Buttigieg announces funding of program to aid communities harmed by racist urban planning

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Racism has played a key role in the planning and implementing of public infrastructure projects across the country.

The U.S. Department of Transportation on Thursday announced the launch of a new $1 billion program under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act aimed at reconnecting communities, and specifically communities with predominantly minority populations, with economic opportunities located in areas from which they have been physically cut off by past road construction.

Funding for the Reconnecting Communities pilot program was announced by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who said, according to NPR: "Transportation can connect us to jobs, services and loved ones, but we've also seen countless cases around the country where a piece of infrastructure cuts off a neighborhood or a community because of how it was built. ... Our focus isn't about assigning blame. It isn't about getting caught up in guilt. It's about fixing a problem. It's about mending what has been broken, especially when the damage was done with taxpayer dollars."

Buttigieg was scheduled to visit Birmingham, Alabama, on Thursday to promote the program.

In a statement published by the Department of Transportation, Buttigieg said, "Using funds from President Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we are proud to announce the launch of Reconnecting Communities: the first-ever dedicated federal initiative to unify neighborhoods living with the impacts of past infrastructure choices that divided them."

The $1 billion will be allocated over a five-year period, with $195 million now available to applicants. According to the department's statement, "Reconnecting a community could mean adapting existing infrastructure– such as building a pedestrian walkway over or under an existing highway– to better connect neighborhoods to opportunities or better means of access such as crosswalks and redesigned intersections."

The administration also announced the launch of the Thriving Communities Initiative, which will provide technical assistance in communities where infrastructure projects serving the disadvantaged are being put in place.

Politicians and others on the right have a history of ridiculing infrastructure projects aimed at repairing damage caused by racist public policy.

In February, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said of those provisions of the infrastructure law, "They're saying that highways are racially discriminatory, I don't know how a road can be that. This is the woke-ification of federal policy when you see this stuff."

However, the historical record shows clearly that racism has played a key role in the planning and implementing of public infrastructure projects across the country. In an example taken from DeSantis' own state, Rodney Kite-Powell, director of the Tampa Bay History Center's Touchton Map Library, told Tampa Bay station Fox 13:

It's hard to look at a map of Tampa before the interstate and knowing what was there — Central Avenue which was a really thriving African American business district dating from the 1910s going all the way up to the 1960s and seeing the Scrub and even an affluent neighborhood along the Mar Avenue, and then knowing the interchange of I-4 and 275 is literally on top of that. It's hard to see that and not presume that race played a role in the decision for those roads to go where they went.

Deborah Archer, the national board president of the American Civil Liberties Union, told NPR:

The highways were being built just as courts around the country were striking down traditional tools of racial segregation. So, for example, courts were striking down the use of racial zoning to keep Black people in certain communities and white people in other communities. And so the highway development popped up at a time when the idea, the possibility of integration in housing was on the horizon. And so very intentionally, highways were sometimes built right on the formal boundary lines that we saw used during racial zoning. Sometimes community members asked the highway builders to create a barrier between their community and encroaching Black communities.

The Biden administration has been tackling the results of intentionally racist policies not just through the infrastructure law, but also by embedding ideas such as environmental justice at government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency.

In his first week in office in 2021, Biden launched the Justice 40 Initiative, which is aimed at allocating at least 40% of federal funds for clean energy and climate investments to historically disadvantaged communities.

In January, the administration announced actions in Jackson, Mississippi, and New Orleans, Louisiana, that included asserting the legal authority to make unannounced inspections at chemical plants and industrial sites, issuing notices of noncompliance for cities that haven't addressed issues of water delivery, and launching a pilot program to monitor air pollution.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.