Connecting state and local government leaders
The “neighborhood access and equity grants” would supplement earlier funding in the infrastructure law and could go towards a range of projects. About a third of the money is earmarked for lower-income areas.
More help could be coming from Washington for neighborhoods that have long been cleaved apart by highways and other infrastructure, if a major spending bill now before Congress becomes law.
The legislation would set aside $3 billion for reconnecting the divided communities, through a new program called Neighborhood Access and Equity Grants. The program would greatly expand similar efforts contained in the federal infrastructure law that passed last year, both in terms of the amount of money available and the scope of projects that would qualify.
The new neighborhood grants are included in the Inflation Reduction Act, a spending measure backed by Democrats, which the Senate approved on Sunday in a party-line vote. The sweeping proposal—which includes around $370 billion for climate and energy programs, as well as health care and tax provisions—surprised advocates and just about everyone around Capitol Hill, who had assumed negotiations on the bill had stalled.
“Certainly no one was counting on it in this session of Congress,” said Rick Cole, executive director of the Congress for the New Urbanism, which has long pushed to remove interstate highways in cities. “But given the magnitude of need and increasing national attention to that need, adding almost three times as much as in [the infrastructure law] shows there is growing momentum for this.”
The new money could be used for a variety of purposes, including covering a highway, turning a highway into a boulevard, adding trails and bike lanes, installing sound barriers, providing better connections to transit, using “green infrastructure” to handle storm runoff, reducing urban heat island hot spots, building safety features and curbing air pollution.
The Biden administration originally asked Congress for $20 billion for a program to help neighborhoods divided by infrastructure, but Senate negotiators pared that down to $1 billion by the time the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act reached the president’s desk. What’s more, the Reconnecting Communities program became a pilot project, rather than a permanent program.
Dozens of advocacy groups pushed Congress to add more funding for those kinds of efforts, and they proposed ways to ensure that disadvantaged communities benefited from the extra money. More than 10 million Americans live next to major transportation corridors, such as highways or railroad tracks, they said.
“Too often, their communities bear the brunt of a highway’s ill effects, from the noxious emissions leading to lifelong health conditions to the severe disinvestment that drives away local businesses, services, and amenities,” a group of over 80 organizations wrote in a letter to congressional leaders last year. The grants “represent a historic investment in these communities and help them heal from the damage highways have caused.”
They touted a feature of the new neighborhood grants that would direct money to underrepresented communities. The current proposal designates $1.1 billion for “economically disadvantaged communities.” To qualify for that funding, those areas must have “an anti-displacement policy, a community land trust or a community advisory board in effect,” as well as a plan to employ local residents in making the improvements.
“This makes it explicit that this is a program meant to heal harms that have been inflicted upon communities by highway building,” said Ben Crowther, the advocacy manager for America Walks, and one of the advocates who has championed the new neighborhood grants.
Unlike the Reconnecting Communities program, Crowther noted, the new money could not be used for projects that add more travel lanes to roads. State transportation departments have begun adding caps over highways in places like Denver and Portland, even as they expand the road’s footprint underneath, as a way to address community concerns. But those kinds of projects would not qualify for the new grants.
“That’s a net decrease in community connectivity,” Crowther said.
Beth Osborne, the director of Transportation for America, said the new grants could help address concerns about roads that aren’t necessarily grade-separated highways. The grants can be used for transportation infrastructure where “high speeds, grade separation, or other design factors create an obstacle to connectivity within a community.”
Roads with four or more lanes that connect major destinations for drivers can also be big obstacles, Osborne said.
“These roads are overbuilt,” she said. “They create a level of danger. Anyone walking around the neighborhood who just needs to cross is facing a real risk to their physical safety. That creates a massive barrier for just getting their day-to-day needs, much less to reach real economic opportunity.”
Cole, from the Congress for the New Urbanism, said he expects the new program would supplement the work already underway for the Reconnecting Communities grants. The U.S. Department of Transportation is still accepting applications for the pilot program, but Cole said federal officials will be able to apply what they learn through that process toward the neighborhood grants.
Cole said he expected communities that got planning grants through Reconnecting Communities would be able to get funding for the actual project through the new neighborhood grants program.
The programs will give communities and advocates a chance to show whether they can mitigate some of the long-term harms of locating major infrastructure projects in disadvantaged areas.
“For any program, it has to be effective—meaning both cost effective and politically effective—and address a demonstrable need,” Cole said. “The question is: Can we reknit communities back together without creating widespread displacement? Can we do that without bureaucratic horror stories or changes in administration throwing everything in disarray?”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.