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Buttigieg taps funds to undo transportation damage in neighborhoods

Interstate 10 was built directly on top of Claiborne Avenue in the late 1960s, ripping up oak trees and tearing apart a street sometimes called the “Main Street of Black New Orleans.” (Gerald Herbert/AP)

For decades, planners and politicians have spent money to carve highways through disadvantaged neighborhoods. On Thursday, the Transportation Department launched a grant program and restoration effort meant to undo some of that damage.

Federal officials said the $1 billion program created under last year’s infrastructure law marks a shift in federal emphasis, with effects that could exceed the modest financial resources over five years. For Transportation Department officials overseeing much of the spending under the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law, the Reconnecting Communities program has become a priority to demonstrate how government can right historic wrongs.

“Reconnecting Communities is not a program, it’s a principle,” said land-use expert and former business professor Christopher Coes, who helped design the effort — one that he said is being used across the department.

While the competitive grant program has $195 million available in its first year, Coes, assistant secretary for transportation policy, said other sources of federal funds can be tapped to achieve the same goals, including about $350 billion in infrastructure funds controlled by states.

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The goal of the program, according to federal documents released Thursday, “is to reconnect communities harmed by transportation infrastructure, through community-supported planning activities and capital construction projects that are championed by those communities.”

Officials said examples could include a pedestrian walkway under or over a highway slicing through a neighborhood, or a new deck and park above a freeway — an idea being explored in Atlanta with federal help.

Activists in other communities, including New Orleans, have pushed to dismantle highways to make way for community development or environmental projects, ideas that could receive seed funding under the pilot program. Creating faster bus service could serve the same goals, federal officials said, by making it easier for underserved residents to reach jobs, education or health care.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Thursday showcased a federally supported effort in Alabama, the Birmingham Xpress Bus Rapid Transit system, to announce details of the program.

Speaking to reporters ahead of the visit, Buttigieg said that “unlike a lot of other policy mistakes or problems,” physical infrastructure that undercut rather than built up communities was often designed to last decades.

“We’re here to do something,” Buttigieg said. “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, especially when the damage was done through taxpayer dollars.”

On Thursday, Buttigieg joined Birmingham Mayor Randall L. Woodfin and Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.) at a ceremony marking the restoration of the A.G. Gaston Motel, where Black travelers found refuge amid segregation.

The Gaston motel, part of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument created by President Barack Obama in 2017, was host to crucial moments in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders based themselves at the African American businessman’s motel while planning the anti-segregation protests that led to King’s arrest and “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Flanked by buses that will be part of a service set to launch this summer that will link 25 neighborhoods, Buttigieg said the city was a fitting place to talk about history and remaking transportation.

“Birmingham is a place that reminds us that there’s always been a relationship between the physical ability to move about and basic questions of fairness and social mobility,” he said.

Interstate 65 was built through the heart of Birmingham and “displaced Black neighborhoods and created physical barriers and dead zones that still keep people apart,” Buttigieg said. He noted that federal funds for the new bus system were awarded under Obama and Buttigieg’s Obama-era predecessor, Anthony Foxx, saying the current administration is supporting similar projects in Arizona, Illinois, Nevada and elsewhere. The new dedicated program will accelerate that work, he said.

Buttigieg said Sewell was “the only voice from Alabama on Capitol Hill who was there with us and said yes” to voting for the infrastructure bill Biden signed last year. She said the law “is really about not only connecting communities, but also employing communities and providing economic development.”

The Reconnecting Communities launch comes as other initiatives in the infrastructure law also are being rolled out.

In the wake of deadly collisions between Amtrak trains and vehicles crossing in front of them in Missouri and California, the Biden administration announced Thursday that $573 million is available as part of a new $3 billion competitive grant program created under the infrastructure law. It will pay for grade separations at railroad crossings, including overpasses and underpasses.