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Buttigieg Launches $1B Pilot for Roads 06/30 06:30

   Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Thursday launched a $1 billion 
first-of-its-kind pilot program aimed at helping reconnect cities and 
neighborhoods racially segregated or divided by road projects, pledging 
wide-ranging help to dozens of communities despite the program's limited 
dollars.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Thursday 
launched a $1 billion first-of-its-kind pilot program aimed at helping 
reconnect cities and neighborhoods racially segregated or divided by road 
projects, pledging wide-ranging help to dozens of communities despite the 
program's limited dollars.

   Under the Reconnecting Communities program, cities and states can now apply 
for the federal aid over five years to rectify harm caused by roadways that 
were built primarily through lower-income, Black communities after the 1950s 
creation of the interstate highway system.

   New projects could include rapid bus transit lines to link disadvantaged 
neighborhoods to jobs; caps built on top of highways featuring green spaces, 
bike lanes and pedestrian walkways to allow for safe crossings over the 
roadways; repurposing former rail lines; and partial removal of highways.

   Still, the grants, being made available under President Joe Biden's 
bipartisan infrastructure law, are considerably less than the $20 billion the 
Democratic president originally envisioned. Advocacy groups say the money isn't 
nearly enough to have a major impact on capital construction for more than 50 
citizen-led efforts nationwide aimed at dismantling or redesigning highways -- 
from Portland, Oregon, to New Orleans; St. Paul, Minnesota; Houston; Tampa, 
Florida; and Syracuse, New York. Meanwhile, some Republicans, including 
possible 2024 presidential contender Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have derided 
the effort as the "woke-ification" of federal policy, suggesting political 
crosswinds ahead in an election season.

   "Transportation can connect us to jobs, services and loved ones, but we've 
also seen countless cases around the country where a piece of infrastructure 
cuts off a neighborhood or a community because of how it was built," said 
Buttigieg, who was announcing the pilot program later Thursday in Birmingham, 
Alabama. He described Reconnecting Communities as a broad department 
"principle" -- not just a program -- to address the issue with many efforts 
underway.

   "This is a forward-looking vision," Buttigieg said. "Our focus isn't about 
assigning blame. It isn't about getting caught up in guilt. It's about fixing a 
problem. It's about mending what has been broken, especially when the damage 
was done with taxpayer dollars."

   The Transportation Department has aimed to help communities that feel 
racially harmed by highway expansions, with the Federal Highway Administration 
last year taking a rare step to pause a proposed $9 billion widening project in 
Houston, partly over civil rights concerns. That move likely spurred action in 
other places such as Austin, Texas, where environmental and racial justice 
groups recently filed a lawsuit to force the Texas transportation agency to 
better lay out the impacts of a proposed highway expansion there.

   Buttigieg drew fire from some Republicans earlier this year when he said the 
federal government had an obligation to address the harms of racist design in 
highways. "There's trees they're putting in, they're saying that highways are 
racially discriminatory. I don't know how a road can be that," DeSantis said in 
February, dismissing it as "woke."

   Under the program, $195 million in competitive grants is to be awarded this 
year, of which $50 million will be devoted for communities to conduct planning 
studies.

   The department will also launch a "Thriving Communities" initiative to 
provide technical support for potential projects that serve disadvantaged 
communities alongside the Housing and Urban Development Department.

   The Transportation Department has previously estimated it could help as many 
as 20 U.S. communities under the new program to remove portions of interstates 
and redesign streets by tapping into other transportation funds. According to 
the department, communities that win the Reconnecting Communities grants but 
still need additional funds will be prioritized in their applications for other 
pots of federal transportation money. Dozens more communities could derive 
benefit from the planning grants.

   "Prior to 2021, the idea that we would deal with highway infrastructure that 
has divided communities was very much a fringe idea," said Ben Crowther, 
coordinator for the Boston-based Freeway Fighters Network, which is supported 
by the Congress for the New Urbanism. "The Biden administration has really 
transformed that into mainstream thinking. We are thinking now this is 
something that is possible -- that you can remove a highway and instead build 
safe streets that are walkable, add housing and address other community needs 
besides travel time."

 
 
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