Editor’s Note: Anthony Foxx served as the US Secretary of Transportation under President Barack Obama from 2013 to 2017. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
I grew up in North Carolina surrounded by infrastructure. I woke up to cars and trucks whirring by the two urban freeways surrounding us. I saw the white contrails and heard the crackling thunder of airplanes departing and landing from the nearby airport. While the infrastructure served all, my neighbors and I lived next to it. It was only years later that I began to understand the role racial discrimination played in these conditions – and that for decades, infrastructure has marginalized communities of color, isolated neighborhoods and divided communities along racial lines.
Take my hometown of Charlotte. In the early 1900s, the Brooklyn community was a thriving center of activity for Black residents. Barred from using White schools, libraries and other public facilities their tax dollars paid for, Charlotte’s Black community attended segregated schools, checked out books from the Black library, attended churches, visited each other’s homes and built businesses in this area. But in the early 1950s, Independence Boulevard – Charlotte’s first major urban highway – was the first of a series of highway construction projects that resulted in the destruction of the neighborhood and the displacement of the people who lived there.
Thanks to an “urban renewal” grant from the federal government, city planners cleared 33 acres of Brooklyn and changed the area’s zoning classification to “industrial.” Today, Interstate 277 covers up what was once a thriving community. In all, nearly 1,500 homes were destroyed, more than 1,000 Black families were displaced and more than 200 Black-owned businesses closed as their patrons were pushed out of the neighborhood. Many of these former residents were never fairly compensated for their lost homes and businesses. It’s why folks refer to federal policy of the period as “urban removal” – as opposed to “urban renewal.”
By the time I became US Secretary of Transportation under President Barack Obama, I knew that my experience wasn’t unique. In every state of this country, you can find roads, bridges and tunnels, even airports and railways, that were designed, in part, to embed physical separations that reinforced the prevailing racial and economic lines. If you look closely, you can see them – the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Interstate 10 in Los Angeles, Interstate 5 in Seattle and the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans.
Prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, this was easy to accomplish. Black communities in particular, being denied access to the ballot, had no way to vote out officials who oversaw the weaponizing of transportation. We were not at the table, as they say, so we were on the menu.
Candidly, as I traveled across America to promote an infrastructure bill in 2014 and 2015, which then-President Obama signed into law on December 4, 2015, I pushed and prodded for as much programmatic change as I could. Working within existing authorities, we addressed equity aggressively but with a limited toolbox. At this moment in time, however, there is a much greater political appetite and need to remedy past injustices and, in the process, heal our land. To do so comprehensively will require a multi-trillion dollar investment in our infrastructure and policy change.
The economic case for infrastructure spending is clear. Investing in our roads, bridges, waterways and broadband will put millions of people to work at a time when an estimated 10 million Americans are out of work. Right now, we’re barely spending half of the $5.9 trillion that the American Society of Civil Engineers says is needed to modernize our infrastructure, and closing that gap would create millions of jobs immediately – more than half of which would likely go to workers without a college education. It would also deliver cascading benefits to our economy, returning $2.70 of growth for every dollar spent.
As experience has demonstrated, these economic benefits could be obtained while doing damage to the social and economic fabric of the country. Or, we could use this investment in infrastructure as an opportunity to rethink its placement, its relationship to the communities it touches and, perhaps most importantly, our relationship to each other.
It is easy to see the political divisions of our time as purely cultural or philosophical. But they aren’t. The closer we live to each other, the more spontaneous interaction we have with one another and the more we all share in the bounty and the burdens of our infrastructure, the more our infrastructure will take the form of a more connected and united America. For generations, our infrastructure reinforced divisions within our country. That’s why it is so important that we have a President who is willing to bring us together in every way.
There’s no magic wand to undo the damage caused by decades of intentional, structural discrimination. Neighborhoods were destroyed one project at time – and so the effort to repair and improve the physical connections between folks of all walks of life must also be restored one project at a time.
That’s why I’m so encouraged by the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan, which, in my view, demonstrates a courageous departure from past practice because equity is a key pillar of the plan. Under the leadership of President Joe Biden and Secretary Pete Buttigieg, equity is no longer a foreign concept when people talk about infrastructure. And the provisions in the American Jobs Plan would go a long way towards mending the damage. Importantly, the plan includes $20 billion for reconnecting communities harmed by past decision-making.
The plan also includes local hire provisions that will ensure that good-paying jobs stay in the community. Even targeted investments in pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure will help since fewer than half of low-income communities in America have adequate such facilities. I believe this administration will also work hard to create meaningful opportunities for qualified firms representing historically underserved communities to do the work of building back better.
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Can we avoid the mistakes of the past while dramatically increasing infrastructure investment? Yes, and, frankly, we must. The consequences of inaction and underinvestment are dire: According to a 2021 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers, if we continue to neglect our infrastructure, it could cost us $10 trillion in GDP, more than 3 million jobs and $2.24 trillion in exports over the next 20 years. By 2039, our overdue infrastructure bill would cost the average household $3,300 a year. We could miss this important chance to level the playing field for communities of color.
At long last, we have a chance to make a generational investment in our nation’s infrastructure the right way. Congress should not waste it.