Anthony Foxx Wants to Repair the Damage Done By Urban Highways

During the first two decades of the Interstate Highway system, almost half a million households were displaced. Most were low income and people of color, Foxx said.
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 legacy of discrimination in transportation. Image: CAP
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.

Foxx used this image of the Atlanta area to launch a discussion about the disparities in sidewalk infrastructure in America.
Like many other urban roads, Atlanta’s Buford Highway doesn’t work well for a lot of people who live nearby.

Foxx singled out Baltimore’s Red Line light rail project to make his point. “We had planned to commit about $1 billion to this project, only to have it cancelled by the state of Maryland,” he said. The Baltimore NAACP and other groups have filed a civil rights complaint in response to Governor Larry Hogan’s decision to spike the project.

The disparities go beyond highway planning. “Look at our basic sidewalk infrastructure,” Foxx said, pointing to a photo of the notorious Buford Highway in suburban Atlanta. “You see these roads are really designed for cars, not people. There are no sidewalks, and where you see sidewalks there are no crosswalks.”

That leaves families like Raquel Nelson’s vulnerable. A driver killed Nelson’s 4-year-old son, A.J., while they were trying to cross a hostile road in suburban Atlanta, where crosswalks were few and far between. But it was Nelson who was charged with vehicular homicide.

“This is not an isolated case, not in Atlanta and not in this country,” Foxx said. “If we want a society in which everyone has a real shot no matter where they come from, then it’s imperative that we acknowledge that these divisions, past and present, still exist.”

So what can U.S. DOT do? Foxx said the agency is retooling some of its programs to better emphasize social equity. For example, U.S. DOT is making “access to opportunity” a priority when selecting which projects will receive TIGER funding. Foxx also said the agency will beef up its civil rights office, which has the power to shut down projects determined to have a “disparate impact” on disadvantaged groups. Historically, the office has rarely exercised that authority to police the social impact of highway projects.

Mostly, however, Foxx’s campaign will have to rely on the power of persuasion. He’s trying to change the hearts and minds of governors, transportation agency chiefs, and other decision makers by raising the profile of issues that transportation secretaries haven’t tackled head-on before.

“The question that we have to ask is, ‘What kind of country do we want to build?'” he said.

96 thoughts on Anthony Foxx Wants to Repair the Damage Done By Urban Highways

  1. The “Wall Street” bailout was a housing bailout. If all the mortgages were to hit the market and housing was to be an actual market – and not a subsidized fantasy land – home prices would have reached their market value. So – the $5 trillion the government is using to back stop Fannie and Freddie is not about Wall Street – it is about suburban housing, which has been used to mask the lack of economic growth in the USA for 30 years. Suburbs will not always exist. They never existed (as they exist now) throughout human history because they don’t make economic sense. That is why the banks the prop up this failed economic model keep failing (Savings and Loans, Subprime Crisis) and why the government keeps picking up a bigger and bigger tab (at the expense of all – to subsidize the few).

  2. What does urban American have to do with Israel? Nothing. But feel free to troll your Israel hatred here – it shows how bizarre your view is and discredits your position.

  3. When did a majority support slavery in the United States? After the founding of the U.S., much of the North quickly passed anti-slavery legislation – hence, the divided country.

  4. In 1940, you could commute from Chicago along the lake at 90 mph to outlying areas. Thanks to car and oil pimps like you, we now have clogged highways were people travel at 5 mph along the same trip. Vehicle accidents alone cost the U.S. $871 billion/year. We spend billions more building more highways (no, they haven’t been fully paid by gas taxes for 20 years). And so on. So, selfish suburbanites have destroyed our cities and continue to leech off of our decaying economy, which is responsible for much of the national debt, currently at $18 trillion (with $400 billion in interest each year). If you really loved America, you would learn the facts.

  5. You are mistaken. BANKS owned the mortgages, people were foreclosed on. The bailout was to perpetuate the Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs Wall Street power brokers and the ” System”. The suburbia bailout is a figment of your imagination. Years later, due to lawsuits, homeowners that were foreclosed on in spite of the forged documents, the industry fraud, etc received token amounts. You are living in a mental fairy tale with the nonsense you obviously believe.

