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U.S. DOT to Spend $1B Undoing Past Infrastructure Harm

Elected and other officials gathered in Birmingham, Ala., to announce a new U.S. Department of Transportation pilot program aimed at addressing past infrastructure projects that have harmed and divided communities.

An aerial view of a highway interchange in Los Angeles.
An aerial view of a highway interchange in Los Angeles.
Communities wanting to remove or retrofit divisive pieces of transportation infrastructure have a new pilot program to turn to.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has announced the formation of a first-ever program to address past wrongs from the development of highways, rail lines and other infrastructure that have divided neighborhoods, often at the expense of Black and brown neighborhoods.

“When we see a piece of infrastructure that we set up in the past, cutting people off from jobs, or schools, or health care… We need to do something about it. We’ve long known it’s a problem,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in comments with reporters Wednesday to announce the new $1 billion Reconnecting Communities program, funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The money will be paid out over five years.

The projects eligible for funding can take a number of different forms, said Buttigieg, offering examples like capping a highway to build apartments on top.

“It could mean constructing a public greenway that allows people to walk, bike and access public transit,” he added.

The agency formally announced the new program Thursday from Birmingham, Ala., a city with a long history of highways and rail lines dividing up neighborhoods, as well as serving as the physical and emotional center of the civil rights movement. Elected and other officials will gather to launch a new bus rapid transit line in the city, known as the Birmingham Xpress, to connect some 25 communities to jobs, schools and health care.

“This is just yet an example of how a community, local leadership, working with state DOTs and transit agencies, have used infrastructure as a way to provide greater access to opportunity,” said Christopher Coes, assistant secretary for transportation policy.

The Reconnecting Communities pilot program will provide $195 million in funding for the first year, with $50 million for planning grants and $145 million for capital construction grants.

Applicants are encouraged to structure projects to pursue multiple funding sources, such as other DOT grant programs.

“We are highly encouraging project sponsors to not just look to this program, but to use this as a catalyst and a leveraging point to take full advantage of the bipartisan infrastructure law,” said Stephanie Pollack, deputy administrator of the Federal Highway Administration.

In communities where the planning is completed, and the project is ready to move forward, construction grants can help to fund the project.

“Where transportation facilities like highways or rail lines create barriers, this program can invest in high-quality public transportation, pedestrian walkways over or under an existing highway, capping and covering highways and roads with more parks, and developing linear parks and trails to encourage walking, biking and improved mobility for nearby residents,” said Pollack, outlining the broad range of projects which could meet the qualifications for approval.

The project can help to fund retrofits of existing infrastructure such as redesigning roadways, furthering “complete streets” projects or Main Street revitalizations, she added.

The program is a response to many highway and other projects built over the years — often under the guise of “urban renewal” — which took little consideration for the communities being displaced or harmed by the infrastructure. It often meant generations of families growing up in the shadow of expressways, rail yards and other similar developments exposing residents to noise and pollution.

“This is our moment to ensure policies, practices and investments governed for racial equity repair the harm of past policies and promote transformative outcomes,” said Michael McAfee, CEO and president of PolicyLink, a national research institution focusing on racial and economic equity.

“This is a forward-looking vision,” said Buttigieg. “Our focus isn’t about assigning blame. It isn’t about getting caught up in guilt or regret. It is about fixing a problem. It is about mending what has been broken.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.