A Contemporary Path to Transportation Justice

Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of articles during April that examine the construction of the Interstate Highway System over the past seven decades. The series, titled Justice and the Interstates, opens up new areas for historical inquiry, while also calling on policy makers and the transportation and urban planning professions to hold themselves accountable for its legacies. Additional entries in the series can be found at the bottom of the page.

By Tierra Bills

The razing and displacement of Black communities across the United States during the construction of the Eisenhower Interstate System remains a stain on American history. During this time, with support from urban renewal funding from the federal government, more that one million Black and other residents were directly affected, with decades of detrimental economic, health, and educational residual effects compounding in the aftermath.[1]  While it is certainly important that we continue to learn about the mechanics of the damaging impact of highway construction, we don’t hear enough about efforts around the United States to right these past wrongs.

The ReConnect Rondo initiative is one example. The organization deploys a laser focus regarding remediation efforts to correct the devastation caused by the construction of Interstate-94 in Minnesota’s capital city, St. Paul, from 1956 to 1968. ReConnect Rondo’s core infrastructure project includes the construction of a land bridge to literally reconnect this community with amenities and opportunities long cut off by I-94.

The original I-94 highway construction split in half the community of Rondo, which at that time was home to approximately 80 percent of St. Paul’s Black residents. Along with the physical loss of 700 homes razed to create right-of-way for I-94, the compounding loss of home equity over time has resulted in an intergenerational wealth gap of nearly $160 million, an in-depth study exploring the impact of the highway’s construction on the Rondo community’s legacy noted in 2018.[2] The disparity reflects the cumulative equity of homeowners who lost their homes to construction and were prevented from passing on their accrued wealth to descendants. Not only were the homeowners and their families deprived of increased equity, it also represents a massive opportunity cost, over time, for the entire Rondo community. The same wealth could have supported educational opportunities, health-related costs, down payments for family homes, and so much more in the following decades. All of which would have collectively benefitted Rondo residents. So, to be clear, the takeaway here is not just about the injustice of a Black community being harmed in order to support transportation accessibility for the largely white communities of the suburbs, nor should this be taken as an isolated incident that happened to one Black community, more than 60 years ago. The Rondo community’s case embodies the legacy of federal transportation investments and their effect on largely Black communities in the United States.

ReConnect Rondo’s proposed land bridge was the outcome of a study conducted by the Urban Land Institute.[3} Ultimately, a panel of planning, transportation, and economic development professionals approved the land bridge’s design, for supporting the goal of renewing a significant physical connection to the city which in turn enhances the livability of the Rondo community.

Today, this project is fast moving towards reality. The City of St. Paul, Minnesota Department of Transportation, Ramsey County, and the regional planning authority (Metropolitan Council, METC) have been meeting closely for the past 3-4 years, says Mr. Keith Baker, the Executive Director of ReConnect Rondo. “As a community led effort, this cannot be a success without all jurisdictions at the table.” The project also has the support of St. Paul’s Mayor Melvin Carter, as he “sees the vision and as a 4th [generation] descendent of Rondo, his leadership is important.” When asked about next steps for the project, Mr. Baker shared that the organization made a second appearance before the Minnesota House Transportation and Policy Finance Committee in March 2021 to make the case for $6.2 million in predevelopment funding for the land bridge project. These funds are “to execute Phase 0 of four phases recommended by the [Urban Land Institute] Advisory Services Panel in 2018,” says Mr. Baker. “In addition to master planning and building organization capacity, we will begin putting in place a corporate leadership and fund development team.” Important next steps include putting in place anti-displacement measures and defining policies and resources for combating negative forces of gentrification, according to Mr. Baker. With funding and assistance from the Urban Land Institute’s Curtis Infrastructure Initiative, ReConnect Rondo will work to design “a 4P restorative financing model (public, private, philanthropic, and people).”

Although mainstream culture has been reawakened to the realities of inequity across American society due to the Black Lives Matter movement, transportation equity work is certainly not new. The ReConnect Rondo initiative reflects a steady and consistent beat of community work on advancing transportation equity. The devastation experienced by Rondo in the 1950s and 1960s is one of numerous similar cases across the United States, and it is important that we transportation and planning professionals continue to study these cases, along with the magnitude of the damage felt by these communities and the families affected by highway construction. Yet, we must also elevate current efforts to repair and compensate for the damage done by the construction of the highway system–a system that Americans maintain a continued reliance upon today.

Additional entries in the Justice and the Interstates series: 

Dr. Tierra Bills is an Assistant Professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Wayne State University. Much of her current research focuses on investigating the social impacts of transportation projects. Her general areas of interest include transportation equity analysis, emerging data sources for travel demand modeling, and transit performance measurement. She holds a B.S. in Civil Engineering Technology from Florida A&M University (‘08), and M.S (’09) and PhD (’13) degrees in Transportation Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.

Featured image (at top): Aerial photo of the Rondo neighborhood in 1961, looking east from Grotto Street, courtesy of Ramsey County Historical Society.

[1] Alan Pyke, “Top Infrastructure Official Explains How America Used Highways to Destroy Black Neighborhoods,” ThinkProgress.org, Center for American Progress – Action Fund, Mar. 31, 2016, https://archive.thinkprogress.org/top-infrastructure-official-explains-how-america-used-highways-to-destroy-black-neighborhoods-96c1460d1962/.

[2] Yorth Group, “Restorative Rondo, Building Equity for All: Past Prosperity Study,” July 2020, https://reconnectrondo.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Rondo-Past-Prosperity-Study.pdf; figures are as of 2018.

[3] Urban Land Institute, “St. Paul Minnesota: The Rondo Community Land Bridge, March 18–23, 2018,” 2018, https://reconnectrondo.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/ULI-Report-3.2018.pdf.

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