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A World Without NEPA: Parramore, Orlando

Construction of Interstate 4 (I-4) through downtown Orlando in 1960. The route exacerbated neighborhood segregation and income inequality.

Our country’s Interstate Highway System is frequently cited as one the greatest public works project in history, and for good reason.

Today, nearly a quarter of all vehicle miles in the United States – some 720 billion each year – are driven on Interstate system. It is the backbone of our economy. It has made travel safer and more efficient for drivers, passengers, and pedestrians alike.

Even then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower could not predict how fundamentally the Interstate Highway System would change America. Reflecting on the impacts of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 some years later, Eisenhower wrote the following in his memoirs: “Its impacts on the American economy – the jobs it would produce in manufacturing and construction, the rural areas it would open up – was beyond calculation.”

It also created great problems to match. With bedrock environmental laws and other essential legal protections like the Clean Air Act, Equal Access to Justice Act, and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) still decades away, inner cities across the country were ripped apart as 1950s and 1960s-era freeways were built.

Running straight through urban communities, these new highways literally turned existing racial borders to concrete, displacing hundreds of thousands of residents across the country, and further stratifying already uneven economic development. Sometimes it was accidental, but most of the time it was intentional – especially in the South.

Nowhere was this disruption and decline of urban communities of color better exemplified than Orlando’s west-central neighborhood of Parramore.

The historical heart of the city’s black community, Parramore was once a vibrant and bustling neighborhood.

Until the 1950s, Parramore was intimately connected to downtown Orlando. But as single-family housing, and suburban employment became more common in the post-war era, demand for cars – and roads – increased.

After President Eisenhower signed the Highway Act in 1956, business leaders, political leaders, and white middle-class families – a powerful combination – lobbied hard to bring the interstate highway system to – or rather through – Orlando.

Although some city residents questioned the project’s proposed route, source of funding, and it’s potential for widespread environmental destruction, a coalition of influential local residents including Martin Anderson (publisher of the Orlando Sentinel and Orlando Star) and Billy Dial (President of the First National Bank), gave the construction of Interstate 4 (I-4) it’s official seal of approval.

Absent from this public debate were those that stood to be most affected by the project – the residents of Parramore. Without the National Environmental Policy Act’s mandatory public comment periods, they were unable to weigh in on the megaproject.

In 1957, after a few city meetings and the completion of one $11,000 survey some three years earlier 1954, construction on Interstate 4 from Tampa to Daytona Beach began.

A photo of newly completed Interstate 4 in downtown Orlando during the early 1960s.

At the same time as construction began in Parramore, plans were being finalized on another section of I-4 less than five miles away in the suburban Orlando neighborhood of Winter Park. Only this time, something was different.

Incredulously, the predominantly middle and upper-class white residents of Winter Park were concerned about the multitude of economic, environmental and social impacts that the construction of an expressway through the middle of their neighborhood might bring about.

In 1961, Winter Park citizens successfully pressured the State Road Department and the Bureau of Public Roads in Washington D.C. to push the expressway trajectory to the outskirts of the city. Residents sent letters to newspapers and the city’s civic groups joined the protest.

Back in Parramore, the construction of Interstate 4 displaced some 551 properties. By the late 1960s when construction was finally complete, I-4 had completely severed the neighborhood of Parramore from the city’s more affluent downtown and business district.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, residents of Parramore suffered rapid decline in quality of life matched only by an equally dramatic rise in crime and addiction. In 1960, Parramore’s population peaked at 10,630 residents. By 1970 that number dropped to 7,273. By 1980, that number had dropped again to 5,262.

By the early 2000s, toxic air pollution in Parramore from the nearby interstate was so bad that one reporter remarked “even breathing is a risk.”

With the construction of Interstate 4 also came a dramatic increase in income inequality. In 1960, Parramore’s median household income was $2,700, compared to a citywide average of $3,200. By 1980, median household income in Orlando had climbed to $14,000, but in Parramore lagged behind at a mere $6,000. In just twenty years, income inequality between Parramore and greater Orlando increased from $500 to $8,000.

Unfortunately, the story of Parramore is by no means unique.

Although the Civil Rights movement began picking up steam and drawing national headlines by the late 1950s, without today’s legal protections requiring project sponsors to look at census data on race and income (as well as ownership records for affected homes) for disparate impacts, the story of Parramore is the same story that played out in urban communities across all across the country – Chicago’s Near West Side, the Charlotte neighborhood of Brooklyn, and Los Angeles’ Sugar Hill, to name a few, all suffered the same fate as Parramore.

With the exception of the Civil Rights Act, no single law did more to help to ensure public input and transparency in future government decision-making than the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

NEPA is sometimes called a tree-hugging kumbaya environmental law, and it is that – but it is much more than that.

It is a statistical fact that low-income, minority, and rural communities are disproportionately exposed to pollution and toxins on the job, at school, and in their homes.

For these communities, NEPA is a critical tool that protects local communities from dangerous and poorly managed projects. NEPA is the law that ensures that informed decision-making, public engagement, and accountability are components of every single major federal action affecting local communities and the environment

Passed into law with overwhelming bipartisan support in 1970, NEPA has two essential components. First, NEPA requires government agencies to study and disclose a proposed project’s potential environmental, economic, and public health impacts before a decision is made and construction begins.

