Removal Over Reconstruction: Rectifying Crumbling U.S. Highways

Successful urban highway deconstruction projects have swapped highways for boulevards and saw economic, public health, and urban design benefits. Will more cities opt for highway removal programs over reconstruction?

2 minute read

April 26, 2020, 7:00 AM PDT

By Lee Flannery @leecflannery

Minneapolis Traffic

Nick Lundgren / Shutterstock

Decades-old urban highways in the U.S. are showing their age. In some cases, factors like deteriorating overpasses, unsafe expressway to city street transitions, and proximity to residential neighborhoods are guiding planners to implement fixes guided by modern safety standards and the prioritization of walkable and bikeable urban spaces.

Plans ranging from highway removal to underground relocation are underway across the country and have already seen wins in terms of economic revitalization, public health, and urban design. Steep construction costs and difficulty in securing funding, however, is making the process of reconstruction or removal challenging for many cities.

"While the federal government underwrote most of the cost of building the interstate system in the 1950s and 1960s, state and local governments now provide about 80 percent of public infrastructure funding. With perspectives on land use, transit, and equity also evolving, many cities are finding themselves at a crossroads when it comes to highways: remove or rebuild?," writes Kathleen McCormick.

The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), a long-time proponent of highway removal, published the 2019 Freeways Without Futures report, detailing case studies of removal projects in New Orleans, Tampa, Dallas, Austin, Portland, Louisville, Denver, Syracuse, Oakland, and Buffalo.

The Senate-led Environment and Public Works Committee approved the America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019, a five-year program allocating up to an 80% federal subsidy for planning, technical assistance, and capital construction related to the removal of highways in U.S. cities. In response, CNU is preparing a tool kit and best practices guide to provide cities with such tools as "design standards, transportation network concepts, engineering specifications, and metrics to measure success," says CNU board member and Nelson\Nygaard principal and transit planner Larry Gould.

As planners begin to share their experience and understand the benefits of highway removal, it is becoming increasingly clear that the benefits of removal outweigh those of reconstruction.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020 in Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

Large historic homes and white picket fences line a street.

The End of Single-Family Zoning in Arlington County, Virginia

Arlington County is the latest jurisdiction in the country to effectively end single-family zoning.

March 23, 2023 - The Washington Post

Dilapidated vacant wood slat house painted white in Louisiana

The Quiet Housing Crisis in Rural America

While housing shortages in major cities are grabbing headlines, rural communities are seeing higher rates of growth in housing prices and a silently spreading homelessness crisis.

March 20, 2023 - The Daily Yonder

A view of the Boise skyline, across tress int he foreground. The state capitol is visible amongst other office buildings.

Skyline-Defining High-Rise Potentially Coming to Boise

A rendering making the rounds in Boise depicts a 40-story apartment building that would be taller than all other buildings in one of the fastest growing cities in the United States.

March 20, 2023 - Boise Dev

South of Market

11,000 Housing Units Possible with S.F. Office Conversions, Study Says

A new study by SPUR and the Urban Land Institute’s San Francisco chapter estimates a specific number of apartment units that could be built from vacant office units in the city.

March 29 - The San Francisco Chronicle

Two people riding bikes with helmets on paved park trail

‘Arrested Mobility:’ How Transportation-Related Laws Impact Black Americans

A far-reaching new study highlights the disproportionate effect of biking and walking laws on the mobility of Black Americans.

March 29 - Streetsblog USA


California Attorney General Wants to Get Serious About Housing

A bill sponsored by the AG’s office would give the state’s top attorney more power to intervene in lawsuits related to the state’s housing laws.

March 29 - San Francisco Chronicle

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

HUD’s 2023 Innovative Housing Showcase

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.