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Downtown need a makeover? More cities are razing urban highways

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That possibility has planners from Providence, R.I., and Baltimore to New Orleans and Seattle rethinking decisions to run highways through the hearts of cities. To that end, they are hoping to get some help from federal transportation programs (though budget-cutters in the US House have this program in their sights), as well as from local and state sources. New Haven's $16 million from Uncle Sam, for instance, will help demolish a short stub of highway – called the Oak Street Connector – that delivers visitors to a Walgreens and a parking garage.

Two things are driving these extreme make-overs. One is the simple fact that many highways built in the postwar years are nearing the end of their useful lives, says Joseph DiMento, a professor of planning and law at the University of California, Irvine, who is at work on a book about urban highways. The other, he says, is a growing faith that urban centers, including some that have been long neglected, have development potential.

Still, he cautions, not every city can reclaim its downtown by ripping up highway, because the highway may not be the biggest problem.

"You can't isolate freeway intervention as the only factor in the depopulation of many Rust Belt and Snow Belt cities. It was a factor but not the only factor. People were moving out independently," Mr. DiMento says.

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