Secretary Buttigieg and Black mayors preview transportation projects designed to heal historic inequities

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Friday joined Black mayors from across the nation to preview the work his department is doing to bring transportation projects to their communities to correct historic wrongs.

The projects, made possible through the Biden administration’s $3.3 billion “Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods” program, were among the issues discussed at the annual African American Mayors Association Conference in Atlanta.

More than 130 grants have been awarded across 41 states to improve the lives of residents negatively impacted by decades-old transportation structures, according to Buttigieg. That includes addressing highways built several decades ago that have cut off access to schools, career opportunities and even medical services.

In an interview with CNN, Buttigieg said the investment aims to strengthen communities across the nation and create opportunity through better connectivity.

“This is about making sure that federal dollars are part of the solution in communities where sometimes federal dollars have caused harm in the past,” he said. “Just about every place I’ve been to has some story of some piece of infrastructure that went through some part of town, often a community of color, that did not have the political power to reshape or resist it.”

Some of the grants, including one in Atlanta, Georgia, involve capping highways.

“In many cases where there’s a depressed highway that cuts like a gash through a community, the answer is to put a deck or a roof over it,” said Buttigieg. “And that has the added benefit of creating new land, which is the rarest thing in a downtown area.”

A $16 million grant in New Rochelle, New York, is set to transform three highway lanes into an eight-acre linear park, which Mayor Yadira Ramos-Herbert says will connect the heart of the city’s African American community to downtown.

“[It] allows New Rochelle the opportunity to heal a wound that was caused by antiquated and racist urban planning policies,” Ramos-Herbert said at a news conference today.

Birmingham, Alabama, Mayor Randall Woodfin said he hopes $14.5 million earmarked to convert a one-way street into two lanes in his city’s Black business district will lead to thriving small businesses once again.

“It’s not just at the intersection of infrastructure investment, but it’s also economic development wrapped in an equity piece. And that’s a game changer for us. Quality of life,” Woodfin told CNN.

And in Tacoma, Washington, a $1.3 million grant will study what Mayor Victoria Woodards calls “the I-5 divide.” Interstate 5, which opened in the 1960s and runs north to south, cut much of the city in two. Woodards told CNN that, along with other factors, the route has been linked to a drop in life expectancy by around 17 years, according to local health department data.

“This study will develop community-supported solutions that will guide the design and building of projects that will address the significant safety and accessibility challenges created by I-5 for people walking, biking and rolling,” said Woodards.

Buttigieg said some of the projects are already underway, while others will take the better part of a decade to come to fruition.

“Different communities, different projects, but the same theme of, ‘These harms from the past that are going to be addressed today in a way that’s going to make everybody better off and nobody worse off.’”

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