Introduction and summary
“We have a once-in-a-generation chance to build an infrastructure that equitably creates opportunities for Americans, instead of further isolating them. We must act.” – U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg
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As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden promised to build America back better from the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic, including through robust infrastructure investments that would create millions of strong, middle-class jobs and set the country on a path to meeting its climate goals. Moreover, the Biden plan embraced targeting at least 40 percent of federal funds to disadvantaged communities facing sustained economic hardship. As U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg stated at a recent event, “Now is the time to finally address major inequities—including those caused by highways that were built through Black and Brown communities.”
The administration is right to focus on how infrastructure investments can facilitate inclusive prosperity, redress past harms, and advance national climate goals. Unfortunately, the current structure of federal transportation programs—especially highway programs—is not designed to achieve these progressive goals.
An effective economic stimulus package that delivers real benefits must include significant structural reforms to ensure that federal expenditures do not lead to more emissions, increased barriers to opportunity, and an unsustainable development pattern. Congress must require states to prioritize projects that will reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, redress the economic damage and social dislocation of past highway projects, and provide people with safe, affordable access to economic opportunity.
Each year, states receive billions of dollars in federal highway funding based on formulas set in law. These formulas reflect political negotiations as opposed to objective measures of need or the quality of the projects planned for construction. In effect, federal highway funds operate as a loosely structured block grant that lacks accountability. Moreover, states typically define success by how many cars a highway moves per hour rather than using substantive measures of social, economic, or environmental progress. As a result, states often prioritize projects that fail to provide clear benefits or to advance national policy goals. Yet even when states make poor investment decisions, the money continues to flow.
To ensure that federal stimulus spending in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic delivers substantive economic and social benefits—particularly to disadvantaged communities—states and metropolitan regions must work closely with local communities when designing and selecting infrastructure projects. Importantly, there is a big difference between building in economically distressed communities and building for the people of those communities. Simply because dollars flow to a certain geographic area does not mean that the residents in that area benefit. Progressive rhetoric about economic growth and empowerment can serve to obscure when projects are a continuation of the status quo.
The stimulus bill should include five key policy changes to achieve long-term growth and inclusive, sustainable prosperity. First, any funds distributed to states through formula programs should be reserved exclusively for repair, rehabilitation, and reconstruction projects. Second, any funds for capacity expansion projects should be distributed by the secretary of transportation through discretionary grant programs such as Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) grants, formerly known as the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program. Third, Congress should require states and metropolitan regions to adopt transportation plans that would achieve net-zero GHG emissions from the surface transportation sector by midcentury. Fourth, the bill should require the secretary to prioritize competitive grant awards for projects that reduce automobile dependence and provide residents with safe, affordable access to opportunity; reduce GHG emissions; and redress harms caused by past highway investments. And fifth, the bill should promote good jobs for residents through targeted, local hiring; registered apprenticeships; and job quality standards such as prevailing wage protections. To highlight the need for policy reform, this report starts by looking at several highway projects built during the peak of the interstate construction era and how they caused inequitable displacement, auto dependence, and barriers to opportunity. The report then profiles two highway projects that are repeating many of the same harms due to federal transportation programs’ lack of accountability and progressive design.
Finally, the report closes with four projects that show how federal funds can support infrastructure that creates inclusive and sustainable prosperity: a bus rapid transit (BRT) line in Birmingham, Alabama; a dedicated biking and walking facility in Los Angeles; a highway-to-boulevard conversion in Detroit; and a passenger rail line along the Front Range in Colorado.
Both the BRT line and the bike and walking facility received federal funding through TIGER, and the two other projects are excellent candidates for federal assistance. The TIGER program—now known as RAISE—was created in 2009 through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and demonstrates that recovery spending can serve as a catalyst for reform. It is essential that the federal government target economic stimulus to those projects that will generate the greatest social, economic, and environmental return on investment.
Understanding the past
Federal transportation investments—especially in highways—have often caused significant social, ecological, and economic harm. This transportation history offers powerful lessons that can help policymakers design programs and investments that will empower local communities, provide access to opportunity and essential services, and create a foundation for prosperity in regions facing persistent hardship.
I-375 in Detroit
Black Bottom was once a thriving predominantly Black neighborhood that sat just to the east of Detroit’s central business district. This community was largely demolished to make way for the construction of Interstate 75/375 (I-75/I-375), also known as the Chrysler Freeway, as well as new housing targeted toward more affluent and mostly white residents. According to the Detroit Free Press, “Black Bottom’s boundaries were informal, never set down in any legal document, and people differ about the specifics. But the borders were generally described as Gratiot, Brush, St. Aubin or the Grand Trunk rail tracks (now the Dequindre Cut recreation path) and Congress.”
Detroit’s Black population grew rapidly during the first half of the 20th century, and Black Bottom grew along with it. In 1910, Black residents accounted for roughly 1.6 percent of the city’s population. By 1950, this share had jumped to 16 percent of the city’s more than 1.8 million residents. Housing discrimination, including lack of access to credit and race-based restrictive housing covenants, prevented Black residents from living in many parts of the city, but the Black Bottom and nearby Paradise Valley neighborhoods were exceptions.
Unfortunately, the civic and political leadership of Detroit did not value the Black Bottom community. In fact, leaders considered the area a slum. A pamphlet published by Detroit Mayor Edward J. Jeffries Jr. in 1944, titled…