Second and no less important, NEPA also provides important opportunities for meaningful input from affected communities through legally mandated public comment periods. In many cases, this review process provides the only forum for citizens to engage on major federal actions that affect their health, communities, and environment.

We teach our children to “look before they leap.” Simply put, NEPA requires the government to do the same.

NEPA, the Clean Air Act, and other environmental laws are certainly not perfect; they are by no means a guarantee of victory for the righteous. But they do require the government to take a long, hard look at projects before they are approved.

They are, in so many words, the legal recognition that mega-projects often come with mega-complexities that should be studied before the federal government signs off.

Unfortunately, President Trump’s proposed infrastructure plan calls for gutting bedrock environmental laws like NEPA (and more than a dozen others) under the guise of “speeding up” the permitting process would severely restrict the public’s ability to take the government to court and hold it accountable when it violates the law.

Already, previous rollbacks that delegated responsibilities for the environmental review process to states have made it difficult for concerned citizens to receive reimbursement under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) for legal expenses when they successfully challenge a federal agency’s agency’s decision under certain state delegation program. President Trump’s “build-first-ask-questions-later” infrastructure plan would serve to further limit the ability of the public to meaningfully weigh in on massive projects impacting their livelihoods and the health of their communities.

The pollution in the low-income neighborhood of Parramore is violence of a kind Americans tend to ignore. But it is as deliberate and as politically determined as any more recognizable act of racial violence.

President Trump frequently calls laws like NEPA “burdensome regulations” that slow down the permitting process. Ask the residents of local communities like Parramore and they will tell you a different story – the truth. They’ll tell you that laws like NEPA aren’t a roadblock, they’re a roadmap to better decision-making. They’ll tell you that shortcutting environmental reviews doesn’t just cost taxpayer money, it jeopardizes worker safety as well as the health of our local communities.

It gets worse. Although President Trump campaigned on a “$1 trillion infrastructure plan,” the current proposal only contains $200 billion in dedicated federal funding. The rest of the invented money is supposed to come from private investment (so-called P3s).

State and local governments are already responsible for over 80% of all infrastructure investment, but instead of bridging the state and local funding gap, Trump’s infrastructure plan relies heavily on private investment (i.e., leveraging private equity capital). That means more tolls in our cities and little or no improvements at all for rural America. After all, there is simply no incentive for Wall Street investors to fix a broken bridge in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

The kicker? That $200 billion wouldn’t actually include any new federal spending. Instead, that pot of money would come from massive cuts to Amtrak, TIGER and other existing infrastructure programs.

In President Trump’s proposed $4.4 trillion FY2019 budget, the Highway Trust Fund, the main source of transportation funding in the United States, stands to lose $95 billion over the next 10 years. Also targeted for cuts are Amtrak ($7.6 billion) and the US Army Corps of Engineers ($14 billion). Add all of that up and President Trump’s proposed budget and infrastructure “plan” would cut $275 billion in infrastructure spending across the government, a net loss of $45 billion to $75 billion over 10 years.

For decades, Congress and the federal government have starved state and local governments of badly need money to finance infrastructure upgrades. Right now, the US Army Corps of Engineers alone has $90 billion in projects that have cleared all environmental reviews but cannot get off the ground due to a lack of funding.

Instead of addressing this funding gap – the largest barrier to project completion – President Trump’s infrastructure plan is loaded with deceptive buzzwords like “streamlining” and “permitting reform” that would scapegoat the environmental review process and roll back essential protections for our environment and public health.

Hardworking American’s know that there are no shortcuts in life, and the same is true of our infrastructure.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave our country’s infrastructure a grade of D+ in 2017 and estimates that the United States will need to invest over $4 trillion to bring our infrastructure to an acceptable level.

At $516 billion, the construction of President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System was the most expensive public works project in history. For all of its successes and failures, rebuilding our country’s crumbling infrastructure will require the same bold leadership and direct federal spending on a similar scale.

Only this time, armed with bedrock environmental laws like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and NEPA, safe roads won’t have to come at the cost of clean drinking water or broken communities.

 

[1] Dwight D. Eisenhower. Mandate for Change 1953-1956. (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1963).

[2] Gary R. Mormino. Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida. (University Press of Florida, 2008).

[3] Henry Balch. “Tampa-Orlando Interstate Link about Done,” The Orlando Sentinel, February 1961.

[4] Yeilding and Provost, Callahan-Holden-Parramore-Lake Dot: Historic and Architectural Survey, (1988), 04.

[5] Richard Foglesong. Prologue to light rail: the Interstate – 4 Controversy in Winter Park. (FL: Rollins College, 1999). pp. 18-19.

[6] Orlando Planning and Development Department. Holden-Parramore Neighborhood Plan. (November, 1987).

[7] Sherri M. Owens, “Warehouse, shelters are too plentiful for residents,” The Orlando Sentinel, November 3, 1997.

[8] Julia Craven. “Even Breathing Is A Risk In One Of Orlando’s Poorest Neighborhoods.” January 23, 2018.

[9] “Doctor’s Historic Home was ‘a place for hospitality.” The Orlando Sentinel. December 26, 2006.

[10] Raymond Mohl, “Race and Housing in the Postwar City: An Explosive History,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 94, No. 01, (Chicago, 2001). pp. 13-14.

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