Reconnecting Communities

Biden Investments

            Little Rock       Visiting Milwaukee, President Biden beat the drums on a new infrastructure place-based investment that would inject $3.3 billion into 132 communities in 40 states.  The program’s aim supposedly is to reconnect communities that were separated in the 1960s urban renewal and highway construction programs increasing inequity and racial separation in cities across the country.  The spin on this program’s design would enable some highway retrofits and reconnection projects.  At least, those were the headlines, but much of the detail focused on the electoral politics of the program and its ceremony in Milwaukee and the must-win battleground state of Wisconsin for Biden.  Let’s look past the headlines and try to get a grip on this, because a targeted place-based initiative could be key in turning many communities around and forward.

Looking through the list, more projects are for planning than shovel-ready capital projects along with a handful of regional partnerships.  The breakdown is roughly 72 planning, 8 regional partnerships, and 52 capital projects.  Even though this underlines both a problem about how many projects are ready to rock versus how many are on the drawing board, the money investment is much greater in the capital projects, as well as some the regional efforts. The planning grants at least offer the prospects of a longer tail for this initiative in coming years.

Pine Bluff, Arkansas, is part of this play with a half-million planning grant to the University of Arkansas.  The long-simmering issue of the destruction of Claiborne Avenue by the Interstate system in New Orleans won a planning grant of $2 million for the state Department of Transportation, but that’s obviously for simple remediation, not the opening shot in all likelihood to dismantling that albatross.  On the other hand, the City of New Orleans won over $61 million to connect New Orleans East to the rest of the city with pedestrian and bike paths.

Big winners on the capital side included reuniting neighborhoods in Denver, Jacksonville, Atlanta along the Beltway, Missoula, Toledo, Philadelphia, Knoxville, Austin, and Milwaukee.  Regionally, there was a significant capital award to connect the Selma to Montgomery Trail in Alabama, green zones in Sacramento, remove barriers in Los Angeles, and spruce up a creek in the Chelsea area of Boston, which we know well.  In fact, there were a fair number of projects that created bike paths, trails, green space, and parks as part of this program, which makes sense and is kind of exciting.  Juneau, Alaska, Decatur, Alabama, Atlanta again, Tucson, Miami, Jackson, and more all got lucky in this round.

Zeroing in on neighborhoods and connecting the dots in a place-based strategy makes sense.  Fifty years ago, ACORN fought the Wilbur Mills Expressway, now I-630, that divided neighborhood by race and income in Little Rock.  I’m sorry that there was nothing in this award that addressed that issue, but that speaks to how much more than $3 billion is needed around the country to create more residential economic and racial equity.  This is a great start, now we need more.