Some 60 years after interstate highways began dividing the poorest American communities—often communities made up of racial minorities—the federal government has finally recognized that this was a problem. Biden’s Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg today announced the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Grant Program, a $1 billion program designed to reconnect some of these communities that have had highways or other transportation facilities create barriers to mobility, access, or economic development. This grant is part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and funded for the next 5 years. States, MPOs, local or tribal governments, and even non-profits are eligible to apply. The grants would specifically fund planning studies looking at removing, retrofitting, or mitigating the barrier roadway, or capital costs for the construction of these plans.
While this is an excellent step in the right direction towards righting some of the systemic racism that our transportation system has propagated, it does require local planning and engineering to see the problems and apply for the appropriate grants. In an industry dominated by middle class white male employees, all too often they fail to see issues like these that affect groups below their class. Opening the door for non-profits to apply for planning grants does enable scenarios where advocacy groups can apply for the federal grants—but unless they’re in the habit of applying for USDOT grant funds, they will be at a significant disadvantage competing against government agencies with dedicated grant-writing staff who are experienced at applying for federal transportation grants. Hopefully some progressive communities will take advantage of the opportunity and apply before the October deadline.