Buttigieg: Infrastructure bill to address racist highway design

Jennifer Epstein and Josh Wingrove

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Monday that his agency will use about $1 billion from President Joe Biden’s public works legislation to remedy racial inequities in U.S. highway design, such as roads that were built to separate predominantly minority neighborhoods from White communities.

The program, called “Reconnecting Communities,” in some cases will tear down or rebuild highways and overpasses, he said. Federal officials will consider local desires as they identify projects, he said at a White House briefing.

White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, left, calls on a reporter as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, right, listens during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, Nov. 8, 2021.

“It’s going to vary by community and we have to listen to the community,” Buttigieg said. “Sometimes it really is the case that an overpass went in a certain way that is so harmful that it’s got to come down or maybe be put underground. Other times maybe it’s not that way. Maybe the really important thing is to connect across, to add rather than subtract.”

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Buttigieg described highways dividing neighborhoods and an underpass deliberately constructed “too low” for “a bus carrying mostly Black and Puerto Rican kids to a beach” in New York.

“That obviously reflects racism that went into those design choices,” he said. “I don’t think we have anything to lose by confronting that simple reality.”

The only specific example he cited was Interstate 81 in Syracuse, New York, where state and local officials already plan to demolish a decades-old elevated stretch of the highway that was built through a historically Black neighborhood on the city’s south side. 

“We saw the local vision for how they want to get past those divisions,” Buttigieg said. “And those local idea are going to be taken very seriously as we try to meet the spirit of this law.”