Opinion

Building Back Better Means Reimagining How We Connect Communities

In his address to a Joint Session of Congress earlier this year, President Joe Biden outlined the American Jobs Plan and its massive investment in roads, bridges and transportation infrastructure. We have known for years that the United States lags behind our peers on infrastructure quality, impeding our ability to compete globally. After years stuck at a D+, the Report Card for American Infrastructure finally nudged us up to a C- this year, but we have significant work to do to catch up with our global competitors.

In the meantime, communities across the country are stuck with infrastructure that, at best, no longer meets the needs of a modern economy. At worst, some roads and bridges are literally crumbling.

What should local communities do with this infrastructure?

Increasingly, communities are considering an alternative to repairing or demolishing these assets. Some groups are reimagining the role that infrastructure can play in our communities.

This is particularly true of urban freeways — highways that cut through urban neighborhoods, often low-income communities or communities of color. Cities and states built dozens of these kinds of projects beginning in the 1950s. Now, more communities are advocating for the removal of these highways, reconnecting communities that have been cut in pieces for decades and replacing them with resources that belong to everyone.

That’s what Building Bridges Across the River is proposing for the 11th Street Bridge in Washington, D.C. Inspired by New York City’s High Line, the project plans to reuse the pillars of an old highway span crossing the Anacostia River and turn them into a pedestrian park and bike path. The completed park will be home to outdoor performance spaces, playgrounds, an environmental education center, art, and kayak and canoe launches to give residents new ways to enjoy the river. As Scott Kratz and Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins said about the project in April, “It’s not about the concrete, steel or dirt fill; it’s about the people.”

Meanwhile, the Claiborne Avenue Alliance in New Orleans is working to restore the historic, tree-lined Claiborne Avenue that the federal government demolished to make room for an expressway in the 1960s. Groups like Stop TxDOT I-45 are fighting to prevent an expansion in Houston, an effort that recently gained nationwide attention when the Biden administration asked Texas to pause the project.

Community-led efforts like these could get some significant support as part of Biden’s plan to create jobs across the country. In April, Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Ga.) introduced the Restoring Neighborhoods and Strengthening Communities Act, which would create a new grant program for the redesign or removal of highway infrastructure built through communities of color. We strongly support this bill and hope Rep. Williams’ colleagues on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee incorporate it as they consider the American Jobs Plan.

The bill’s focus specifically on communities of color is critical: For decades, the federal government has funded highway projects that have displaced, divided and segregated communities of color. The American Jobs Plan’s once-in-a-generation investment is an unmissable opportunity to stop and reverse the harm that these highways have caused. As Congress considers significantly increasing funding for our federal highway programs, these are the kinds of restorative projects that justify a massive increase.

Transportation investments are about more than how we travel from place to place. The American Jobs Plan will be an opportunity to build community wealth, economic opportunity and access to resources that were taken from these communities. Redesigning and removing urban freeways is a critical step toward achieving that goal.

 

Josh Freed is the senior vice president for climate and energy at Third Way. Beth Osborne is the director of Transportation for America.

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