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Federal funding to reconnect Claiborne approved — but a fraction of what city, state sought

The Claiborne Expressway seen from outside the Seventh Ward's Circle Food Market, looking toward the Tremé.
Carly Berlin
The Claiborne Expressway seen from outside the Seventh Ward's Circle Food Market, looking toward the Tremé.

A project to re-envision New Orleans’ Claiborne Avenue will get a grant from a new federal program that aims to stitch together neighborhoods divided by highways, railroads or other transportation infrastructure in generations past. But the funding falls over $46 million short of what the city and state sought.

Claiborne Avenue was once home to dozens of Black-owned businesses and lined by live oak trees. That changed when an elevated span of Interstate 10 was constructed there in the 1960s, cutting through the heart of the Tremé, one of the oldest Black neighborhoods in the nation.

The White House called out the Claiborne Expressway as a textbook example of America’s racist highway history in its rollout of the Reconnecting Communities program, a new federal initiative established through the Biden Administration’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Hundreds of communities from across the country applied for a cut of the pilot program’s $1 billion to bridge disadvantaged neighborhoods cut off by past infrastructure decisions.

The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development will now receive $500,000 for Claiborne, one of 45 projects to receive a portion of the $185 million doled out in the program’s first round, announced Tuesday.

But that grant is just a tiny fraction of the budget the state has envisioned for the project. Their proposal – crafted alongside city officials – outlined a $95 million plan for Claiborne, with the federal program covering half that cost. WWNO obtained a copy of the proposal in December.

The state intended to spend most of the money on maintenance work for the expressway, while also building out a public market and performance spaces underneath it, dubbed the “Claiborne Innovation District.

About a quarter of the proposed funds would have gone toward potentially removing some of the highway on- and off-ramps that slice through the Tremé, disrupting the street grid and creating dangerous interchanges for people navigating the neighborhood. Some of the proposed funding was earmarked for pedestrian and bicyclist safety upgrades, along with better lighting.

But it’s unclear what exactly the state and city will do with this smaller grant. A fact sheet from the U.S. Department of Transportation said the funds will be used specifically for planning, and “to support community engagement” for the project.

When asked for an update on their plans, city officials said they’re waiting to receive more information from the U.S. DOT about next steps in the coming weeks. A spokesperson for the state DOTD did not respond to a request for comment.

Amy Stelly, on Dumaine Street, in front of two expressway ramps. She lives in her childhood home a block and a half away.
Carly Berlin
Amy Stelly, on Dumaine Street, in front of two expressway ramps. She lives in her childhood home a block and a half away.

The U.S. DOT’s decision also comes as a setback for one neighborhood activist who has long called for a different solution to the highway’s legacy: take it down.

Amy Stelly lives a block-and-a-half away from the highway, in her childhood home on Dumaine Street. She’s an architectural and urban designer, and for years, she’s called for the expressway to be removed, at times garnering attention from national news outlets.

Her nonprofit – called the Claiborne Avenue Alliance Design Studio — submitted a separate proposal to the Reconnecting Communities program. Their vision was to do a feasibility study about the future of Claiborne: analyzing traffic trends, considering public health impacts of living near the highway, and looking at options to open up real estate for local business and affordable housing, all while gathering input from residents.

Through that process, the group was confident that removing the highway would win out.

But the U.S. DOT didn’t fund their application. After hearing the news, Stelly said she would keep pursuing her fight to see the highway gone.

She planned to continue gathering data about the public health impacts from noise and air pollution that come with living in the shadow of the highway. That’s something she’s worked on in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency, and she said staff of the New Orleans Health Department recently reached out to partner with her, too.

“The state has to be willing to look at the data and make the cold, hard decisions about what has to happen for the future of this community,” she said of the state DOTD’s future plans for the expressway. “You can’t talk about equity and leave that thing up.”

Stelly’s nonprofit isn’t the only group left disappointed by Tuesday’s decision. Along with the awarded projects, the U.S. DOT published a long list of denials, including several other Louisiana projects in Natchitoches, West Monroe and Shreveport that didn’t make the cut.

Forty-five communities received grants from the program, the vast majority for planning. Six projects received funding to actually begin breaking ground, including an effort to build a cap over an expressway in Buffalo, New York, and a project to remove a flyover ramp in Tampa, Florida.

The Reconnecting Communities program was only allocated $1 billion for its first five years, far below the $20 billion the White House had initially envisioned in the infrastructure bill.

But more funding will be coming down the pipe from the Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act. The IRA established another new, $3 billion program – the Neighborhood Access and Equity Grant Program – that can also fund projects to reconnect communities. According to a U.S. DOT statement, the department anticipates launching that program later this spring.

Carly Berlin is the New Orleans Reporter for WWNO and WRKF. She focuses on housing, transportation, and city government. Previously, she was the Gulf Coast Correspondent for Southerly, where her work focused on disaster recovery across south Louisiana during two record-breaking hurricane seasons. Much of that reporting centered on the aftermath of Hurricanes Laura and Delta in Lake Charles, and was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.

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