The Biden administration announced on Thursday that it is launching a $1 billion project to redress damage done to historically disadvantaged communities—primarily Black and brown neighborhoods—which have been the target of past racist infrastructure projects.
The Reconnecting Communities grant program is part of the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that was signed into law last November. Funding will be spread over a five-year period, with $195 million available for use this year.
Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, to announce the program’s launch. Birmingham—which was once one of the most segregated cities in the country and is home to some of the Civil Rights Movement’s most significant campaigns—plans to use allocated funds to build a new rapid transit bus system.
Other ideas being explored for project funding include constructing a new deck and park above a freeway in Atlanta and dismantling highways deliberately built to segregate marginalized communities in New Orleans and Syracuse, New York.
“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,” Buttigieg said in a briefing with reporters.
Despite the program being the first of its kind and bringing a focus to systemic racism and inequality manufactured through infrastructure and transportation, advocacy groups across the country have said the funding is not enough to address many proposed projects.
“[The funding is] undoubtedly a token,” Ted Shelton, a professor of architecture at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville—who has studied how highway construction has impacted marginalized communities—told Fast Company staff writer Nate Berg last year when the bill was initially passed by the Senate.
Shelton also acknowledged, however, that “the recognition that this is something that we ought to be thinking about on the federal level, and recognizing it as a legacy of the urban portion of the interstate highway system, is significant.”
Rick Cole, the executive director of Congress for the New Urbanism, an organization that works to increase walkability and transit options in urban areas, echoes that sentiment.
“In a country as big as ours, $1 billion doesn’t go very far,” says Cole, “but, it’s a first-ever start toward healing the scars of the federally funded highway projects that displaced one million Americans. What’s impressive about Secretary Buttigieg’s approach is he is coordinating federal highway, federal transit, and other arms of the federal government to leverage these dollars and ensure that other spending is not continuing to divide communities as it has historically.”