In the course of writing an article for Metropolis on New Orleans’ citizen planner, Amy Stelly, and her efforts to tear down the elevated highway that runs through her neighborhood, I talked to New Orleans’ congressman, Troy Carter. A former state senator and city councilperson, Carter won a special election in May 2021 to fill Cedric Richmond’s seat when Richmond left the U.S. House of Representatives to take a position in the Biden administration. As it turns out, the infrastructure bill passed last year includes funding for a reconnecting neighborhoods program, which would address the problems created by urban highways. Carter, who serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has been active in lobbying both the White House and the Department of Transportation in efforts to direct as much of that funding toward the Claiborne Corridor, the roughly 2-mile stretch of elevated highway that cuts through the Treme neighborhood, separating New Orleans from its historic core. I interviewed Carter back in May with the purpose of getting a firmer read on exactly where he stood on the Claiborne Expressway. To an extent he hedged, attempting understandably to leave all of the possible funding options open. What follows is an interview that has been edited for length and clarity.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
TC: Troy Carter
Tell me about the April meeting in Treme. They were very excited that you attended. What was your sense of the community, as it relates to the highway?
The sense of the community is that they’re cautiously optimistic. This community has seen a lot of false starts on issues that have been of concern for them. They’re justifiably concerned about the details, the what-ifs—both the consequences and the potential unintended consequences. I share many of those concerns. We should be very diligent and dutiful in doing our homework to make sure that we anticipate any consequences, intended or otherwise, mitigate them, and make sure we get the best possible outcome.
Which I think argues for a planning study.
Well, let me tell you: yes and no. Yes, because planning is my background and something that I firmly believe in. And no, because we don’t need to have a brand new study. There’s been multiple studies done over the years. My suggestion has been that we knock the dust off of some of them and modify them, which will give us an opportunity to take the historical data, much of which is still useful, and combine it with current-day concerns and nuances. This would expedite things and put us way ahead of any other project in the country. As I’ve suggested to Mitch Landrieu, the czar for infrastructure out of the White House, as well as to [Transportation] Secretary [Pete] Buttigieg, the Clairborne Corridor would serve as a perfect model, the perfect prototype, for what these projects that have impacted neighborhoods could look like with the proper investment.
We’re talking specifically about removal here?
We’re talking about some hybrid of such. Complete removal, partial removal, modification—I think all of that should be on the table. There are a lot of moving parts here, and to do it right, we must look at multiple options and best practices across the country. Utilize those non-biased professionals who can come in and listen to the community more than talk, but then employ the value and expertise of best practices on how to accomplish these missions.
I lived in New Orleans for 10 years, so I know that road a little bit. What would partial removal look like?
Well, you can begin further down, going away from Esplanade, in the opposite direction, toward the on-ramp between St. Bernard, and maybe modify the ramping there. Still, it’s far too early to really be able to give you something concrete, other than total removal is not the only option. It is in fact an option, but there may be some other options that allow us to get more bang for our buck. And this is based on conversations that I’ve had with both community leaders as well as professional planners, both here in Louisiana and in other places. It’s important to emphasize that we have to explore all of the options and come up with the best option. I’m encouraged that neighbors have strong opinions and have done their homework.
It’s also important to note that this project doesn’t belong to any one group or individual or any government entity. This is very much a people-driven process of charette and discussion. And while there’s been a lot of people that have weighed in, I want to recognize all of the voices, because they’re people from different areas that disagree on some points and agree on most. But in order to get this right, the most important thing for government and quasi-government agencies to do is to listen to the people.
I feel like if there weren’t real displacement and gentrification fears in the neighborhood, there wouldn’t be anybody who would be against taking the highway down. The fear in the community is that it will open up a whole lot of land and become a free-for-all favoring developers.
Yes. And that’s part of the unintended consequences. We don’t want the indigenous people of that community to be further displaced. Many of them lost their homes and businesses when the overpass was built. The last thing we need to do is to have even more lose them now when, or if, it’s removed. So that calls for careful planning. In legislative circles, we often speak of unintended consequences. In our attempt to do something good, we’ve got to be careful that we don’t end up with something bad. That’s why a careful, deliberate process is important.
