USDOT’s Reconnecting Communities Program Lifts Up Local Efforts To Address Historic Injustices

Reconnecting Communities Grant funding coming to this highway in Buffalo NY
The Kensington Expressway in Buffalo, NY, which cuts in half the Hamlin Park neighborhood. USDOT’s Reconnecting Communities Program awarded $55 million to cap the highway. Source: Restore Our Community Coalition

Yesterday, the US Department of Transportation announced the initial 45 winners for the Reconnecting Communities grant program, a first-of-its-kind initiative to restore communities damaged by highways and other big roads. With the announcement, the program takes a small, but significant step to make the country’s approach to transportation planning more responsible and sustainable. 

There’s a lot to celebrate. The winning Reconnecting Communities proposals largely support grassroots efforts to address historic injustices and build new infrastructure that promotes walkability and multimodal access for underserved communities.

But the limited amount of construction grant funding (only enough to support six projects) reminds us more needs to be done to repair the damage past infrastructure investments have caused, in particular to Black and brown communities. To achieve this goal, USDOT will have to allocate additional funding from programs beyond Reconnecting Communities and, just as importantly, work to end highway expansions that cause even more damage.

Let’s dive in to see just how far the Reconnecting Communities program has moved the needle.

The Highlights

Prior to the announcement, there was concern that state DOTs were eying the Reconnecting Communities program to fund routine highway maintenance or even planned expansions, justifying their applications with limited highway caps. We’re happy to report that (with one exception) USDOT turned these applications away, setting the precedent that the program’s funds shouldn’t be used in support of highways.

Instead, USDOT awarded 12 planning grants and 3 construction grants to communities where grassroots freeway fighting campaigns are actively working toward reparative projects in line with the scope of the grant application. In several cases, these campaigns were partners on the application. This is an encouraging trend we’d like to see more of. Projects with community consensus behind them are better able to meaningfully address resident needs and are far more likely to be successfully implemented.

In terms of the types of projects funded, nearly half the money went to proposals to cap highways (12 projects) and a quarter of the money to proposals to remove either highways or other barriers to connectivity (11 projects). The remaining funding covers two transit projects, five complete streets projects, and nine studies to identify barriers and look for open-ended solutions.

Reconnecting Communities Pie Chart
Source: USDOT

Although the pool of construction grant recipients is small, they model how agencies in partnership with communities can take a people-centered approach to transportation planning. Three in particular we think are worth highlighting:

As for planning grant projects, nearly half of them are openly backed by community-based organizations. They make up part of the pipeline for future capital construction grants and set the table for even greater movement towards reparative transportation planning in the long-term. Notable planning grant recipients include:

Room for Improvement

Still, there are several disappointing aspects to the announcement. USDOT missed opportunities to support additional community groups, like the Claiborne Avenue Alliance in New Orleans, which for years has championed the removal of the Claiborne Expressway and significantly raised the profile of the need to reconnect communities in the period leading up to the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. 

Only three of the 39 winning planning grant applications have a community-based organization as their lead applicant. If USDOT is serious about developing reconnecting communities solutions tailored to local needs, it should aim to fund more community-based organizations so they can bring information and professional expertise from outside the normal channels of infrastructure development that in the past haven’t served residents.

At the same time, a few projects are making plans to reconnect communities divided by highways in the not-so-distant past, and even the future. The City of Little Rock won an award to study capping a highway that’s being expanded right this moment, while the City of Austin received funds to plan a cap over a proposed expansion of I-35. For all intents and purposes, these investments seek to repair the damage highway expansions are causing right now. USDOT should leverage the Reconnecting Communities program to discourage state DOTs from literally being able to cover their mistakes in real-time.

More Work to Be Done: What’s Next for Reconnecting Communities

While yesterday’s announcement is definitely worth celebrating, there’s a lot more work to be done. The limited funding for the program ($1 billion over five years) is not equal to the overwhelming demand for reconnecting communities projects throughout the country. This year alone, USDOT received 435 applications for the program, seeking a total of over $2 billion in funding.

Moreover, many states are using the influx of flexible federal infrastructure funds to build highway projects planned decades ago, before we fully understood the climate, health, and economic damage they cause. In communities like Houston, Milwaukee, Salt Lake City, Shreveport, Jersey City, El Paso, Portland, Cincinnati, and Austin (and more), planned highway expansions threaten to repeat the mistakes of the past at an exorbitant cost (just these nine expansions are estimated to cost over $33.4 billion in total). They’ll also add to the total sum of physical, social, and economic damage that will eventually need repair.

To fulfill the promise of reconnecting communities as a principle, America Walks urges the following next steps from all levels of government:

  • Dedicate additional funding from all available sources to turn Reconnecting Communities plans into completed projects.
  • Stop highway expansions that will cause even more damage and remove them from long-range plans.
  • Focus on infrastructure investments that simultaneously improve outcomes for mobility and safety, health, and the environment.

The most cost-effective Reconnecting Communities project we could undertake today is to strike outdated highway plans from the books, so we can fully invest in the types of connected, transit-friendly, walkable and accessible communities that Americans want.