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Foxx spotlights role of race in highway construction

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is spotlighting the role of race and class in decisions about highway construction as many federal interstate highways reach the end of their useful life.

Foxx, who is in his last year in office, says federal funding decisions about highway construction have been shaped by racial and socioeconomic contours for much of the past 50 years. Foxx, a former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., cites neighborhoods like the one he grew up in that were divided by large interstates a generation ago.

“My childhood neighborhood had one road in and the same road out,” he says in a video released by the transportation department. “It was bordered by two highways. That infrastructure sent a signal to me about my life.”

Now in his final year as the nation’s top transportation official, Foxx is issuing a set of “Core Principles for Connecting People to Opportunity” to ensure that future highway construction decisions are not made with the goal of separating existing communities from each other.

The plan calls for the transportation department to use “every tool at its disposal to expand access to opportunity, promote safety, revitalize communities, and create pathways to jobs through technical assistance, program guidance and competitive funding.”

Foxx said in a speech on Wednesday at the Center for American Progress it is important to begin thinking about where and how the next generation of roadways in the U.S. will be built. Much of the current infrastructure was built in an era when highway planners were less interested in keeping minority communities intact.

“Transportation does get us places; that is a lot of what we do. But transportation also makes places and it can make places harder to get into and get out of,” he said. “We’ve got to acknowledge that transportation not only connects people to opportunity, but transportation also creates opportunity.”

Foxx said highway planners in the past were reflecting the social mores of their time.

“These decisions weren’t accidental. They were well thought-out. They were just in a time capsule that I think many of us wish we could replay again,” he said.

The phenomenon Foxx is describing was played out in Detroit: A vibrant African-American residential neighborhood known as Black Bottom — and its commercial and entertainment district known as Paradise Valley — were bulldozed in the 1950s and early 1960s to make room for Interstates 75 and 375.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat who is also president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said highways have been built to run through neighborhoods that were once-thriving minority communities in cities across the country.

“As mayors, we still bear witness to the scars of these earlier decisions, as our citizens and city neighborhoods labor under the lingering effects of the missed economic opportunities and the disruption, dislocation and even destruction of community bonds and assets,” she said in a statement that praised Foxx for being “courageous.”

“All government leaders — at every level of government — must ensure that future transportation investments do much more to bring all families and neighborhoods into the economic mainstream,” Rawlings-Blake continued.

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, agreed, saying “for generations, our nation’s transportation policy has destroyed low-income communities, razed neighborhoods, and has deprived people of economic mobility and opportunity.

“As our nation sought to connect its most privileged people and institutions to one another, it bulldozed a path through vibrant communities of African-Americans, Latinos and working-class whites, leaving them cut off from access to jobs, schools, hospitals, grocery stores and more,” Henderson said in a statement.

“We applaud Secretary Foxx’s acknowledgment of the damage this has caused and using the power of his office to advance a transportation agenda that revitalizes communities, provides opportunities to thrive in life and in work, and encourages people to connect with one another,” he continued.

Foxx said Wednesday highway planners will have to be more sensitive to community boundaries as they plan for the next generation of the nation’s infrastructure.

“I think the question that we have to begin asking is what kind of country do we want to build? What kind of connection do we want to have to each other?” he said.

“I believe we can and we should and must choose a different path going forward,” Foxx continued. “We’ve got to be better in the transportation sector at building infrastructure by, for and of the communities we serve.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing