Can 'capping' I-95 reconnect parts of Wilmington it divided? | Delaware First Media
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Can 'capping' I-95 reconnect parts of Wilmington it divided?

Apr 23, 2021

The current reconstruction project on I-95 through Wilmington is called "Restore the Corridor."

Another form of restoration is drawing attention to what's above the interstate: several overpasses, and on each side, neighborhoods that have not been connected for decades.

The idea to 'cap' or cover a portion of the highway is a concept that former Mayor Jim Baker floated twice during his administration. Now, the idea is being revived with new discussion about covering the interstate, possibly with trails, parks, and historical and cultural attractions.

"I tell my constituents that 95 may divide us, but it doesn't define us," Wilmington Councilwoman Bregetta Fields said on the night that Council unanimously passed a resolution supporting the project.

Over the winter, elected officials representing the city asked US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg to get behind the idea. Recently Buttigieg said on Twitter “let me be clear: American highways were too often built through Black neighborhoods on purpose – dividing communities, adding pollution, and making pedestrians less safe.”

Baker arrived in Wilmington as the interstate's path was still being blasted through rock in the 1960s. He believes the designers were most interested in keeping the highway on a straight path - much more so than preserving any neighborhoods.

A rendering of former Wilmington mayor James Baker's vision for am I-95 cap.
Credit City of Wilmington

Baker's most recent proposal came in 2010 in his Vision for Wilmington 2030 document. By now, 2030 is 'only' nine years away.

"With a covering now, you can reconnect neighborhoods and you can get a better feel for the city being connected, instead of disconnected because of a highway," Baker said.

Kevin Melloy, a local realtor who is also active in civic and arts causes, took part in the painting of murals on two overpasses that currently cross I-95. He has also taken up the cause for covering the interstate.

"It would hopefully truly unify the City of Wilmington, which was truly divided in the 1960s," Melloy said.

Wilmington is not alone in addressing the social impact of infrastructure decisions that were made decades ago. Senator Tom Carper and Senator Chris Coons, both Delaware Democrats, are cosponsors of federal legislation that would appropriate grants through the US Department of Transportation to communities that have been impacted by "infrastructure that creates obstacles to mobility and opportunity."

“The development of the Interstate Highway System connected our country in ways it hadn’t been previously, but it also upended neighborhoods and left communities divided, many times over economic and racial lines. In many communities of color, nearby highways continue to represent real barriers for getting around and getting ahead,” Carper said in a statement. “The Reconnecting Communities Act would empower communities to reverse this unfortunate legacy by building spaces over and around our highways, revitalizing nearby areas as a result. This legislation would help fund projects like a highway cap on I-95 in Wilmington to reconnect cities and open the door on a more equitable and sustainable future.”

The cap would fill the gaps between existing overpasses allowing for a park and other amenities above the highway
Credit Delaware Public Media

Meanwhile, Delaware Department of Transportation Secretary Nicole Majeski has included $100,000 in DelDOT's recommended budget for a feasibility study into the project that would be carried out by the Wilmington Area Planning Council (WILMAPCO).

"We have a historic opportunity to not be limited by dollars the way we have been historically," New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer (D) said. "That means that the limit for the things we can do will not necessarily be dollars as much as it will be our imaginations."

State Representative Sherry Dorsey Walker (D-Wilmington) added:

"This could be the opportunity to say, maybe we made some mistakes in the past. But, we're working toward a brighter future."

As for Baker, he's glad to the ideas he backed years ago again come to the forefront.

"Fortunately, there are people now who say ‘Yeah, let's do it.’"