If you're a Strong Towns reader, chances are you're already familiar with the arguments against urban highways, based on decades of data from cities across the nation. You may have spent this past week, as we've been exploring a proposed inner city highway in Shreveport, LA, scratching your head and wondering, "How could anyone in Shreveport possibly think this is a good idea? Has history shown them nothing?" Today, I want to share some of the pro-inner city connector arguments that have been made over the last few years, not just by the government officials facilitating the project, but by the residents of Shreveport themselves.
The I-49 inner city connector in Shreveport has been in the works for years. Building a highway is a lengthy process with many steps and government agencies involved. One part of the process is a series of public meetings in which residents are presented with information about the project and asked to comment on it and/or offer ideas. (View all public meeting documents here.)
A key focus of the meetings about the I-49 connector has been the five different routes that the city must choose between for building the highway (see the map on the right). The first four routes go directly through the Allendale neighborhood. Route 5 (added later in the decision process after insistence from the Allendale community, highlighted in yellow on the map) would use an existing highway loop that runs south around the city.
The comments from these meetings reveal a lot about the way this highway has been framed for the public as well as many misconceptions about what the purpose of the highway is and what it can accomplish.
We’ll share some of those comments today with a focus on those from people who support the highway. Kent Rogers, who is the Executive Director of NLCOG (the agency overseeing the highway process), informed me that 76% of respondents from the past series of public meetings were in favor of the four inner-city highway options and that that number has been fairly consistent throughout the public meeting process. It's important to hear those perspectives and understand where they're coming from.
Here’s one revealing comment from the first series of public meetings, written by a Shreveport resident in support of the inner-city highway routes:
I view this as an opportunity to grow the city and revitalize a once vibrant area that has long fallen into decay. I was born in the Allendale area and remember when it was vibrant, [with] a large population and many varied businesses. Now, it is a bare shadow of what it once was. I see Alt. 1 as a positive for Shreveport and the State.
This person is recalling a time that many of the Allendale residents I spoke with also recalled—a time when the neighborhood was booming and well populated. But while most of the residents I talked with saw the previous creation of inner city highways like I-20 as one of the reasons the neighborhood fell into decline (along with the rise of drugs in America and suburban flight), the commenter seems to think that another highway will actually help the neighborhood.
Ted Shelton and Amanda Gann, researchers at the University of Tennessee, wrote in their paper "Urban Interstate Rites-of-Way as Sites of Intervention" about the history of inner city freeways: "Where urban highway construction did occur, in urban design terms, it was highly detrimental to the urban fabric; creating physical and psychological rifts that are extremely difficult to bridge and introducing a substantial source of noise and air pollution. Cities across the country continue to struggle with this legacy."
Picture your favorite thriving neighborhood—maybe it's a place you’ve visited on vacation or a neighborhood in your hometown. Now try to remember, was there a huge, loud, exhaust-spewing highway next door? I’d be willing to bet not. Highways don’t help neighborhoods thrive, they prevent neighborhoods from thriving.
Here’s another comment from that same series of meetings, from another Shreveport resident:
[If] the “heart of the city” is not functioning properly then the viable construction that[‘s] needed will not be able to help our children grow…. We should consider that in order to grow, we must allow life to move through [the city].
This comment again is riddled with misconceptions. The heart of any city needs successful businesses and residences to function. It needs thoughtful land use, transportation access and something drawing people to it. A highway doesn’t make an urban core “function properly.” It may help traffic flow “function properly” but that’s a different goal. Today, many cities are tearing down their urban freeways to help their urban cores "function properly."
I’m not entirely sure what sort of “growth” the commenter is referring to when he says, “in order to grow, we must allow life to move through [the city].” If he’s referring to expanding the boundaries of the city further and further out, then he’s right; allowing people to travel quickly through and out of the city will enable them to live, shop and work at greater distance from the city center, which kind of seems like what a lot of people want out of this highway. (It’ll also drive up the cost of infrastructure for the whole region.) But if this commenter is referring to growth within the city—more businesses and people moving into the city center—then this highway will not bring that sort of growth. Quite the opposite.
Another comment from a Shreveport resident suggests this same sort of hope for “growth”:
The 4 proposals to run the I49 through the city of Shreveport is the best thing for our community… The route through the city will create a larger interest in Shreveport for those traveling through our city.
