious ‘road to nowhere’??”  Well, of course, it wasn’t originally going to BE that.  It *became* that because of a bunch of short-sighted people.

    The area was not a great area before the road was built.  It is not a great area now.  This has nothing to do with the road having been built here.  Most of these roads were built along the properties with lowest land values to begin with — to save $$$.  Hmmm… why did these properties have such low land values?

    People blame the “flight to the suburbs” on the construction of urban freeways.  In fact, these freeways were planned and built as a response to the fact that people were *already* leaving the cities.  It was a way to enable them to travel back INTO the cities quickly and easily, so they could continue to work there, stimulate the downtown economies, etc.  When the majority of these freeway systems were cancelled, THAT is what hurt the areas, because people did not want to spend their day driving through stoplight after stoplight to get to downtown.  Again, you can say that freeways are so congested now that it is the same net effect — and again, I say that it is because in most of these cities, the original planned freeway system was never built, so the existing roads are carrying the burden of the unbuilt.  Imagine what traffic would be like if NONE of these were built.  Total nightmare — 24 hours / day.  If you want an idea of what that is like, try Washington, DC.  Unreal.

    I do agree that 1950-1970 highway design did not take into account good aesthetic design, beauty, and integration into the neighborhoods through with they ran.  I’m all for tunneling or “capping” existing freeways and even building previously cancelled ones via tunnels.  But to reduce the miles of freeways is absurd.  People may complain about the infamous “Big Dig” in Boston, but it was the right way to go.  Yes, it had major budget problems and was a headache for the city’s residents during its decade of construction.  But long-term, it’s brilliant.  Go visit that area now.  Above ground — peaceful, quiet, open, beautiful.  And yet, below ground — still serves its traffic function.  Imagine if they had just torn up the I-93 “Central Artery”.  All of that traffic would not have magically disappeared, as these hippies seem to insist.  Instead, the local surface streets would have been clogged into the most nightmarish traffic jam on the planet.  That is WHY they built the original central artery to begin with!!!!

    I-83 through Baltimore should also be completed to its original terminus — I-95 near the Harbor.  Right now, all of that traffic just gets DUMPED out onto surface streets.  This is helpful??  Why do people think that traffic sitting at stop lights is MORE beneficial to the environment??  All of these morons who want to turn freeways into “Urban Boulevards” — so you just have a lot more traffic sitting there at stop lights, battling it out with cross streets, more chances for accidents with conflicting traffic movements, more hazards to pedestrians, etc.  It’s like driving south on the West Side Highway in NYC… You’re humming along, traffic is swiftly moving (less time on the road = less pollutants!!!), then ALL of a sudden, past the Trump towers, you enter the World’s Biggest Parking Lot (TM).  Then traffic piles up and inches along the rest of the way down the island.  Mmmmm… Just look at all of those cars, rows and rows of ‘em, sitting there idling.  How scenic.  Great job, New York!!  Let’s replace a freeway with an urban boulevard.  Forget that “Westway” would have solved all of this.  These urban revisionists will continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.

    Sorry to say, but Robert Moses was a HERO.  Baltimore could have used someone like him.

  • Walmartpaystoomuch

    The Freeway should have been built….to hell with the needs of the poor

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