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House Democrats aim to spend $4 billion on ‘reconnecting communities’ severed by highways

The Democratic-run House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s proposals for the party’s $3.5 trillion spending package include $4 billion for “reconnecting communities” and related projects, in a development that’s encouraging advocates who have pushed for tearing down highways that cut through neighborhoods decades ago.

President Joe Biden in the spring had proposed spending $20 billion on reconnecting neighborhoods in his “American Jobs Plan,” but such public works would get just 5% of that amount, or $1 billion, in the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate last month . Providing another $4 billion, as the House committee proposes, would lift such spending to 25% of Biden’s goal.

“I’m optimistic, and I really, really hope that they’ll make the right choice here and get this extra $4 billion in the program, or added as a separate program — however they need to do it — just to make sure that these projects are getting an opportunity to show off what they could be doing for communities,” said Jordan van der Hagen, a landscape designer and founder of the Duluth Waterfront Collective, which seeks to remove a stretch of Interstate 35 that slices through that Minnesota city .

Van der Hagen was among the advocates behind a recent letter to lawmakers that expressed disappointment with getting $1 billion in the bipartisan infrastructure bill rather than $20 billion. He told MarketWatch that an additional letter to lawmakers is in the works to encourage them to make sure the $4 billion in funding becomes a reality.

Regarding the potential project in Duluth, he said “connecting our downtown to our waterfront would be pretty significant, and would be providing a pretty huge return on investment. So there’s kind of those two components — righting a past wrong and also preparing our cities for the future.”

The proposed works involve not just teardowns of highways, but also redevelopment, with the ideas for Duluth including a lower-speed parkway, new green spaces and new transportation options. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said the $4 billion would go “to support neighborhood equity, safety, and affordable transportation access, including reconnecting communities divided by existing infrastructure barriers.”

Other possible projects for “reconnecting communities” are found across the US, with one focusing on a “Highway to Nowhere” in Baltimore, Md. Construction of that short segment of freeway in Maryland’s biggest city during the 1970s led to “businesses, churches, families, community networks that were literally torn asunder,” said Baltimore City Councilman John Bullock, in a Wall Street Journal interview earlier this year. There were “disproportionate effects” on Black residents, as occurred with projects in other US cities, Bullock added.

Another prominent redevelopment project targets a section of Interstate 81 in Syracuse, NY, that ripped through a Black neighborhood and displaced residents when it was built in the 1950s.

In working to reach a deal with Senate Republicans on the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure PAVE,
bill, Biden promised not to put items that were explicitly left out of that measure into Democrats’ $3.5 trillion package. But the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s chairman, Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, has said he and other lawmakers don’t feel bound to that deal on “double dipping” — and is working on ways around it.

Biden’s proposal of $20 billion for cut-off neighborhoods is similar to a bill rolled out in the spring by several Democratic senators, known as the Reconnecting Communities Act, which called for funding of $15 billion.

Some Republican lawmakers have voiced objections to such projects, with GOP Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, criticizing efforts to fix “’racism’ in highways” in a recent memo. The missive from Banks, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, also said the bipartisan infrastructure bill is “not true infrastructure.”

This report was first published on Sept. 23, 2021.


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