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Plan To Widen Highway In South Carolina Would Cut Through Black And Brown Communities

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Democratic leaders could vote as soon as Monday on the long-debated, long-awaited $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. This week, some lawmakers pushed to add more funding in the bill to reconnect majority Black and brown neighborhoods that were torn apart by highway construction in decades past. And while the Biden administration has vowed to try to rectify these past sins, new construction projects are still a threat today. A plan to widen highway I-526 would cut through parts of almost entirely Black and brown communities in North Charleston, S.C. Omar Muhammad is the executive director of the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities, a grassroots organization formed to address quality of life concerns in North Charleston, and he joins us now.

Welcome.

OMAR MUHAMMAD: Thank you for having me.

FADEL: So this proposed highway project is called the West I-526 Lowcountry Corridor. So exactly how many homes lie in its path? And what will happen to this community when this project starts?

MUHAMMAD: This project will be impacting about 200 homes in four communities that are primarily African American, low-wealth neighborhoods. This project is designed to improve the regional economic kind of transportation corridor of that area.

FADEL: I mean, what exactly will the expansion do to these communities?

MUHAMMAD: Those who are not being displaced by this project will be now closer to the road, which will impact their quality of life. So you're talking about noise level pollution. You're talking about air quality pollution from living by - you know, near a roadway. And this increases their impact onto their health when it comes to asthma, when it comes to potential health or heart disease as well.

FADEL: So you talked about expressing some concerns to people in charge of this project. When you've spoken to them about the displacement of families, the health impacts, what have they said to you?

MUHAMMAD: Their immediate response is that they will look at it. They will study it, and they do. They provide that into what is called the environmental impact statement, right? But a lot of times, it takes a technical background. It takes a understanding of the legal process to be able to process the information in an environmental impact statement, right? What communities want is their quality of life improved. And this project disrupts that quality of life when it comes to being able to pass on generational wealth, building opportunities for their families.

FADEL: So let's put this in some historical context. What can you tell us about how these projects have impacted generational wealth for Black families in North Charleston?

MUHAMMAD: Yeah. I mean, there is documentation that shows that, particularly during the urban renewal, part of this - of transportation systems and building out that infrastructure - there is historical evidence as well as studies that have been done where entire Black and brown communities were wiped out - right? - for the purpose of what is in the best interest of the whole. A lot of that was driven by racism, right? It was driven to continue the idea, particularly in the Southern states, this concept and ideal around separating Black and brown communities from white communities.

FADEL: The highway project plan is not final yet. What's next for you and others trying to keep people from being displaced, especially as Congress and the Biden administration continue on this big infrastructure push?

MUHAMMAD: We're looking for policy solutions. And one of the things that we're asking of the Biden administration, as well as EPA, as well as the highway administration, is to look at how the National Environmental Policy Act could be strengthened to involve cumulative impacts 'cause many of these communities are impacted not only by transportation infrastructure. They're impacted by rail. They're impacted by shipping operations, other types of industry that operates on the periphery of their community. When you look at low-wealth communities, it's just not a road project. It is also the health disparities that exist in these communities that will further be exacerbated by these types of projects.

FADEL: Omar Muhammad, executive director of the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities in South Carolina, thank you for your time.

MUHAMMAD: Thank you.

FADEL: And we should note that the project manager of the I-526 expansion, Joy Riley, has acknowledged the negative historical impact of interstate projects on Black residents. But she told The Washington Post this particular expansion is necessary because of population growth and highway gridlock in the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUEEN SONG, "IN THE SPACE CAPSULE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.