Advocates see pilot program to address inequalities from highways as crucial first step

Associated Press/Gerald Herbert

Advocates across the country say the recently signed $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law does not include enough money to address inequalities made worse by previous highway construction, but they see it as something they can build on.

“While significant, it is important to recognize just how small a step this is,” the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which publishes a list every few years spotlighting highways and local efforts to address them, said in a statement upon the House’s passage of the legislation earlier this month.

An initiative the infrastructure bill refers to as the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program provides $1 billion over five years in grants for planning and projects aimed at either removing, retrofitting or mitigating pieces of highway and similar infrastructure that hampered the connectivity of communities, including affecting their economic development.

“This amount is hardly enough to address the many highways that continue to subject those who live around them to the hazards of vehicle exhaust, severe disinvestment, a loss of local businesses, services, and amenities, and streets that are dangerous to pedestrians,” CNU added.

An earlier iteration of the pilot program included $15 billion in funding.

Advocates and organizations following the legislation said that the final funding is too small alone to address communities of color negatively affected by the construction of the United States’ highways, where businesses were uprooted or destroyed, residents displaced and otherwise thriving localities turned into ghosts of their former selves.

They said, however, that the pilot program is a sign of progress toward addressing the aftermath of devastating highway construction, and they are now determining how to best use the money allocated.

Some are also already setting their sights on potential grant money currently included in the House-passed social spending and climate change package, which is under consideration in the Senate.

“What we’re going to have to do is, No. 1, advocate for more because clearly there’s a need for it — these pieces of infrastructure are aged out. So something has to be done about it. But we also need to make the best use of what has been put on the table for us,” said Amy Stelly, who lives a block and a half away from the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans.

The elevated expressway, one of the highways highlighted by the White House on the initiative, was constructed over the Black neighborhood of Tremé and the bustling North Claiborne Avenue. Its construction saw the removal of many of the area’s old oak trees and the decline of its vibrant hub of businesses.

In 2017, Stelly co-founded the Claiborne Avenue Alliance to push for the expressway’s removal and its return to a boulevard. She said that the group is also advocating for the thoughtful development of the land once the highway is removed.

CNU is also urging Congress to keep $4 billion in Democrats’ budget reconciliation package, referred to in the bill text as the Neighborhood Access and Equity Grants, to supplement some of the other highway removal and mitigation projects.

Those grants, which were included in the House-passed version, are slated to go toward things such as improving walkability and creating noise barriers against transportation infrastructure.

“We want to see money — as much as possible — go to creating healthy, vibrant, environmentally sustainable neighborhoods, which can replace … no-longer needed and misguided freeways,” Rick Cole, CNU’s executive director, said.

While Democratic lawmakers and federal government officials agree with advocates that now is the time to start reversing or mitigating the damage from existing highway infrastructure, the issue has largely fallen along partisan lines.  

A Senate aide familiar with negotiations told The Hill that while the approved funding decreased significantly from $15 billion to $1 billion, it was still a higher sum than what Republicans previously agreed to in a 2019 stand-alone version of the Reconnecting Communities initiative: $120 million over five years.

The aide confirmed that the reconciliation package could also be a source of funding to supplement advocates’ initiatives, though they noted that the spending bill’s $4 billion in grants were much larger in scope than just highway mitigation or removal.

A second Senate aide told The Hill that Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who was among the 19 Senate Republicans to vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill, had previously voiced concerns about how a stand-alone version would disburse money during a subcommittee hearing on transportation equity earlier this year.

“Traditional funding formula provides each state with guaranteed funding and flexibility to meet their specific needs. Discretionary grant funding programs, which is how the Reconnecting Communities Act is structured, largely benefit highly populated states and urban areas and, in some cases, North Dakota has been completely shut out of certain funding,” the Senate aide said.

“In the final product (the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act [IIJA]), in part due to the efforts by Senator Cramer and attention garnered from the hearing, the total allotted to the program was reduced to $1 billion. In the end, IIJA maintained the delivery of 90 percent of the highway funding via formula rather than discretionary grants, a central priority for Senator Cramer,” they added.

Earlier this month, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg received heat from conservatives following comments he made during a White House press briefing in which he spoke about how certain decisions around transportation infrastructure that affected communities of color “obviously reflects racism that went into those design choices.”

“I don’t think we have anything to lose by confronting that simple reality.  And I think we have everything to gain by acknowledging it,” Buttigieg said at the time.

Some conservatives mocked Buttigieg’s answer and the concept of transportation planning being racist.

“The roads are racist. We must get rid of roads,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) tweeted.

Others believe that the government has an obligation to remedy past mistakes. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who was one of several senators to introduce a stand-alone version of the Reconnecting Communities initiative earlier this year and voted for the bipartisan law, said it “represents real progress.”

“There are many historic firsts in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, including our program to help neighborhoods divided by highways. This represents real progress,” Carper told The Hill in a statement. “For the first time, the federal government is acknowledging that highway construction fragmented communities in cities across the country and is providing the resources to reconnect and revitalize them.”

In St. Paul, an effort is underway to rethink part of the I-94 highway that ran through the Black neighborhood of Rondo. The organization ReConnect Rondo is advocating for the creation of a land bridge over several blocks of I-94 to establish an African American cultural enterprise district.

Keith Baker, the executive director of ReConnect Rondo, said the pilot program is giving residents the tools to start rethinking highways within their own communities.

“I think these resources allow for that clarity to emerge to think through how to organize the effort and build the partnerships well in advance of infrastructure investment. And so even with a larger infrastructure bill, these resources are going to help in that pre-discussion piece,” Baker said. 

Tags Biden infrastructure Highways Infrastructure spending Kevin Cramer New Orleans Pete Buttigieg St. Paul Ted Cruz Tom Carper

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