Racial Equity and America’s Roads

A new initiative aims to right decades-old wrongs.

The NPR headline “Pete Buttigieg launches $1B pilot to build racial equity in America’s roads” certainly did its job in capturing my attention. What, after all, do roads have to do with racial equity? The actual project, though, seems quite reasonable:

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Thursday launched a $1 billion first-of-its-kind pilot program aimed at helping reconnect cities and neighborhoods racially segregated or divided by road projects, pledging wide-ranging help to dozens of communities despite the program’s limited dollars.

Under the Reconnecting Communities program, cities and states can now apply for the federal aid over five years to rectify harm caused by roadways that were built primarily through lower-income, Black communities after the 1950s creation of the interstate highway system.

New projects could include rapid bus transit lines to link disadvantaged neighborhoods to jobs; caps built on top of highways featuring green spaces, bike lanes and pedestrian walkways to allow for safe crossings over the roadways; repurposing former rail lines; and partial removal of highways.

It’s not so much that the roads are inequitable but that their construction had racially disparate impacts, whether because planners intentionally ran them through Black neighborhoods or simply didn’t consult Black community leaders in the process and discounted their interests. (Indeed, I wrote about this at some length last November in “Buttigieg and Critical Road Theory” but the headline didn’t evoke that memory.)

And, while a billion dollars sounds like a lot—cue your Dr. Evil voice—it’s likely not nearly enough to fix this problem. Hence, the “pilot.”

Still, the grants, being made available under President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure law, are considerably less than the $20 billion the Democratic president originally envisioned. Advocacy groups say the money isn’t nearly enough to have a major impact on capital construction for more than 50 citizen-led efforts nationwide aimed at dismantling or redesigning highways — from Portland, Oregon, to New Orleans; St. Paul, Minnesota; Houston; Tampa, Florida; and Syracuse, New York.

You will be shocked to learn that this is controversial and being politicized:

Meanwhile, some Republicans, including possible 2024 presidential contender Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have derided the effort as the “woke-ification” of federal policy, suggesting political crosswinds ahead in an election season.

“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,” said Buttigieg, who was announcing the pilot program later Thursday in Birmingham, Alabama. He described Reconnecting Communities as a broad department “principle” — not just a program — to address the issue with many efforts underway.

“This is a forward-looking vision,” Buttigieg said. “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.”

The Transportation Department has aimed to help communities that feel racially harmed by highway expansions, with the Federal Highway Administration last year taking a rare step to pause a proposed $9 billion widening project in Houston, partly over civil rights concerns. That move likely spurred action in other places such as Austin, Texas, where environmental and racial justice groups recently filed a lawsuit to force the Texas transportation agency to better lay out the impacts of a proposed highway expansion there.

Buttigieg drew fire from some Republicans earlier this year when he said the federal government had an obligation to address the harms of racist design in highways. “There’s trees they’re putting in, they’re saying that highways are racially discriminatory. I don’t know how a road can be that,” DeSantis said in February, dismissing it as “woke.”

So, that’s not an unreasonable initial reaction. But it’s an unserious response once the issue is explained.

One can still differ on how much money solving this problem is worth compared to other priorities. But that infrastructure projects have typically had a negative impact on the poor side of town—and just generally have negative externalities that weren’t considered in the initial planning—is hardly controversial.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jen says:

    Republicans like DeSantis are showing how very shallow they are with reactions like that. I suppose it plays to his base, which is all he’s after, but what it shows me is that he’s not to be taken seriously on an intellectual level (despite his Ivy-league education).

    Anyone who doubts the importance of Buttigieg’s proposal needs to read this:
    https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/11/syracuse-slums/416892/

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  2. Scott F. says:

    @Jen:
    We’ve seen numerous examples of an Ivy-league education providing the intellectual chops needing to pander to people’s most base instincts. DeSantis’ evil is autodidactic.

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  3. JKB says:

    It wasn’t armies of bulldozers arriving for battle, the local black leaders often supported the actions with the incentive of public housing preference to those who moved. Outcome was bad, but the actions were taken by those who profited from the process, politically. After all, in the 1960s, no one knew what a hell public housing would become.

    The US Housing Act of 1954 provided funding for public housing, giving preferential treatment to families that would be relocated for slum eradication or revitalization.

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  4. Argon says:

    East / West Palo Alto comes to mind…

  5. Grommit Gunn says:

    I-35 through downtown Austin is a perfect example. It literally split the black and brown sections of Austin away from the white sections. And the NIMBYism of the western parts of town continue to thwart basically every effort at effective transportation policy in the city.

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  6. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @JKB: On the positive side, we don’t need to teach students about Critical Race Theory–they can see it play out in real life in the kabuki theater youse guys provide.

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  7. Just nutha ignint cracker+ says:

    @JKB: “After all, in the 1960s, no one knew what a hell public housing would become.”

    You’re certainly right about that. We should have just made them homeless to begin with, especially considering how well grassroots, pulled up by their own bootstraps housing initiatives are working in major American cities even as we speak.

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  8. MarkedMan says:

    Every US city I’ve lived in has suffered from this, but none more so than Atlanta. They literally ran three major interstate highways through the town in such a way as to destroy as many black neighborhoods as possible and make sure the remaining ones didn’t have any easy access to white areas. They then destroyed another black neighborhood to build a mediocre, short lived ballpark. Simultaneously with this they closed all the public pools in the city parks, some of them huge, beautiful, fountain filled waders geared more towards cooling people down in the brutal summer heat than swimming laps, again simply in order to make sure black and brown people couldn’t have access. What was the result? The entire downtown of Atlanta died. When I lived there in the early 90’s fancy downtown restaurants were only open for lunch but closed for dinner.

    It was then that I realized there were people who would shoot holes in the bottom of a lifeboat because they couldn’t stand to see the other guy dry.

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  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The NPR headline “Pete Buttigieg launches $1B pilot to build racial equity in America’s roads” certainly did its job in capturing my attention. What, after all, do roads have to do with racial equity? The actual project, though, seems quite reasonable:
    ………………………

    Buttigieg drew fire from some Republicans earlier this year when he said the federal government had an obligation to address the harms of racist design in highways. “There’s trees they’re putting in, they’re saying that highways are racially discriminatory. I don’t know how a road can be that,” DeSantis said in February, dismissing it as “woke.”

    So, that’s not an unreasonable initial reaction. But it’s an unserious response once the issue is explained.

    James, it’s wonderful how easily you accept Republican rhetoric on any race issue as being “reasonable” but go on to say that once one thinks it thru, it is wrong. It’s almost like you have been conditioned by decades of conservative talk radio to accept their spin on things but have recently come to the realization that it’s all BS.

    And yet you still want to give them the benefit of a doubt by taking their words at face value*.

    *it’s all dog whistling, all the time, you know it is but…

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  10. Gavin says:

    The other key element of the inequitable road placement is the income level of the communities that were either cut off or broken apart. Much hay is made of the racial discrimination part of this, but just as much it’s the low-income part, because [of course] the realities of ongoing economic class war is the element that neither political party’s leadership wishes to make abundantly clear.