The Department of Transportation awarded $3.3 billion in grants Wednesday to infrastructure projects designed to ease the community disruption of various transit network construction.

The Department of Transportation awarded $3.3 billion in grants Wednesday to infrastructure projects designed to ease the community disruption of various transit network construction. EyeWolf via Getty Images

$3.3B in federal grants announced for communities split apart by highways

The one-time infusion of cash for highway caps, bike trails and other improvements shows the Biden administration’s priorities for one of its most high-profile infrastructure initiatives.

The Biden administration on Wednesday unveiled the winners of more than $3.3 billion in grants for one of its signature infrastructure initiatives, an effort that aims to reduce the harm caused by the construction of highways, rail lines and other infrastructure that sliced through neighborhoods across the country.

The grants would pay for new freeway “caps” in Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, Philadelphia and Portland, Ore. The short highway covers often include amenities like parks and trails to help connect the surrounding neighborhoods. Massachusetts will use its $335 million grant to rebuild an aging highway viaduct while creating new parks, building a new bridge for cyclists and pedestrians, and opening a new commuter rail station. New York’s $180 million award will go toward making improvements to downtown Syracuse after removing a highway viaduct there.

Jacksonville, Florida, will use $147 million to build 15 miles of a new off-street trail system that will connect historically Black neighborhoods to downtown and other amenities. And the Gulfton and Kashmere Gardens neighborhoods in Houston, where residents have long had to contend with chronic flooding and inadequate infrastructure, will get improved sidewalks, drainage and tree cover.

All told, the Department of Transportation awarded 132 grants, including 52 for construction. The rest were to help communities with planning.

“While the purpose of transportation is to connect, in too many communities, past infrastructure decisions have served instead to divide. Now the Biden-Harris administration is acting to fix that,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in a statement.

The awards come from a combination of two programs. The administration secured $1 billion in the 2021 infrastructure law to start a five-year pilot program called Reconnecting Communities. A year later, Congress included $3.1 billion more for similar projects in the climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act, through the creation of the Neighborhood Access and Equity Program. As a result, the amount of money the Biden administration handed out this year was 18 times as much as it doled out last year, when it only distributed money from the pilot program.

Kevin DeGood, the director of infrastructure policy for the Center for American Progress, said the awards “are a huge policy win.”

“This moment of reckoning about the harms caused by urban highway segments has been decades in the making,” he told Route Fifty. “Every future transportation bill must include robust funding for reconnecting communities. These awards reflect an understanding that urban highway segments create real barriers to opportunity and mobility. Going forward, the cost of mitigating the harms caused by highway expansion—including caps and other measures—must become part of the regular project budget, not a separate line item for the city or county to pay for.”

The mix of projects, though, shows the Biden administration is focusing on fine-tuning existing infrastructure, rather than funding more drastic changes that some advocates had hoped for when the programs were created. Community activists in places like New Orleans and Tulsa initially pushed to remove highways that devastated their neighborhoods, but the administration has largely avoided those kinds of proposals.

“There are some projects that are more transformative, although not necessarily dealing explicitly with past harms of transportation infrastructure,” said Ben Crowther, the policy director for America Walks, a pedestrian advocacy group. Many smaller awards for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure are “just nibbling around the edges in terms of creating meaningful change in the overall transportation system.”

Other projects selected by the administration, he said, are “problematic” because they are tied to highway expansions. He pointed to an $88 million grant to build two underpasses of an interstate in St. George, Utah, as one example. The project, according to the Transportation Department, “will coincide with a highway widening project for I-15 and will greatly mitigate the potential negative impacts of such a widening.”

“By granting these types of awards,” Crowther said, “USDOT is providing cover for state departments of transportation to sell their highway widenings. It’s providing cover for those agencies to go out and cause more damage.”

The Texas Department of Transportation is moving ahead with a $4.5 billion project to widen Interstate 35 through the heart of Austin with two high-occupancy lanes in each direction. But it was the city of Austin that applied for a federal grant to mitigate the effects of that expansion with a plan to “cap and stitch” the widened highway so that the East César Chávez neighborhood, the cultural center of Austin’s Mexican American community, could be better connected to downtown. The city won a $105 million grant.

The biggest winner in Wednesday’s awards was the Oregon Department of Transportation for its work to mitigate the impact of a highway widening project in Portland. The state received $450 million to build “caps” over a below-grade section of Interstate 5 that runs through Albina, a historically Black neighborhood. The proposed caps would allow buildings to be constructed over the highway. The city of Portland also received more than $38 million to make busy streets in the area more welcoming to area residents.

“The I-5 Rose Quarter Project is an ambitious project, and this catalytic investment will relieve traffic, create new community spaces, foster innovative development, and reconnect communities that were divided and cut off from economic opportunities by Portland’s transportation infrastructure,” said Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek, a Democrat, in a statement.

The project, like many that received awards, remains contentious. The state transportation department faces a $680 million shortfall over the next five years, and Kotek recently pulled the plug on efforts to generate more road money through tolling. Local activists are also fighting the effort to widen Interstate 5 through Portland, because of its potential to increase greenhouse gas pollution.

“The best way to ensure this investment heals and doesn’t harm the neighborhood is to construct the caps and lose the lanes,” wrote the local group No More Freeways in response to the grant announcement. “Albina deserves cleaner air and affordable housing, not air pollution and endless traffic congestion, and the Reconnecting Communities grant funding should be used to heal this neighborhood without ODOT further harming the neighborhood with air pollution and additional freeway lanes.”

Other activists, though, were encouraged by the number of winning projects that included pedestrian and cyclist amenities.

“It seems again that the demand for—and investment in—connected active transportation infrastructure is significant, reinforcing the role of trails and other walking and biking infrastructure in addressing key issues the communities face like bike/ped safety, environmental and transportation justice, and climate,” wrote Brandi Horton, the vice president of communications for the Rails to Trails Conservancy.

“This grant round represents major funding, and it’s unlikely we’ll see this volume of investment repeated—even more reason that it’s critical for Congress to fully fund [the Active Transportation Infrastructure Investment Program, a separate program created by the 2021 infrastructure law] so that the pace of developing this infrastructure can be sustained,” she added.

Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.

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