How exactly does a highway that zips drivers over and out of Shreveport encourage “a larger interest” in that city? In an interview with Popular Mechanics, former Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx recalls his childhood in Charlotte, NC in a neighborhood surrounded by freeways: "Those freeways were there to carry people through my neighborhood, but never to my neighborhood." As we've said many times before, our neighborhoods and cities should be destinations—places to drive to rather than places to drive through. The I-49 connector encourages people to bypass the city altogether.
Perhaps the most preposterous comment I found in reading these documents from the public meetings in Shreveport was one that suggested the inner-city connector would “allow for Louisiana to compete with Texas which is building I-69 to Texarkana.” Of all the things to compete with another state over—sports teams, quality businesses, good universities—I’ve never heard of states competing with one another over their highways. It certainly does not justify the expense and destruction of a neighborhood.
In addition to participating in the public comment process, several highway advocates have also written op-eds for Shreveport news outlets over the last few years. Here’s an excerpt from an opinion piece written a year ago by a local business owner, Patrick Harrison, for the Shreveport Times:
The completion of I-49 through the most direct route from Interstate-20 to Interstate-220 is exactly what Shreveport needs to help us grow as a city and region…
This interstate was designed to move people and commerce through the center section of our country between the north and south regions. It is designed to take the most efficient and convenient route possible...
Let’s make Shreveport growth happen again. Let’s plan for next generations that will come after us and finish I-49. Shreveport will then be a strong economic growth region in which companies will be eager to locate.
First, it should be noted that Harrison owns a business that manufactures sound barriers for highways. So, yes, his company will probably see “economic growth” if they get the contract for the I-49 connector’s sound barriers. But for the rest of the city that’s unlikely. The themes of “efficiency” and “convenience” mentioned here pervade much of the pro-highway commentary I read. There is an overarching sense of “this just makes sense so let’s do it” and “this is the most logical, efficient route,” with little thought for the immediate and ongoing expense of this project or the people whose lives would be uprooted by the project. A comment on Harrison’s op-ed unequivocally revealed this sentiment:
I understand that this might have a negative effect on the community Allendale however these areas have been declining for decades and will become completely dissolved in a few decades...
How easy it is to write off an entire community in favor of a few minutes saved on travel time driving through the city.
Others support the highway under the guise of helping Allendale. The I-49 Thru the City, Citizens For Facebook group is full of pro-highway comments claiming the inner-city connector will do everything from decrease crime (crime in Allendale is currently at historic lows) to bring jobs into the city (as we wrote yesterday, the amount of jobs this project is claiming it will bring is preposterous and completely unrealistic). The Facebook group’s administrator and founder, Pat Booras, posted earlier this month about the I-49 connector, “Everybody with 2 Eyes Can See It's the Catalyst / Final Infrastructure Piece.”
To me, all this rhetoric suggesting that a highway will draw visitors and businesses to the city, that it will help the residents whose very neighborhood will be destroyed by it, and overall, that it "just makes sense" is merely a cover-up for the real reason people want the highway: So they can drive quickly through the city. That's it. The desire for this highway has taken root and the people who want to see it through will not listen to any arguments against it.
The community input process has been criticized by many Allendale residents for being deceptive and manipulative. They went so far as to submit a letter to the US Transportation Secretary and others in senior leadership to complain. (Read the response letter here.) While many public meetings have been held, the Allendale residents I spoke with felt that their voices were not really been listened to.
One particularly misleading aspect of the public meetings involved "Choice Cards" being handed out to meeting attendees asking them which highway route they preferred. Instead of being asked to choose between Routes 1-5, they were first asked to indicate whether they supported building the highway or not, and then asked to select one of the four "build" options, all of which run through the city. It would be easy for those assessing the choice cards to decide to build the highway and then say, "Well, 40% of those surveyed wanted Option 3" (or whatever it ends up being), even though many of those who selected Option 3 truly don't want the highway built at all.
I won't go so far as to suggest that Shreveport residents are motivated by a desire to destroy a low-income neighborhood (although several Allendale community members have said as much). However, it's clear there is a disregard for the neighborhood in question and a pervading sense of entitlement that pro-highway Shreveporters have about their right to drive quickly through their city.