Connecting state and local government leaders
Federal transportation officials unveiled the dozens of cities and communities selected for grants under the infrastructure law.
Buffalo, New York; Tampa, Florida; and Long Beach, California, are among the biggest winners in a first-of-its-kind federal grant competition to sew back together communities that were ripped apart by the construction of highways and other infrastructure decades ago.
With $55 million from the federal government, New York state will build a cap over the Kensington Highway in Buffalo that has cut off the city’s predominantly Black east side. The cap will include new parks and will reconnect east-west roads.
The Buffalo project took the largest award of the $185 million of Reconnecting Communities grants that the Biden administration unveiled Tuesday, which are designed to help disadvantaged communities that have been disproportionately affected by major infrastructure projects. The grants announced Tuesday were for the first year of the five-year program. All told, the federal Transportation Department awarded grants to 45 applicants in 31 states and Puerto Rico. Another 369 applicants applied for the funds but did not receive any.
The bulk of the money—$138 million—went to the construction of six projects. Other than Buffalo, those included:
- Long Beach will get $30 million to help it convert a former interstate highway near its waterfront to a lower-speed road. With the money, the city will downsize the road for local traffic, and use the leftover 5.5 acres to expand a nearby park.
- Nearly $22 million will go to the Michigan Department of Transportation to rebuild a bridge deck over an interstate in the Detroit suburb of Oak Park. Rebuilding it will maintain connections for an Orthodox Jewish community that was split when the highway was built.
- New Jersey’s Long Branch transit station will get $13 million to build a pedestrian tunnel, as well as eliminate an at-grade rail crossing. The project also includes better access for people with disabilities, bike racks, bus stations, public art and a new plaza for nearby residents.
- Kalamazoo, Michigan, will receive $12 million to convert high-speed, one-way streets downtown into two-way streets with bicycle, bus and pedestrian accommodations and traffic-calming infrastructure.
- Tampa will get $5 million to lower an interstate off-ramp to street level, as part of a bigger effort to connect downtown to the city’s river front. According to federal officials, the construction of Interstate 275 starting in 1951 “produced a new, auto-centric gateway into downtown Tampa, it also began decades of economic and social isolation for the historically Black neighborhoods it separated.”
The other recipients received money for planning future projects. The largest of those awards was $2 million. Among those projects were an effort to eliminate the “Highway to Nowhere” in Baltimore, to reconnect Chinatown in Boston, and to help the Sac and Fox Tribe of Mississippi in Iowa/Meskwaki develop a safe way to cross a highway that makes it difficult for members to get between their homes and their jobs.
“Transportation should connect, not divide, people and communities,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in a statement. He said the grants “will unite neighborhoods, ensure the future is better than the past, and provide Americans with better access to jobs, health care, groceries and other essentials.”
The Reconnecting Communities pilot program has received outsized attention, given that it only accounts for $1 billion of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law Congress passed in 2021. The size is far smaller than the $20 billion President Joe Biden originally proposed for the measure.
But advocates for pedestrians, cyclists and urban design were encouraged that the program became law at all, after decades of federal support chiefly for highway construction and maintenance.
“Today is a major milestone in repairing the harm highway building causes to communities,” said Mike McGinn, executive director of America Walks. “But we also must acknowledge that the program is modest compared to the flood of state and federal money still allocated for highways that divide and damage communities.
“The most cost-effective Reconnecting Communities project we could undertake today is to strike outdated highway plans from the books, so we can fully invest in the types of connected, transit-friendly, walkable, and accessible communities that Americans want,” added McGinn, a former mayor of Seattle
Interest in the grants was so high that the Transportation Department received competing applications for the same infrastructure in some cities.
In Tulsa, for example, the federal government selected a community-led proposal to study tearing down a portion of Interstate 244 that cuts through the Greenwood neighborhood. The Oklahoma Department of Transportation submitted a separate proposal that would have looked at ways to mitigate the harm created by the overhead freeway through the site of the 1919 Tulsa Race Massacre.
In New Orleans, the Transportation Department picked a state-led study about removing highway ramps in the Tremé neighborhood instead of an initiative from residents to study taking down the Claiborne Expressway completely.
Amy Stelly, an urban planner and co-founder of the Claiborne Avenue Alliance design studio that submitted the application, said she was relieved that the federal grant to the state was only for planning purposes. Removing the ramps in the neighborhood would cut off local residents from the highway, while leaving the noise and pollution it produces, she said.
But a planning grant means there will still be opportunities for neighbors to weigh in, especially because the political leadership in the area is in flux, Stelly said. New Orleans’ mayor faces a recall, and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards is in the last year of his term. In fact, Shawn Wilson, the former state transportation secretary who submitted the Reconnecting Communities grant application, has stepped down and is exploring a run for governor.
Stelly is also encouraged by interest from the city health department in improving conditions for Tremé residents, which she thinks will affect how the city approaches the proposed freeway changes.
The small size of the planning grant also means that state and local leaders will have to do more work, she added. “There is no reason for me to lose hope at this point,” Stelly said, “because it’s only $500,000.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.