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New Orleans’ Ninth Ward Fights Freeway Through Historic Black Neighborhood

New Orleans residents are fighting a racist freeway project that would damage the community and uproot families.

Ninth Ward resident Derrick Anthony Renkins Jr. criticizes the Department of Transportation for its poor community outreach. (Photo: Michael Stein)

“You say you come to inform, but there’s no information. You’re playing games with my home.” Schoolteacher and Ninth Ward resident Derrick Anthony Renkins Jr. was standing at a rancorous public meeting, passionately opposing the proposed Florida Avenue Roadway, a project that would funnel truck traffic through the Ninth Ward from neighboring St. Bernard Parish.

There were about 200 Ninth Ward community members in the Saint Mary of the Angels church that night to see what the Department of Transportation had planned for their home. This situation was unfortunately familiar for them. Ninth Ward residents continuously contend with infrastructure projects that disregard their well-being and ignore their input. It’s these polices that isolated the Lower Ninth Ward from the rest of the city, robbed it of public resources and caused it to suffer the worst devastation during Hurricane Katrina.

There was national recognition after Katrina that much of the storm’s destruction was human-made, and the US has moved closer to acknowledging the devastating impact of racist infrastructure projects and city planning. Former Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx admitted that “urban renewal” and highway building have harmed poor Black neighborhoods and recommended that future infrastructure projects benefit communities that “have been on the wrong side of transportation decisions.” Louisiana and the city of New Orleans have left this advice unheeded, and the Ninth Ward now faces another infrastructure project that would damage the community and uproot families.

At the front of the church stood Scott Hoffeld, a representative from the private consultancy firm Arcadis. Many in the crowd watched Hoffeld with frustration while he explained the proposal. When he was finished, he asked the crowd if they had any questions. Dozens of hands shot up.

Public meeting attendees raise their hands to question Arcadis representative Scott Hoffeld. (Photo: Michael Stein)Public meeting attendees raise their hands to question Arcadis representative Scott Hoffeld. (Photo: Michael Stein)

Most Ninth Ward residents are already fed up with the existing truck traffic saturating their roads. Activists have been working to divert St. Bernard trucks away from the Ninth Ward, but they’re now threatened by a plan that would permanently establish a truck route through their community.

“The fact is, freeways ruin neighborhoods,” explains Beth Butler, the executive director of A Community Voice, a local nonprofit organization. “It’s astonishing that in this day in time they would put a freeway through a Black neighborhood.” Residents complain that trucks pollute their communities, damage their roads and reduce their property values. There is also concern about the source of these trucks, namely the Chalmette Refinery. This large petrochemical plant ships out an array of dangerous materials, and many worry about toxic spills and contamination. “They’ve already experienced environmental racism,” says Butler. “It shouldn’t keep happening.”

Then there is the issue of eminent domain. A 2013 environmental assessment concluded that the project requires the acquisition of up to 105.4 acres of land, including 128 residences, nine water resources, six commercial structures and a church.

A Ninth Ward resident turns to her friend after the Florida Avenue Roadway proposal is first explained. (Photo: Michael Stein)A Ninth Ward resident turns to her friend after the Florida Avenue Roadway proposal is first explained. (Photo: Michael Stein)“Before we rebuilt [after Katrina], we had a big meeting, why didn’t y’all tell us then that you were putting the roadway here?” asked Vernice Lyons, a homeowner in the Lower Ninth Ward. “Because we wouldn’t have rebuilt it. We built our houses from the ground up. We had nothing but lots there. But y’all waited till after we rebuilt and now y’all want to take us away again?”

“I’m sorry, that was before our contract,” Hoffeld responded. “These projects are sometimes imperfect.”

Hoffeld tried to assure the crowd that the roadway was intended to benefit the Ninth Ward, not damage it. But the original iteration of this roadway was a raised highway that didn’t include a single onramp in the Ninth Ward, casting doubt among residents that this project was intended in any way for their benefit.

Hoffeld admitted that a central purpose of the new high-speed roadway would be to provide interstate access to trucks coming from St. Bernard. The audience rejected this justification on two grounds. The first was a general refusal to suffer damage in their community for another’s gain. The second demurral came from people who have lived in the neighborhood their entire lives and have a comprehensive understanding of the street grid. They insisted that this road isn’t necessary because there is already a freeway that provides interstate access.

The existing freeway takes St. Bernard trucks downriver away from the city, instead of west into the Ninth Ward. Truckers familiar with the area attest to the convenience of this route, and say a new Florida Avenue roadway wouldn’t do much to truncate their commutes. When asked if he would utilize the new roadway once it was built, veteran trucker Lloyd Gaimer said it wouldn’t be much quicker. “It’s all about the same, I’ll take either one.”

Randy Guillot, vice chairman of American Trucking Associations and member of the Louisiana Trucking Association, insists that this roadway isn’t consistent with New Orleans’ contemporary infrastructure needs. “It would be much more appropriate to spend the money elsewhere,” he says. Ninth Ward residents agree, citing a long list of desired infrastructure developments in their community including levee improvements to protect them from future flooding.

Many activists on the front line of the opposition say the Louisiana Department of Transportation appears to be trying to deceive them as to its true motivation for pursuing the plan. “We’re not getting the whole picture,” says community activist Rev. Willie Calhoun Jr. “You’re dealing with ignorance here. I’m not calling the people ignorant, but they lack the knowledge of what the overall game plan is.” At the meeting, the audience continued to push Hoffeld about the roadway’s true purpose.

