Buttigieg launches $1 billion pilot project to boost racial equity on the roads

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WASHINGTON — Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Thursday launched a one-of-a-kind, $1 billion pilot program to help reconnect cities and neighborhoods racially segregated or divided by highway projects, pledging expanded assistance to dozens of communities despite the program’s limited dollars.

Under the Reconnecting Communities program, cities and states can now apply for five-year federal assistance to repair damage caused by roads that were built primarily by low-income black communities after creation in the 1950s of the interstate highway system.

New projects could include bus rapid transit lines to connect disadvantaged neighborhoods to jobs; copings built above highways with green spaces, cycle paths and walkways to allow safe crossings on roadways; repurpose old railway lines; and the partial removal of highways.

Yet the grants, made available under President Joe Biden’s bipartisan Infrastructure Act, are considerably less than the $20 billion the Democratic president originally envisioned. Advocacy groups say the money is nowhere near enough to have a major impact on capital construction for more than 50 citizen-led efforts nationwide to dismantle or redesign highways – from Portland, Oregon, to New Orleans; St. Paul, Minnesota; Houston; Tampa, Florida; and Syracuse, New York. Meanwhile, some Republicans, including possible 2024 presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, have derided the effort as a “woke” of federal politics, suggesting political headwinds to come in an election season.

“Transportation can connect us to jobs, services and loved ones, but we’ve also seen countless cases across the country where infrastructure cuts off a neighborhood or community because of how it was built,” said Buttigieg, announcing the pilot program later Thursday in Birmingham, Alabama. He described Reconnecting Communities as a broad ministry “principle” — not just a program — to address the issue with many ongoing efforts.

“It’s a forward-looking vision,” Buttigieg said. “Our goal is not to assign blame. It’s not about getting caught up in guilt. It’s about fixing a problem. It’s about fixing what’s been broken, especially when the damage was done with taxpayers’ money.”

The Department of Transportation aims to help communities that feel racially harmed by freeway expansion, as the Federal Highway Administration last year took a rare step to put a $9 billion widening project on hold. dollars in Houston, in part for civil rights reasons. The move likely spurred action in other places like Austin, Texas, where environmental and racial justice groups recently filed a lawsuit to force the Texas transportation agency to better expose the impacts of a freeway expansion project there.

Buttigieg drew fire from some Republicans earlier this year when he said the federal government had an obligation to address the wrongdoings of racist freeway design. “There are trees they put up, they say freeways are racially discriminatory. I don’t know how a road can be that,” DeSantis said in February, calling him “woke.”

Under this program, $195 million in competitive grants are to be awarded this year, of which $50 million will go to communities for planning studies.

The department will also launch a “Thriving Communities” initiative to provide technical support to potential projects that serve disadvantaged communities alongside the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Transportation Department previously estimated it could help up to 20 U.S. communities under the new program remove portions of freeways and redevelop streets using other transportation funds. According to the department, communities that win Reconnecting Communities grants but still need additional funds will be prioritized in their applications for other federal transportation money pots. Dozens of other communities could benefit from planning grants.

“Before 2021, the idea that we were dealing with road infrastructure that divided communities was really a marginal idea,” said Ben Crowther, coordinator of the Boston-based Freeway Fighters Network, which is supported by the Congress for the New Urbanism. . . “The Biden administration has really turned that into mainstream thinking. We now think that’s something that’s possible — that you can take down a freeway and build safe, walkable streets instead, add housing, and address the needs of people. other needs of the community in addition to travel time.”

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