And is there some sort of timeline here?
Well, time is of the essence, Martin. This is not something that’s a back burner issue. I spoke with Secretary Buttigieg about maybe a week and a half ago now. This was a major part of our discussion. As you know, we had a meeting with the community, with plans that we would be coming back together. I’ve had an opportunity to speak with former Mayor [Mitch] Landrieu. So the ball is moving. We’ve talked to a number of the community activists, who are doing separate small group meetings, without government, without cameras, to try and get us close to some harmony among the community leaders. Because, again, no one group or individual is going to move this ball any faster. It’s going to be a collective effort of all the individuals in the community. And in my estimation, they all have equal sway on how we do this.
And where is Landrieu on the Claiborne Corridor?
I think he understands. He understood this issue as a former mayor. This is not a new one for the people of New Orleans. It has been talked about for many, many years. The former mayor, while he has not weighed in verbally on the what, when, where, or how, I’m very confident that he’s supportive of a process that brings some renewal to that neighborhood.
And have you spoken to Mayor Cantrell?
I have spoken to the mayor, and I’m hopeful that we will be shoulder to shoulder, pushing forward a project that makes sense for the community.
I haven’t heard a stated position from her on I-10 yet.
And I don’t know that I can recall one that is specific, but I will tell you in general that I’ve worked well with the mayor. And while there’s been some tension between the mayor and some of the stakeholders, as it relates to the Municipal Auditorium, I do not think that spills over into this project.
Is there money in the infrastructure bill to deal with I-10 specifically, or is that to be determined?
There’s money in the infrastructure bill. As you recall, at one point we had a much larger number than the $1.2-plus trillion that we ultimately passed. Everything shrunk a little bit. There’s about a billion dollars that’s in the infrastructure bill for projects like this: neighborhoods that have suffered because of interstates that divided communities. While we know that a billion dollars is not enough for the entire country, I have made it clear, and it’s in my push, that if you really want to make a difference and demonstrate what can happen, New Orleans is the best case for a model prototype, to show the rest of the world how we can get this done and done right. So if you have a billion dollars and give a few million here, a few million there, throughout the country, you really aren’t making the kind of impact that you can make, if you can show one or two strong pilots that you can take from start to finish, and demonstrate the positive impact it has on the economy, the culture, the people. And we can then use it as a model, to go back to Congress and get additional funds, so other communities could likewise have a completed project. Not a study, we’ve had enough studies, not a review, not a few dollars that engineers and architects make money on, but one that will bring the kind of relief to the community that’s needed.
I would argue that some sort of removal is the only way to go.
Well, I don’t think there’s anything that avoids some kind of removal, don’t get me wrong. I’m not convinced that maybe [it’s] a total removal. I just don’t know yet. But I do know that removal, the word removal, has to be in the equation.
It’s good to hear somebody with some pull say that. What’s the condition of the highway? You’re in touch with Secretary Buttigeig. Is it falling apart? Fixable?
I wouldn’t say it’s falling apart. It’s old and has, like most of our infrastructure, a significant amount of deferred maintenance … you know, a little bit of bubble gum and masking tape here and there. But the reality is I would rather not put good money after bad in fixing something that may need to be removed or significantly modified, and I think the secretary understands that. He’s been very diligent, looking at these things from a very close viewpoint. I’m optimistic and impressed with the level of knowledge he was able to have in a conversation with me that demonstrated that he’s well-versed on the project. As you know, the president highlighted this location in his own comments. So, again, that gives me great hope that Louisiana—and New Orleans, more specifically—is on the radar screen in the White House and in the office of the Secretary of Transportation.
Thank you so much, I appreciate your time. And please keep pushing the rock up the hill. The good news is, this is a national movement, and New Orleans can really lead here.
Listen, just so it’s clear: I’m not being this congressman who wants to hog up all the money. I’m this congressman that wants to demonstrate that there are a lot of communities across this country that need help, but we don’t need help piecemeal. We need to at least get one project done and show that it can be done. I’ve got a lot of colleagues in Congress who have similar situations. I just think that we’re a little bit ahead of the game, because there’s been so much due diligence done in this area already.
Featured image via the Congress For New Urbanism.