Advocates see pilot program to tackle highway inequalities as crucial first step

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

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

An initiative that the infrastructure bill calls the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program provides $ 1 billion over five years in grants for planning and projects to either remove, renovate or mitigate chunks of freeway. and similar infrastructures which have had a negative impact on the connectivity of communities, in particular by affecting their economic development.

“This amount is barely enough to cope with the many highways that continue to subject those who live around them to the dangers of vehicle exhaust, severe divestment, loss of businesses, services and people. local amenities, and unsafe streets for pedestrians, ”CNU added.

a previous iteration of the pilot program included funding of $ 15 billion.

Advocates and organizations that have followed the legislation have said the final funding is too small to deal with communities of color negatively affected by the construction of US highways, where businesses have been uprooted or destroyed, residents displaced and prosperous localities transformed into ghosts of their old selves.

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

Some are also already considering potential grants currently included in the House-passed social spending and climate change program, which is under consideration in the Senate.

“What we’re going to have to do is, # 1, advocate for more because there is clearly a need for it – these pieces of infrastructure are obsolete. So something has to be done about it. But we also need to make the most of what’s been put on the table for us, ”said Amy Stelly, who lives a block and a half from the Claiborne Freeway in New Orleans.

The elevated highway, one of the highways highlighted by the White House at the initiative, was built on the black district of Tremé and the lively avenue North Claiborne. Its construction resulted in the removal of many old oak trees in the area and the decline of its vibrant business center.

In 2017, Stelly co-founded the Claiborne Avenue Alliance to lobby for the removal of the freeway and its return to the boulevard. She said the group is also advocating for thoughtful development of the land after the highway is removed.

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

These grants, which were included in the version passed by the House, should be used for things such as improving walking and creating noise barriers against transportation infrastructure.

“We want the money – as much as possible – to be spent on creating healthy, vibrant and environmentally friendly neighborhoods, which can replace (…) highways that have become unnecessary and misguided,” said Rick Cole, executive director of the CNU.

While Democratic lawmakers and federal government officials agree with advocates that now is the time to start reversing or mitigating the damage caused by existing road infrastructure, the problem has played out largely along partisan lines.

A Senate adviser familiar with the negotiations told The Hill that while approved funding has dropped significantly from $ 15 billion to $ 1 billion, it was still more than what the Republicans previously agreed in a 2019 standalone version of the Reconnecting Communities initiative: $ 120 million over five years.

The aide confirmed that the reconciliation plan could also be a source of funding to complement the advocates’ initiatives, although they noted that the $ 4 billion in spending bill grants were much larger than the simple mitigation or removal of highways.

A second Senate aide told The Hill that Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John Cramer The memo: Rising costs pose a growing threat to Senator Biden GOP: Decisions about bills are not made based on whether they hurt or help Trump or Biden Schumer-McConnell reduce the debt ceiling drama PLUS (RN.D.), who was among 19 Senate Republicans to vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill, had previously expressed concerns about how a stand-alone version would shell out money at a hearing of the Transportation Fairness Subcommittee earlier this year.

“The traditional funding formula provides each state with guaranteed funding and flexibility to meet its specific needs. Discretionary funding programs, which is how the Reconnecting Communities Act is structured, largely benefit states and highly populated urban areas, and in some cases North Dakota has been completely excluded from some funding, ” said the assistant to the Senate.

“In the final product (the Law on Investment in Infrastructure and Employment [IIJA]), thanks in part to the efforts of Senator Cramer and the attention generated by the audience, the total allocated to the program was reduced to $ 1 billion. Ultimately, the IIJA maintained the delivery of 90 percent of highway funding through formula rather than discretionary grants, a central priority for Senator Cramer, ”they added.

Earlier this month, the Secretary of Transportation Pete ButtigiegPete Buttigieg Five Reasons Biden, GOP To Be Grateful This Season Buttigieg enjoys high notoriety and favor in Biden cabinet: Investigation Sunday shows – Spotlight turns to Senate for spending plan Biden PLUS received warmth from the Conservatives following comments he made during a White House press briefing in which he explained how certain decisions regarding transportation infrastructure that have impacted communities of color “clearly reflect the racism that went into these design choices.”

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

Some conservatives scoffed at Buttigieg’s response and the concept of racist transportation planning.

“The roads are racist. We have to get rid of the roads, ”the senator said. Ted cruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTed Cruz reviews Newsom while on vacation in Mexico: “Cancun is way nicer than Cabo” Biden set to name Shalanda Young for budget chief O’Rourke takes over Texas power grid in connection of an offer against Abbott PLUS (R-Texas) tweeted.

Others believe that the government has an obligation to correct the mistakes of the past. Senator Tom carperThomas (Tom) Richard Carper Democrats move forward as Manchin Standoff yo-yos quash a quick deal on the Senate Defense Bill before Thanksgiving Manchin signals he agrees with the spending vote of Biden this year MORE (D-Del.), Who was one of many senators to present 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 is real progress, ”Carper told The Hill in a statement. “For the first time, the federal government recognizes that highway construction has fragmented city communities across the country and is providing the resources to reconnect and revitalize them.

In Saint-Paul, an effort is underway to redesign part of the I-94 freeway that ran through the black neighborhood of Rondo. The organization ReConnect Rondo advocates for the creation of a land bridge over several blocks of I-94 to establish an African-American cultural business district.

Keith Baker, executive director of ReConnect Rondo, said the pilot program gives residents the tools to start redesigning freeways within their own communities.

“I think these resources allow that clarity to emerge to think about how to organize the effort and build partnerships long before investing in infrastructure. And so even with a bigger infrastructure bill, these resources are going to help in this pre-discussion piece, ”Baker said.

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