“From a legislative standpoint, there are components of this plan that must be constructed,” he told the crowd.

He was referring to a 28-year-old piece of legislation that mandates the construction of a new bridge on Florida Avenue. It’s called the Transportation Infrastructure Model for Economic Development (TIMED) program, created by the state legislature in 1989. It was the single largest transportation bill in state history, allocating $1.4 billion for 16 infrastructure projects. TIMED projects have already cost an estimated $5.2 billion and two of the projects were never completed. One of these unfinished projects is the new Florida Avenue bridge.

Today, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Ninth Ward residents agree on at least one thing: There is still a pressing need for a new Florida Avenue bridge. The Lower Ninth Ward is cut off from the rest of New Orleans by a canal, and the existing bridges that link the Lower Ninth Ward are often unavailable, regularly closed for construction or raised to allow boats to pass. This keeps the Lower Ninth Ward isolated from the rest of the city, restricting access to hospitals, jobs and supermarkets. Louisiana State Sen. Wesley T. Bishop, a native of the Lower Ninth Ward, attended the public meeting and told the crowd, “There is a need to have another way to get out of the Lower Ninth Ward, but the way it’s being proposed to us is unacceptable. We’re trying to find a way to keep the project.”

Louisiana State Sen. and Ninth Ward native Wesley T. Bishop talks to the crowd about the proposal's attributes and shortfalls. (Photo: Michael Stein)Louisiana State Sen. Wesley T. Bishop, a Ninth Ward native, talks to the crowd about the proposal’s attributes and shortfalls. (Photo: Michael Stein)The current proposal from the Louisiana Department of Transportation combines the Florida Avenue bridge and Florida Avenue Roadway projects. Butler believes that the current composition of the proposal is meant to force the community to accept the unwanted roadway in order to get the much-needed bridge. “This is an optional program, that has not been made clear to people,” she says. “People were told things that made them think that you had to take the freeway with the bridge.” Calhoun reported that an Arcadis representative told him the bridge wouldn’t be built without the roadway. Calhoun and Butler are working to inform people that the state is required by law to build a new bridge, whether or not the Florida Avenue extension project is approved.

This roadway has been proposed many times in the past. As Calhoun recalls, “My father talked about this in the ’60s — this is way more in-depth than you think.” The idea for a thoroughfare from New Orleans into St. Bernard can be traced back to the 1927 New Orleans Master Plan. But the city’s needs are very different than they were in 1927, 1989 or even 10 years ago, and some question if this plan is a prudent use of government funds.

The original TIMED program allocated $30 million to build the new bridge. An assessment from 2013 estimated that the entire Florida Avenue extension project could cost over half a billion dollars. Southern Louisiana is in great need of infrastructure development. Not only are its streets crumbling, but its coastline is also experiencing erosion at a rate of one football field every hour. The state recently created a $50 billion plan to combat this subsidence, but there is still a $30 billion budget shortfall. Louisiana is also dealing with one of the largest budget deficits in state history, and many are perplexed as to why the Louisiana Department of Transportation is focusing on an expensive plan that is not only opposed by the community, but offers limited commercial value.

So the question remains, who benefits from the roadway’s construction? Calhoun said he doesn’t know, but wouldn’t be surprised if “this is just more of Bobby Jindal’s people getting money,” referencing the rampant corruption in Louisiana politics. But he also suggested that perhaps this is just an infrastructure project that has floated around the state’s bureaucracy for so long that it’s attained a weight of its own, being pushed by nobody in particular, but advancing nonetheless. “I don’t even think our elected officials have been told the real deal on this,” he said. “They’re trying to promote it just to promote it.”

Ultimately, what many Ninth Ward residents say is most frustrating is that they feel ignored. Those attending the public meeting said they believe the state is withholding information and that even if they were fully informed, there isn’t anything they can do to stop the project. Many saw the meeting as only a façade of public outreach, meant to check a bureaucratic box rather than truly hear and integrate community concerns.

A Ninth Ward community member disparages the Florida Avenue Roadway project. (Photo: Michael Stein)A Ninth Ward community member disparages the Florida Avenue Roadway project. (Photo: Michael Stein)“For the Department of Transportation to allow you to come and stand in front of us and not prepare for your presentation lets me know that once again, my life does not matter,” Renkins Jr. told Hoffeld at the end of the meeting. “The task at hand is for you to reach out to me, not for me to reach out to you.”

The highway authority is scheduled to make a final decision on the future of the project in January 2018. Between now and then, there is only one public meeting and a final public hearing scheduled. It remains unclear whether community leaders have any recourse to stop a project that is so ubiquitously derided in the Ninth Ward.

“Do we have any say as a community?” asked one frustrated meeting attendee. “At the end of the day, ya’ll gonna do what ya’ll want to do. I don’t know anywhere else in the city where they would allow this to happen.”

“They don’t understand New Orleans,” says Butler. “These are communities that are working class. It’s the only affordable housing in the city almost. The history of these communities; they are families that have built this city. They are strong African American families, working class, who just did everything right and were never rewarded for it. But at least they had their own community, their own churches. This plan is going to pulverize this Black neighborhood that they know nothing about.”

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