(Amy Stelly)

It’s no secret that last year was wrought with challenges.  Louisiana suffered from hurricanes, flooding, and subsidence, all fueled by climate change. During the last four years, we’ve seen a rollback of environmental regulations that have made Louisiana even more vulnerable.

Worse yet, we were walloped by a global pandemic. Our planet is on the brink and we’re paying the price. 

So, we must look to President-elect Biden and his administration to spearhead a reversal of the regulatory damage and begin the repair of our environment. Their plan to fight environmental injustices recognizes that pollution and climate change disproportionately hurt communities of color and low-income communities. For the good of the order, we need government – federal, state and local — that is dead set on making climate action a top priority. Collaboration at all levels of government will be required to help us realize carbon reduction goals and increase investment in green infrastructure and clean energy sources like wind and solar.  

For New Orleans, there’s a huge opportunity to reduce carbon emissions and move closer to fulfilling the goals of the city’s 2017 climate action plan. That opportunity rests with the removal of I-10 over Claiborne Avenue and the restoration of the corridor as a multi-modal boulevard. The goals of the city’s climate plan are to reduce greenhouse gas pollution by 50 percent and to reduce car trips by 50 percent in favor of other modes of transportation – all by 2030, a short nine years away. Reducing the number of cars on the road and increasing transit options will catapult us toward achieving those goals.

As many already know, the Claiborne Expressway was built through the center of the Tulane/Gravier, Tremé, and 7th Ward neighborhoods, casting a dark shadow over the once lush, tree-lined North Claiborne Avenue, the fabled economic and social center of New Orleans’s African American community. 

Constructing freeways through inner-city, African American neighborhoods was a common feature of mid-century urban highway construction and urban renewal projects. Highway development was often accompanied by the destruction of thousands of businesses and homes, fracturing tight-knit communities.

As much of this dated highway infrastructure starts to age, some municipalities are choosing to convert them into multi-modal boulevards or remove them altogether. This usually happens with the assistance of local and congressional officials, which is why it will be essential to understand the stances of candidates who are running for Representative Cedric Richmond’s 2nd Congressional District seat. We need to know their positions on the removal of this controversial highway. 

For ten years, Representative Cedric L. Richmond has represented most of the New Orleans area in Congress and has led the Congressional Black Caucus. His departure to become a senior adviser in the Biden administration has led to candidates jockeying for a position to capture his 2nd Congressional District seat. As candidates line up to take Rep. Richmond’s seat, community stakeholders need to assess the conditions of the Claiborne Expressway and have an honest conversation about its future. 

What would make New Orleans unique is that it would be one of a handful of cities in the United States to tackle the issue of past environmental, economic and planning injustices caused by freeway construction. That would be a huge step toward paying reparations for the destruction of a viable and historically significant American community. 

One noble gesture would be to develop affordable housing on land that will be gained when the interstate is removed from the 7th Ward, the neighborhood that was home to the city’s Black tradesmen and craftsmen. To date, developing affordable housing in the I-10 corridor has seen challenges due to the hulking, physical presence and adverse impacts of the elevated roadway.  For example, the Claiborne Towers, a housing Frankenstein turned sleazy hotel that was built alongside the highway in downtown, died by implosion after becoming a menace to society. It was plagued with rats and nefarious activities that left its occupants crying for help. Needless to say, few people would choose to live near an urban highway, which is why the Claiborne Towers devolved into a transient use that led to the development’s fiery demise.

Many critics say that I-10 over Claiborne is essential for trucks travelling to and from the Port of New Orleans. Major concerns revolve around an increase in truck travel times and easy access to points east. 

The Bronx, New York, had a similar concern about the Sheridan Expressway’s removal. The Sheridan Expressway blocked communities from parks and open spaces along the Bronx River for decades. The Sheridan functioned as a significant connection between the Hunts Point Market and I-95. The Hunts Point Market is the largest food distribution center of its kind in the United States. And the Sheridan Expressway connected the center to a more extensive interstate network. Hunts Point Market officials, like officials in New Orleans, were concerned that removing the expressway would adversely affect access to a huge economic engine. 

The New York Department of Transportation created a design based on compromise. The result is a hybrid boulevard with a fast connection to I-95; improved pedestrian access to parks along the Bronx River; and cycle tracks for bicyclists. As part of the project, a pedestrian bridge was created along with a new waterfront esplanade along the Bronx River. 

Today, traffic going to the Hunts Point Market moves unyieldingly and communities adjacent to the former expressway have received streetscape improvements, such as planted medians, street trees, and improved lighting. The Bronx’s experience converting the Sheridan Expressway into a multi-modal boulevard offers many examples of what could be done in New Orleans along the Claiborne Corridor. 

Replanting Claiborne’s median coupled with thoughtfully designed parking and streetscape improvements, along with protected paths for cyclists, would be transformative for the neighborhoods that were destroyed by the building of the highway. Moreover, COVID has shown us that returning the open space to Claiborne is vitally important for the well-being of our community. Additionally, improving connections between I-610 and I-10 and properly repairing the streets would alleviate the pressure on Claiborne and offer travel alternatives.  

But the key to making New Orleans work without I-10 over Claiborne is to improve transit. New Orleans is a compact city of boulevards. So, adding reliable bus rapid transit between the CBD and the farther reaches of the metropolitan area would be easy to implement. Strategically placing park-and-rides along the routes would make it attractive for drivers to leave their cars and enjoy the convenience of public transportation. Realizing a commuter train between Baton Rouge and New Orleans with stations at the airport and Union Station would be icing on the cake.

The Biden administration has signaled that it will take meaningful steps to right the wrongs born of environmental, economic and planning injustices. Our new congressman for Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District must be a champion who places people first and is committed to capturing the resources to rebuild Claiborne as a grand, multi-modal boulevard, equitably restore its glorious historic corridor and bring us all closer to a more environmentally sound New Orleans. 

Jay Arzu, a Fulbright scholar, analyzes best practices and policy solutions to promote integrated and comprehensive policy impacts in Black communities nationwide. Mr. Arzu formerly served as a Transportation & Equity Research Fellow for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. He obtained a Master of Public Administration at SDA Bocconi in Milan, Italy. Jay currently resides in Rochester, New York. 

Amy Stelly is the opinions editor for The Lens. She is an urbanist who lives in Treme and advocates for the removal of the Claiborne Expressway.