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Four Things Advocates Need to Know About the ‘Reconnecting Communities’ Program

A disappointingly small new federal fund to help repair the devastation inflicted by highway builders on predominantly Black, brown, and poor communities is now accepting applications — but transportation leaders say they're prepared to devote far more money to the fight for infrastructural reparations in the years to come, albeit not always in the forms that advocates might have expected.

The U.S. Department of Transportation released a notification of funding opportunity on Wednesday for the first-of-its-kind Reconnecting Communities Program, which will provide $1 billion in competitive grants across five years to "help reconnect communities that were previously cut off from economic opportunities by transportation infrastructure."

"Everywhere I go, people talk about the highway, the railway, whatever piece of infrastructure it is in their area that cuts one part of their town off from another," said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in a press conference. "And unlike a lot of other policy mistakes of the past, this is something that can't be easily reversed — because often, you have a piece of physical infrastructure that, by design, lasts for decades, or even centuries, that is serving to divide, when the whole point of transportation is to connect. We're here to do something [about that]."

That "something" though, may not be very big — and it may not look like what sustainable transportation advocates anticipated when the program was first announced. Originally proposed as a $10-billion initiative that many hoped would jumpstart highway removal projects throughout America's downtown cores, the Reconnecting Communities Program was whittled down during Senate negotiations over the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to a tiny pilot effort — and its scope has shifted significantly, too.

Here are four things to know about how the new program is expected to work — and what advocates should look out for.

1. It probably won't remove many highways ... at least not on its own

When it comes to addressing America's massive urban highway problem, roughly $200 million per year is a pretty small pie to split — and much of that money won't exactly go to firing up the bulldozers.

DOT leaders expect about one-quarter of this year's Reconnecting Communities funds will go towards small grants (capped at just $2 million each) to help state, regional and local leaders plan to eventually address the impacts of federal transportation investments through infrastructure changes, as well as to solicit meaningful engagement from the residents whose voices were ignored when the highways first went in.

Some of the money will pay for demolition and construction, but communities will have to match those funds at least one-to-one — a constraint that will put most full-on highway removals out of the program's reach, especially if the DOT chooses to spread the fund across more a larger swath of the country. (Removing the notorious segment of the Claiborne Expressway that runs through the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans, for example, would cost about $500 million, the federal half of which would be more than this year's entire allocation for this program.)

DOT leaders say they anticipate being able to provide initial planning seed money for dozens of small efforts throughout the country — but they'll only be able to fund "three to 15" projects that actually require hardhats. (But don't despair: that doesn't mean that no highways will get torn down as a result of this money. More on that later.)

2. It's not just about highways

Though the legislative proposal that would become Reconnecting Communities was colloquially known as the "highways to boulevards" program, DOT stressed a far broader range of possible highway-healing investments — many of which, while positive in many ways, wouldn't remove any capacity for drivers, or even much pollution from neighborhoods nearby.

Rather than emphasizing ambitious plans to tear down whole interchanges, DOT representatives gave far more mild examples of projects the program might fund, "such as building a pedestrian walkway over or under an existing highway to better connect neighborhoods to opportunities, or [building] better means of access, such as crosswalks and redesigned intersections." In the press conference, Buttigieg also added that the program could theoretically fund a proposed highway cap in Atlanta, "a public greenway that allows people to walk, bike, and access public transit in St. Louis, [or] connecting parts of a city that were disconnected through new assets like the bus rapid transit line."

Despite the clear benefits of projects like these, DOT notably declined to block funds could prompt additional driving — meaning states could theoretically use "reconnecting" dollars to, for instance, plan a highway expansion with a nominal pedestrian bridge on top.

Additionally, DOT reps repeatedly emphasized that highways were not the only transportation investments that have historically divided neighborhoods, like poorly planned railroad investments that isolated residents on the literal wrong side of the tracks. Rail proponents will need to stay attention to what amending those decisions will look like in practice.

3. Equitable projects are most likely to win this money

When it comes to transportation investments, "equity" can all too easily become a meaningless buzzword. But DOT leaders — and just as importantly, the allies who will hold them accountable — are emphasizing that every Reconnecting Communities dollar should prioritize the people who were harmed by past federal policy. Because if they don't, those communities could easily be displaced by even the most well-intentioned projects.

"Never in our history, have we ever invested in true spatial justice," said Michael McAfee, president and CEO of the nonprofit PolicyLink, during the press conference. "The United States has never prioritized equity in the physical foundation of the nation: its infrastructure, buildings, roads and bridges ... This is our moment to ensure policies, practices and investments, govern for racial equity, repair the harm of past policies, and promote transformative outcomes."

To accomplish those outcomes, Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Transportation Policy Christopher Coes says that all applications will be scored for their impacts on four criteria — equity, the environment, community engagement, and shared prosperity — with specific definitions outlined for each of those terms. The application also repeatedly emphasized that successful applications would include a strong plan to mitigate resident displacement and other harmful side effects of neighborhood change, while stimulating the production of new housing.

"The repeated emphasis on keeping current residents in place is highly encouraging and will go a long way toward making the Reconnecting Communities program truly reparative, especially in conjunction with program criteria to increase housing supply," said Ben Crowther, advocacy manager for America Walks. "It gives the Reconnecting Communities program the power to turn highways into homes."

4. It's not just $1 billion

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the Reconnecting Communities Program, though, is what it could will unlock beyond the bounds of the program, when communities use the far larger pots of money in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to turn their modest highway-healing plans into large-scale infrastructure reality.

DOT officials repeatedly emphasized that they would leverage the full power of their office to make sure that Reconnecting Communities was just a starting point, including targeting the roughly $100 billion in discretionary grants under the department's control to similar projects, pressuring states to use their $350 billion in collective formula grants equitably, and coordinating closely with leaders at the Departments of Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, and beyond to help out.

"The program is a principle," said Coes. "In addition to these dollars, we also recognize that the bipartisan infrastructure law allows this program to be a catalyst in many ways our Secretary of State it reconnected communities."

Federal Highway Administration Deputy Administrator Stephanie Pollack agreed.

"We don't expect this program by itself to pay for all the very expensive projects. But the pieces of those projects that it can pay for are going to be the pieces that are most vital to the communities that are the neighbors of these [investments]."

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