Reconnecting Communities Program Signals Need for Change

A road closed barricade lies in the dirt alongside cones and plastic barrier fence. A concrete overpass is above the construction.

By Ben Crowther

The latest round of Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods Grant Program (RCN) awards announced last week underscores the need for a transformational infrastructure bill that puts communities before highways. There are several transformative projects among this year’s recipients, but the majority are smaller fixes and few deal directly with the root cause of disconnection: highways and big roads.

This year, the amount of funding available for the Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods Grant Program was bolstered by the Neighborhood Access and Equity Grants (a program of the Inflation Reduction Act), to a total amount of $3.3b. 

USDOT made the decision to allocate all of the Neighborhood Access and Equity Grants in one go, so next year funding is back down to 2022 levels. This means the majority of federal funding dedicated to repairing the harms of previous transportation planning, particularly those done to Black and brown communities and lower-income communities, has now gone out the door.

So in what should be a banner year for reconnecting communities, do the selections address historic injustices and build new infrastructure that promotes walkability and multimodal access for underserved communities?

Transformative: Projects that Push the Envelope (~$610m)

At the top of the heap are the projects that address the heart of the problem: big roads and bad transit. 

Bold, transformative projects like Syracuse’s replacement of I-81 with a Community Grid or New Rochelle’s conversion of Memorial Highway into a linear park are what RCN applicants should aspire to. Several of the planning grant awards, like Reconnecting MacArthur Park, the National City/Southeast San Diego Greenspace Corridor Project, and Bring Back 6th, have a similar focus, with an emphasis on connecting underserved communities to services, amenities, and green space. Hopefully these plans translate into future capital construction awards. 

Bus rapid transit also had a day. Four bus rapid transit projects (Los Angeles, Buffalo, Columbus, and Tukwila) brought home a total of $353m. Giving buses dedicated lanes and improved stops and stations is a great way to make an affordable form of transit more reliable

Finally, a sidewalk project. But not just any sidewalk project. The City of Houston received $43m (!!!) to invest in sidewalks, drainage, and tree cover in two of the city’s most economically disadvantaged communities, where sidewalk coverage is sparse or non-existent. Imagine if all sidewalk projects were funded at this level.

Nuts-and-Bolts: Necessary Street Fixes (~$1.4b)

Next up, the smaller scale, nuts-and-bolts projects that make up the majority of the awards. These include complete streets projects, multimodal improvements, traffic calming measures, bike/ped paths and trails, the rerouting of heavy trucks outside neighborhoods, and more open-ended studies to figure out what to do with divisive infrastructure like roads and rail. These projects are all much-needed improvements for their respective communities, but in some cases work around dividing infrastructure rather than deal with it directly.

Highway Mitigation: Car Infrastructure by Another Name? (~$590m)

Most elaborate “pedestrian” infrastructure is really car infrastructure, as Joe Cortright at City Observatory notes. This highway mitigation category consists of that type of pedestrian infrastructure: highway caps ($410m), bike/ped bridges and underpasses ($117m), and parks/districts underneath highways ($62m). The construction of all these is predicated on the road’s continued existence and they’re usually built to sustain driver convenience, not pedestrian enjoyment. 

Of these three subcategories, highway caps have the most potential to be transformative, if they cover a significant portion of the highway and are tied to larger reparative efforts. All three types of mitigations can be useful in restoring connections, but at the end of the day, communities living near these highways are still subject to the pollution, dangerous driving, and disinvestment that comes with a big road.

Problematic: Highway Mitigation in the Context of Expansion (~$675m)

The viewer overlooks a controlled access highway through a chain link fence on a bridge. The reconnecting communities program was designed to begin to remove these dividers.

Our last category is a small subset of four projects that propose mitigations for planned highway expansions, or in the case of Denver, a highway expansion completed in July 2023. However, USDOT awarded these four projects an outsized amount of funding: 20% of the total amount available.

When Secretary Buttigieg launched the Reconnecting Communities program in 2022, he described it as “the first-ever dedicated federal initiative to unify neighborhoods living with the impacts of past infrastructure choices that divided them.” RCN awards to the I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project, the 400 East and 900 South Interstate Crossings Project, Our Future 35, the Reunited Denver Project Globeville Elyria-Swansea enable current infrastructure decisions that expand and perpetuate the divide highways cause. 

Combined, these four projects push hundreds out of their homes, businesses, daycares, and schools. The state DOTs involved have made it clear that expansion is their first priority and reconnecting communities an afterthought. They eye RCN grant money as leverage to unlock highway expansion money

By granting awards like these, USDOT rewards the bad behavior of state departments of transportation and sets an unwelcome precedent: state DOTs don’t need to seriously consider mitigations in their own projects, because the RCN program will bail them out. 

It’s unfortunate to see the limited funding of the RCN program put to this use, especially when so much other money that could fund highway mitigations is available in the other programs of the IIJA. Fortunately, dollars from the RCN program can’t be spent directly on expanding the highway, so there’s still the opportunity for state DOTs to walk away from the highway expansions and just build the caps, bridges, and underpasses. We strongly urge recipients and their partners to reconsider their plans for expansion and instead invest in truly reconnecting communities.

Final Takeaways

About 38% of the $3.3 billion awarded this year went to highway mitigation projects. Sure, that’s less than half the available funding, but it still means a significant portion of what should have been a transformative program has gone toward a business-as-usual approach. With the majority of its money now out the door, it’s safe to say that the RCN program moved the needle just slightly. To be fair, USDOT can only award projects that were submitted, so a lack of vision from state DOTs and their partners bears responsibility as well. The entire system is in need of reform and one small program alone isn’t going to get it there.

The announcement of the RCN grants also comes on the heels of an analysis by Transportation for America that shows to date nearly 25% of IIJA funding spent (over $33 billion) has gone toward highway expansions. This approach to spending the record-setting funding in the IIJA threatens the nation’s equity, climate and budgetary goals, at a time when transportation is the largest source of emissions in the United States. Countless highway expansions funded by the IIJA are being built without any remediations at all, causing new damage at a rate much, much faster than the RCN program can repair it.

This is why the Communities Over Highways coalition, led by America Walks and over 200 organizations strong nationwide, is calling for a moratorium on highway expansion, to ensure communities have the resources to invest in road maintenance, safer streets, reliable public transportation, and reconnecting communities. Until we overhaul our transportation system to redirect the majority of funding into community-oriented infrastructure investments, we will keep failing to meet our equity, climate, and maintenance goals.