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Cut in infrastructure money for communities hurt by highways disappoints advocates

The Reconnecting Communities Initiative aimed to help cities rectify damage caused by highways built through minority neighborhoods. The bipartisan infrastructure bill cut it by 95 percent.
Locals hope that filling in Rochester's Inner Loop and replacing it with streets and walkways will reconnect neighborhoods destroyed by the interstate's construction.
Residents hope filling in Rochester's Inner Loop and replacing it with streets and walkways will reconnect neighborhoods destroyed by the interstate's construction.Arturo Hoyte / Courtesy of Hinge Neighborhoods

Shawn Dunwoody and Suzanne Mayer can remember when Democratic Sens. Kristen Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer of New York went to Rochester’s Inner Loop at the end of June and emphasized the need to fund projects that reconnected neighborhoods bisected by highways.

The senators’ advocacy meant the world, said Dunwoody and Mayer, who created a group called Hinge Neighbors. Their goal was to fill in the Inner Loop, a part of Interstate 490 that the federal government built after it plowed through minority neighborhoods in the 1950s, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses.

They said the words of support feel confusing now that they have seen the details of the bipartisan infrastructure bill. The Reconnecting Communities Initiative — which began as a bill written by Gillibrand and Schumer, whose offices did not respond to requests for comment — was cut from a proposed $20 billion in the American Jobs Plan to $1 billion in the recently proposed legislation.

“It felt like they were listening to us, to the communities, banging on the table and saying these changes were going to happen,” said Dunwoody, a local activist and graphic artist. “But now it’s like, ‘Is there any hope or gain in government?’”

Image: Shawn Dunwoody and Suzanne Mayer
Shawn Dunwoody and Suzanne Mayer.Arturo Hoyte / Courtesy Hinge Neighbors

The Reconnecting Communities Initiative aims to create a fund that would help cities and states rectify the damage caused by the hundreds of highways built through minority neighborhoods across the country during the middle of the 20th century. President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg have both highlighted the need to address the harm done by the construction.

When the final infrastructure bill came out after days of white-knuckle negotiating in the Senate, however, advocates were devastated to see that the program that aimed to heal longstanding racial wounds had been cut to a number that many felt amounted to little more than an acknowledgment of historic pain, deleting protections for residents.

In response, more than 50 community groups, representing cities and towns across the country, signed a letter this week — first obtained by NBC News — that they sent to members of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework working group, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to plead their case: They want more funding and greater protections for residents and neighborhoods that could be affected.

“Many freeway capping and highway-to-boulevard projects have already entered into feasibility studies, a large number of which individually are estimated to cost more than the program’s current $1 billion budget,” the letter says. “Without additional funding, the program will either fail to adequately fund even one full project from planning to implementation, or will grant many communities the opportunity to reimagine their neighborhoods without providing any follow-through in the form of dedicated capital construction funds.”

While any initiative to reconnect communities is also likely to get some kind of matching funding from state and local governments, as well as traditional federal highway and transportation programs, experts said the $1 billion fund is unlikely to be enough to help more than a handful of locations.

“You could think about funding a number of projects in major cities across the country if you had $20 billion with matching federal-state money,” said Trevon Logan, an Ohio State University economics professor who has studied how government spending programs have affected minority Americans. “Going down to 1/20th the size, though? It’s just not going to be possible.”

Jordan van der Hagen, the founder of Duluth Waterfront Collective in Minnesota, said the slashed funding was a major disappointment. His organization, which is pushing to reconnect Duluth’s downtown with the waterfront at Lake Superior by removing a stretch of Interstate 35, helped organize the letter to Congress.

“If they really recognized this as an issue and wanted to solve it, why didn’t they actually put any money behind it?” he said. “It’s frustrating, because it seems like they're selling short the potential of the program and it just won’t be as productive as it should be — and I think that’s being felt by a lot of campaigns across the country right now.”

Van der Hagen said a major concern among groups is that they will be pitted against one another to get access to the federal funding.

Advocates for the program also highlighted that many of the projects will each cost more than the $1 billion that would be allocated. There is real concern that there would not be any real benefit for communities that have long suffered because of how America’s highways were built, they said.

Pete Buttigieg, U.S. secretary of transportation, center, tours the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C., on May 19, 2021.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, center, tours the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C., on May 19.Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images

“There’s opportunities to really help these communities get back on their feet, but right now there’s just a feeling of disappointment, because the opportunity is so great,” said Marc Wouters, an urban planner who has worked with a number of towns and cities on plans to reconnect neighborhoods. “There’s a chance to create new local businesses, new affordable housing and a whole economic and social environment that you can’t really support without this funding.”

Buttigieg, whose office did not respond to a request for comment, and lawmakers have said in recent days that it is only the beginning and that there will be more opportunities to provide greater funding. It is unclear, however, whether the funds could come in the slate of bills aimed to support the country’s infrastructure or whether there is a separate avenue.

For now, disappointment reigns among those who had high hopes for the Reconnecting Communities Initiative, but they remain committed.

“I guess we’ll have to return to that political process again,” Mayer said. “We are disappointed, because we were at the point where we thought it was safe to believe something could happen. It’s tough to see it not delivered upon.”