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OPINION: Here's how Biden can address inequity in U.S. transportation plans

by Maggie J. Parker | Innovan Neighborhoods
Thursday, 29 April 2021 13:14 GMT

Construction workers are seen at the site of a large public infrastructure reconstruction project of an elevated roadway and bridges in upper Manhattan in New York City, New York, U.S., April 22, 2021. REUTERS/Mike Segar

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

President Biden has pledged billions of dollars on upgrading transport, those plans must include affordable housing and commercial space for businesses owned by people of color

Maggie J. Parker is the Managing Partner of Innovan Neighborhoods, a community-oriented real estate development and consulting firm.

President Joe Biden’s recent announcement of The American Jobs Plan positions nearly $2 trillion of infrastructure investment at the center of the need for economic growth for the average  American worker. One component of this legislation is the prospect of addressing long-awaited highway upgrades and removals, often viewed as lofty investments as there is rarely reasonable funding to move the projects forward.

Yet within a context of historic policy inequity, the plan sets aside nearly $20 billion for a new program focused on reconnecting “neighborhoods cut off by historic investments.” This aims at a balance between innovative transportation infrastructure, acknowledging historic injustices, and delivering on decade-long planning processes. Such an effort has never been so complex, yet profoundly needed.

Transportation experts report that these highway removals will reverse the discriminatory backdrop upon which the U.S. highway system was built, or the historic practice enforced by eminent domain to take properties in “undesirable” areas to then build the highway of the future.

For example, supporters tout the New Orleans’ Claiborne Expressway as a primary opportunity to tear down an aging-highway that disrupted a thriving thoroughfare while increasing air pollution.

In New York, as-is portions of Syracuse’s Interstate 81, city leaders have touted the opportunity to “reunite parts of the city, open up valuable development and greenspace, and make the area…more vibrant.”

However, in Houston there still seems to be a misalignment between the Texas Department of Transportation’s decades-long planning efforts to build an expansion of I-45 and the Biden Administrations’ concerns of destroying homes and businesses in Black and Latino communities.

In Dallas, interest groups are still advocating for removal of I345 into a depressed highway or a network of surface streets, while at least beginning to acknowledge the need for equitable development in the process, as discussed in the Coalition for New Dallas’ Economic & Community Development Plan.

As the national dialogue has been become more nuanced in how to think about transportation infrastructure and the impact on all communities, acknowledgement – even from the federal government – does not always lead to equitable action.

Seemingly great ideas to right past injustices can negatively redefine the same communities they now hope to stitch back together.

I have seen first-hand the impact of how transportation and infrastructure policies have hindered wealth creation in communities of color and still create barriers for future community-led investment.

The initial highway development of the 1950s and ‘60s took assets, like property and businesses, from people of color, resulting in an extraction of wealth from communities already at a disadvantage due to generations of economic disparities.

Richard Rothstein’s Color of Law cites this routing of interstate highways, alongside examples like the denial of public utilities and enforced locations of segregated school sites, as an illustration of the government’s creativity in preventing the movement of Black families across neighborhoods.

More than half a century later, these communities have adapted, and traffic patterns have changed as have the market for job and housing investments. As a result, where people live, and work is now reliant on these highway systems. What is now seen as an urbanism ideal can, in many ways, alienate the same communities that had been burdened previously.

The primary driver for highway removal is often the economic impact and opportunities to expand development opportunities as cities look to increase their dwindling tax bases.

Certainly the need is abundant, but the question then becomes who receives the advantage of future development in the area?

Biden’s vision for an equitable transportation system likely does not include offering wealth-building opportunities to an admittingly white-led real estate and construction industry, to build on land that was once seized using tax dollars from often Black and Latino communities. The difficulties in the vision for equitable development is addressing the past harms in the name of transportation innovation.

To be sure, removal of highways can be an opportunity to revitalize communities and address racial inequalities. Yet forwarding these efforts without a thorough assessment of the economic impact that includes the communities initially harmed, only asserts racial and economic injustice in a new light.

Rather than simply allocating a set-aside of funds for future housing or business investment, leaders can create a market-driven compensation for past property owners or deed-restricting land to meet a community purpose. That can include offering housing options that are affordable and commercial space for businesses owned by people of color.

The solutions need to be binding-- not lofty-- and provide direct benefit rather than implicit promises.