During the first two decades of constructing the Interstate Highway System, almost half a million households were forced to leave their homes.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is offering a surprisingly honest appraisal of America’s history of road construction this week, with a high-profile speaking tour that focuses on the damage that highways caused in black urban neighborhoods.
U.S Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx spoke at the Center for American progress today about the highway system’s legacy of discrimination. Image: CAP
Growing up in Charlotte, Foxx’s own street was walled in by highways, he recalled in a speech today at the Center for American Progress. Building big, grade-separated roads through thickly settled neighborhoods devastated communities, uprooted residents, and cut off the people who remained from the city around them.
“The people in my community at the time these decisions were made were actually not invisible,” he said. “It is just that at a certain stage in our history, they didn’t matter.”
From I-95 in the Overtown neighborhood in Miami, to the Staten Island Expressway, to I-5 in Seattle, freeways divided and weakened city neighborhoods all over the country. Foxx estimates that nearly 500,000 households were compelled to relocate by the construction of the interstate highway system between 1957 and 1977. Most were people of color living in low-income neighborhoods.
“Areas of this country where infrastructure is supposed to connect people, in some places it’s actually constraining them,” he said.
The speech marks the launch of a new initiative spearheaded by Foxx called “Ladders of Opportunity,” which aims to shape transportation policy based on how infrastructure can serve as a barrier, or bridge, to jobs, education, and better health.
Foxx’s power is limited. U.S. DOT doesn’t have the authority to simply turn off the federal funding spigot for projects like the Detroit region’s $4 billion plan to widen two highways, siphoning resources from struggling inner suburbs to more affluent, farther-flung communities. The transportation secretary can’t wave his hand and stop Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper from pumping more traffic and air pollution through north Denver with the widening of I-70.
Of the $60 billion in annual federal funding allocated to surface transportation, 90 percent is doled out to state and local agencies by formula, Foxx noted. The remaining 10 percent funds U.S. DOT operations, discretionary programs like TIGER, and transportation research.
Even when U.S. DOT is poised to back a project that aims to benefit a disadvantaged community, local politics often gets in the way.