US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg in Birmingham, Alabama.

Buttigieg: How transportation can connect communities

The remarks of the US Secretary of Transportation, announcing the launch of the Reconnecting Communities program in Birmingham last week, are posted below.

On June 30, US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg journeyed to Birmingham, Alabama to announce the opening of applications for $1 billion in grants to regions, cities and non-profits to repair the scars inflicted on communities by urban highway and railroad construction. Since CNU has championed this issue for two decades, Executive Director Rick Cole was invited to participate in the announcement. Here is a text of Secretary Buttigieg’s remarks on the Reconnecting Communities program (edited for length).

This is as fitting a place as you can find in the country to talk about the history and about the future of transportation equity in America. 

We're here to announce a first-of-its-kind initiative to help cities and towns not only address the consequences of past choices that live on to affect transportation today, but to deliver a transportation future that connects communities and helps residents get where they need to go. Traveling in the country, across the country in the year and a half since I was sworn in, I've seen wonderful examples of how infrastructure can transform communities for the better, like this Birmingham Express Bus Rapid Transit project we're celebrating today, which will provide access to over 70,000 jobs. 

And we're supporting similar projects across the country—Arizona to Illinois to Nevada and more that are going to make it possible for people to get where they need because the evidence is clear: when people have access to opportunity through physical mobility, the result is more social and economic mobility and prosperity. 

But we've also seen firsthand everywhere in the country how a piece of infrastructure that is supposed to connect people can sometimes have the opposite effect and cut people off from opportunity, sometimes dividing or even destroying whole neighborhoods or communities. 

The way I-65 was constructed, for example, here in the middle of the century, through the heart of Birmingham, displaced black neighborhoods and created physical barriers, and dead zones that still keep people apart. 

Our national transportation system represents one of the great accomplishments in the history of this country. As the mayor noted earlier today this city is here largely because of how railways joined it. And from the Interstate system to our national aviation system, we have a lot to be proud of. 

But we can't ignore the basic truth that some of the planners and politicians behind those projects built them directly through the heart of vibrant, populated, communities—sometimes in an effort to reinforce segregation. Sometimes because the people there had less power to resist. And sometimes as part of a direct effort to replace or eliminate Black neighborhoods.

While the burden is often greatest for communities of color, Americans today of every background are paying the price. A child born in the 2020s could face a greater risk of asthma because they are too close to the pollution from a highway that went right by their residence. Home and business owners may see their property values and revenues affected because they're cut off from customers or workforce. And some workers can’t take advantage of a good-paying job opportunity because their commute would just be longer and more expensive than they could afford. 

Consciously or not, we are all aware of how infrastructure can divide, because it is woven into our everyday language. Think about what it means that we have the expression, "wrong side of the tracks." It means we have known this for a very long time. A decision made a hundred years ago can have this effect today, but that's why today we're doing something about it. 

With funds from the bipartisan infrastructure law, we're working to build infrastructure that will serve people well for the next several generations.

Reconnecting Communities (will) deliver about a billion dollars over the next five years, Sometimes that will help move a project from a drafting table to shovels in the ground. Sometimes it will help communities develop proposals that can then go on to get other sources of funding, like state dollars or our federal RAISE grants. 

In fact, we're already using funding like RAISE grants to help reconnect communities around America. In Atlanta, we're supporting the planning for a project that envisions putting a cap over part of I-75/I-85 that divides Midtown from the old Fourth Ward and building pedestrian-friendly streets and parks on top of that cap. In St. Louis we’re helping build a public greenway, which will mean better walking, biking, and other connections to transit between neighborhoods. In Baltimore, it's a bus rapid transit vision to connect the east and west parts of the city, much like what we are celebrating right here in Birmingham.

But whatever the specific shape the project takes, what they all have in common is that they empower communities to innovate and define their future. Now, a lot of this work has bipartisan support, but I will say it's striking how much misunderstanding and resistance we sometimes see when we work on the issue of healing what was broken, reconnecting where there was division. So, I want to be very clear: this is not an exercise in blame or guilt. It is a reckoning with simple realities and an insistence that the future will be better than the past. Recognizing where taxpayer dollars isolated people or caused damage and using new resources to fix it—that's not divisive. What's divisive is a highway or railway or interchange that is dividing people from where they need to be in their own community … and fixing it will make a whole community better off. 

There's nothing sacred about the status quo. These highways, roads, and railways are not rivers, lakes, or mountains, they're not divinely ordained. They're decisions. And we can make better decisions than what came before. 

Now, every piece of transportation infrastructure, even the very best, comes at a cost, not just financially, but in terms of disruption, which is why process matters, it’s why fairness matters, and why communities need to be empowered to face these trade-offs. So, when we evaluate applications for this funding, we'll be looking for project sponsors to demonstrate strong community input and buy-in, and looking for projects that will improve life for everyone with plans to serve the people who live in these communities already. 

I can't wait to see all the project ideas that are going to come in and apply for this funding. 

Just imagine if instead of an overpass right by your house, there was a park where your kids could play with their friends on the weekend. 

Imagine if, instead of having to drive a mile or more out of your way to get around or rail line you could drive right over it, or even walk straight across a scenic greenway, similarly to what Birmingham did so successfully over a decade ago, transforming an unused railway viaduct, which used to divide the city, into a park that helps reconnect it. 

This is what Reconnecting Communities is all about. Good transportation policy connects everyone to where they need to go efficiently, affordably, and safely. And I believe that together we won't just be repairing legacies of the past. We will be creating a new one for the future that all of us can be proud of. 

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