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US Reconnecting Communities Program

Policy Details

Policy Type: Policy
Jurisdiction: Federal
Status: Passed
Tags: Environmental Justice, JEDI, Public Health, Transportation

Policy Summary

During the 20th century, federally funded infrastructure projects segregated and harmed low-income communities, especially predominantly Black neighborhoods. Construction of the federal highway system cut off once thriving Black communities from resources and opportunity.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) was signed into law on November 15, 2021. This landmark legislation allocates $1.2 trillion over the next decade to upgrade and modernize America’s infrastructure.

The law launched a new Reconnecting Communities program, the first-ever federal program to invest in reconnecting communities. The law will invest $1 billion to help reconnect communities that were previously cut off from economic opportunities by transportation infrastructure. The focus is on projects that remove, retrofit, or mitigate the barriers created by highways, rail lines, and other transportation infrastructure that have historically segregated neighborhoods and restricted access to essential services (jobs, schools, healthcare, grocery stores, and recreation).  In addition, the Inflation Reduction Act includes $3 billion for the Neighborhood Access and Equity Grant Program to help advance transportation projects in disadvantaged or underserved communities.

Over the past year, the U.S Department of Transportation has awarded grants to multiple projects to reconnect communities including an interstate capping project in Atlanta, a greenway project in St. Louis, and the I-375 Detroit Community Reconnection Project.


Does the policy solution re-distribute power from mainstream institutions to impacted Black community?   

Yes. Divestment and underfunding of public transit disproportionally impacts Black Americans who are especially likely to ride public transit but have the least access to it: we comprise 24% of all transit riders and 30% of all bus riders, while making up only 12% of the U.S. population. White Americans comprise just 40% of all transit riders, despite making up two-thirds of the U.S. population. The only options available for remaining Black, Brown, Indigenous, people of color and low-income residents to commute – whether it is to work, school, or a doctor’s appointment – are inadequate and unreliable. By meaningfully restoring transit connectivity and reconnecting neighborhoods separated by transportation infrastructure, Black Americans can have more decision-making power around transportation which directly impacts our quality of life, economic livelihoods, access to health services, education, cultural sites, food and more.

Does this policy address needs impacting diverse groups within Black communities (Black femmes, Black LGBTQ+ communities, Black immigrants, people in poverty, differently abled, people impacted by justice system)? If so, how?  

Yes. As of the year 2000, Black people were more than twice as likely than their white counterparts to get to work on foot, by public transit (which usually begins and ends with a pedestrian trip), or by bicycle. A study conducted by the Boston University School of Public Health and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, published in 2022, found that when considering the miles traveled, Black Americans had the highest traffic fatality rate per mile across all modes of transportation, this is especially pronounced in walking and cycling. Yes, this policy could impact Black low-income households, pedestrians and those who use a bicycle as mode of transportation by making transportation infrastructure safer

Does this policy provide more decision-making power at the hands of Black communities?  

The entities that can be funded by the program include States, Units of local government, federally recognized Tribal governments, Metropolitan planning organizations, Nonprofit organizations. In one case study, discussed further in question 5, the NY state government partnered with local groups and nonprofits in Black dominant areas of Buffalo, including the Restore our Communities Coalition and the African American Cultural Center to provide them with decision making influence on how grant funds can be best used. While this policy can provide more decision-making power to Black communities, mechanisms must be enforced to ensure this happens across all grant projects.

Does the policy undermine extractive economies like capitalism and restore community power around a local and regenerative economy/ primary production?  

Yes. Funding of this program brings money from the federal government down to state and local government to support planning grants and capital construction grants, as well as technical assistance, to restore community connectivity through the removal, retrofit, mitigation, or replacement of eligible transportation infrastructure facilities. These efforts can help bring economic power down to communities. By funding reconnection and public transit, it helps shift momentum away from and undermine car-centric transportation. By prioritizing underserved communities, the RCP aims to reverse the negative impacts of previous policies and investments. This approach aims to ensure that future investments and policies promote equitable growth and address long-term health impacts, life expectancy, and chronic disease in Black and Brown communities, shifting focus from profit-driven motives to community well-being. The program emphasizes connecting transportation strategies to other relevant community needs, advocating for multi-sector investments that maximize benefits for people. This holistic approach addresses transportation while also solving broader community challenges, thereby fostering a local economy that serves the residents rather than extractive corporate interests. The program advocates for comprehensive planning that considers the impact of transportation infrastructure changes on housing affordability for current residents. This strategy includes land redevelopment, financing, and community organizing efforts aimed at improving capital attraction and deployment to expand housing, cultural opportunities, and neighborhood services for low-income communities and communities of color. This focus on equitable development helps counteract the extractive nature of capitalist investments that often displace local residents.

Does the policy repair past harm and uphold civil and human rights, health and environmental protections?  

In addition to transit-related improvements, this policy also increases access to green spaces that were bulldozed to make space for highways. One case study is Buffalo, New York. The story mapping resource tool on the Reconnecting Communities website states the Buffalo-Niagara area today is ranked as the 6th most segregated metropolitan area in the United States. The mostly Black residents in the project area face high unemployment rates, high asthma rates, low life expectancy, and low automobile ownership rates because of the construction of the Kensington Expressway which destroyed Humboldt Park to improve vehicle connections. This six-lane highway required the demolition of over 600 residential properties, businesses, and community amenities. The development of the expressway and the subsequent decline of Buffalo’s manufacturing base led to significant demographic changes, including population decline and worsening racial segregation. Many residents who could afford to move left the area, leaving behind a primarily Black population confined to sections of the East Side. The isolation of Black residents in Buffalo’s East Side resulted in limited access to jobs, grocery stores, banks, and other essential services. The Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program has allocated a $55.6 million grant to New York’s Department of Transportation to cover a section of the Kensington Expressway with a cap and tunnel. This project, driven by community activism and advocacy from the Restore Our Community Coalition, will restore a park-like environment, reconnect local roads, and provide much-needed bicycle and pedestrian spaces. The project involves an advisory committee comprising various community groups and institutions, such as the Buffalo Science Museum and African American Cultural Center, to address community needs and concerns. Local newspapers have been utilized to spread awareness about the project. A study by the University at Buffalo Regional Institute estimated that the project will increase household wealth by $76.71 million. Additionally, multiple community and economic development programs, including revitalization and building rehabilitation initiatives, will support the East Side Corridor. More case studies like these can argue that past harm is being repair, civil rights are upheld and overall improvements to health and environmental protections.

Summary courtesy of: https://whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/11/06/the-biden-harris-administration-advances-equity-and-opportunity-for-black-americans-and-communities-across-the-country/

More Information: https://www.transportation.gov/grants/rcnprogram/about-rcp

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