President Joe Biden signed a comprehensive, bipartisan infrastructure deal into law on Nov. 15. The law’s $550 billion in new spending will be allocated among the 50 states, with many Massachusetts and Somerville officials hopeful that some funding can be used to ground the McGrath Overpass.
Hopes of tearing down the overpass were renewed after Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg spoke at a White House press conference on Nov. 8, touting the legislation’s passage. He was asked by April Ryan, White House correspondent for theGrio, to explain how the new law could help to undo some of the nation’s systematically racist infrastructure.
“If a highway was built for the purpose of dividing a white and a Black neighborhood, … that obviously reflects racism that went into those design choices,” Buttigieg responded. “Sometimes it really is the case that an overpass went in a certain way that is so harmful that it’s got to come down.”
On Twitter later that day, Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone interpreted Buttigieg’s remarks as a sign that the longstanding plans to ground McGrath may finally come to fruition.
“We’ve got one of those community-dividing overpasses in Somerville (McGrath) & we’re planning to rip it down,” Curtatone wrote in a tweet. “Sounds like we’ve got a federal funding source.”
The McGrath Highway refers to Massachusetts Route 28, as it passes through Somerville, and a portion of it was elevated in the 1950s in the eastern part of the city. For the last decade, city and state officials alike have been discussing the possibility of grounding the overpass and turning it into a boulevard.
Somerville’s Deputy Director of Communications Meghann Ackerman explained why the city has long hoped to tear down the overpass.
“McGrath Highway is a physical barrier that cuts through neighborhoods separating them from each other. It also throws up significant mobility hurdles for residents,” Ackerman wrote in an email to the Daily. “McGrath also brings thousands of cars (and their emissions) through our city. High-speed motor vehicle traffic on McGrath Highway is a major public safety concern for our community.”
Four pedestrians have died on the overpass as a result of car accidents. Most recently, an elderly man was killed in a hit-and-run in April. The current plan for the boulevard would create a dedicated bike lane, which would separate the sidewalk from traffic lanes.
Ackerman also described how grounding McGrath would improve the quality of life of Somerville residents.
“Grounding McGrath and turning it into a boulevard is likely to cut down on through traffic in the environmental justice neighborhood of East Somerville and would improve safety for all users, especially people walking, biking, or using a mobility aid,” Ackerman wrote. “It would also be a step toward transportation and mobility equity by removing a significant physical barrier to residents.”
As for the possibility of the state receiving federal funding from the new infrastructure law to tear down the overpass, Ackerman explained that state and city officials are keeping their options open.
“The City has successfully partnered with [the Massachusetts Department of Transportation] to access federal funding on many previous projects; the new infrastructure legislation will be examined for a potential fit for this project,” Ackerman wrote.
With mere weeks left in office, Curtatone is unlikely to oversee the grounding of McGrath, even if the plans move forward. He will be replaced by Mayor-elect Katjana Ballantyne on Jan. 3.
Ballantyne did not respond to requests for comment.
The effects of urban developments such as McGrath have been studied extensively, particularly the consequences of urban planning on people of color.
Joan Fitzgerald, professor of public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern University, and Julian Agyeman, professor of urban and environmental policy planning at Tufts, analyzed how urban planning has contributed to systemic racism in their September 2021 article, “Removing urban highways can improve neighborhoods blighted by decades of racist policies.”
“Many urban highways built in the 1950s and 1960s were deliberately run through neighborhoods occupied by Black families and other people of color, walling these communities off from jobs and opportunity,” the professors wrote. “As scholars in urban planning and public policy, we are interested in how urban planning has been used to classify, segregate and compromise people’s opportunities based on race. In our view, more support for highway removal and related improvements in marginalized neighborhoods is essential.”
Fitzgerald and Agyeman elaborated on the consequences that highway construction has had on the health and mobility of communities of color.
“Today low-income and minority neighborhoods in many U.S. cities have much higher levels of fine particulate air pollution than adjoining areas,” they wrote. “Transportation investments in the U.S. have historically focused on highways at the expense of public transportation. This disparity reduces opportunities for Black, Hispanic and low-income city residents, who are three to six times more likely to use public transit than white residents.”
The professors explained what they hope to see from the Biden administration’s legislation.
“Simply removing highways won’t transform historically disadvantaged neighborhoods. But it can be a key element of equitable urban planning, along with housing stabilization and affordability, carefully planned new green spaces and transit improvements,” Fitzgerald and Agyeman wrote. “For an administration that has pledged to prioritize racial and environmental justice, removing divisive highways is a good place to start.”