  6. LOL – property taxes Are paid By today’s freight Railroads on their ROW.

    if You think land grants of 140 years ago have the slightest effect on current opetating costs; LMAO

  7. Government does not pay taxes on its own land. Consider some continung education classes, they will prove invaluable.

  8. conclusion:

    One Form of freight Transport pays property taxes on it’s Network

    a other Form does Not Pay property taxes on it’s Network

    hence subsidy

  9. What a ridiculous stretch. Keep fishing for some valid points. In any case, trucks handle the freight to and from the rail cars. Go back to playing with your model railroad…

  10. lol

    because in certain limited situations lavishly subsidized short haul trucking might be more efficent than free market private frieght rail; we need to continue to pour hundreds of billions of subsidies towards inefficient long haul trucking ?

    lets end all transportation subsidies – and let the free market provide the best solutions.

    a level playing field between transportations modes is only fair

  11. Then why are 80% of home mortgages – which are primarily suburban homes (most people in cities rent) – now covered by Fannie and Freddie, which is backstopped by the U.S. government? The story is not about banks. You have to dig deeper to find the truth. It’s about suburbs. Starting with the FHA with FDR during the Depression, the government has attempted to improve home ownership. At first the banks helped but as the economy is no longer growing, there is no money to be made for banks, so they unloaded this enterprise to the government. The banks did illegal things and the government looked the other way – not because the government supports the banks but because the government has an irrational need to support home ownership by any means. This is ultimately because the government is doing what the people want – people want prosperity despite our failing economy. So – the government gives the people what they want. Banks play along when they can and get bailed out when this foolish enterprise ultimately fails – whether it’s the Savings & Loan bailout or the Subprime bailout. The solution is for the government to get out of housing and just let the housing market work as a market, as it did successfully for 200 years.

  12. The government has spent $600 billion building highways to support suburban growth. The government allows $100 billion/year in mortgage interest deductions to support the suburbs. The various state and federal governments provide $450 billion in subsidies to support the suburbs. We pay $871 billion/year to cover vehicle accidents to support the suburbs. It’s all part of the misguided effort to create a make believe suburban housing market growth based on an unsustainable model of government support that never pays off, leading to more and more “crises” that cost more and more each time (until we finally run out of money).

  13. You are factually way off based. Cities pay for themselves; suburbs do not. The data is quite clear and you can find it in about 5 seconds of searching. Suburbs are a flawed and doomed economic model that never existed until post-war America – because they don’t make sense economically. They never have and never will. They produce nothing – they only consume. They only thing they produce is home prices, which start to fall in an economy that isn’t growing (like ours) – in which case, they have no reason to exist. They are killing the cities – the engines of US growth. They are a primary reason for our national debt, our failing economy, and inner city crime. Cities general wealth, suburbs don’t. Better check your facts about Millennials – they are choosing cities and moving back. The best way to prove my point? Let’s cut all subsidies to suburbs. In a year, they will be farmland.

  14. Ha! Good one! Millennials are moving back in with their parents. Unless they want to pay $2000/mo. to live in a cramped studio. Suburbs are part of every town, so good luck getting people to give up their houses. They may not “produce” anything, but they pay for services that keep plenty of businesses afloat.

  15. The majority of Americans live in suburbs. The majority of taxpayers, got it? NYC? Other than the Wall Street crowd, who are really a leech on society, NYC primarily produces tourism. A non-essential product if there ever was one.

  16. Regarding the census data, the way they count population in “cities” includes what is commonly regarded as suburbs.

  17. Also, the these suburban “taxpayers” get more than they pay. They are subsidized by urban tax payers. They are a parasitic class.

  18. Regarding the census data, the way they count population in “cities” includes what is commonly regarded as suburbs.

  19. I don’t live in New York. But you miss the point. NYC makes money, which it trades for goods. It is economically self-sustaining. Suburban areas produce nothing, and leech off the rest of the country. Without massive subsidies, they would not survive a day. These subsidies can easily be demonstrated to be in the hundreds of billions per year (or more), and are a major cause of the national debt. They are a fatal stab to the heart of the United State’s economy. Anyone who cares about the future of the United States should support pulling the plug on suburbs.

  20. The problem isn’t NYC – in fact, SF makes the point, that a well-designed city can be successful and livable. NYC and SF share this, because they didn’t give in to the highway building that has destroyed most other US cities (Detroit, Baltimore, Chicago, etc). In fact, NYC and SF are both examples of cities that have taken down highways – NYC took down the West Side Highway (rather than rebuilding it) and SF took down a highway after an earthquake. So – both these cities are moving roughly on the same track and are thriving, while many American cities that relied too heavily on highways and suburbs are dying…that’s the whole point of this article, which apparently no one bothered to read.

  21. Let’s agree to disagree. There is a huge contingent of Americans that want to improve, but maintain the “suburbs”. They’re not going anywhere.

  22. But NYC and SF are also examples of how incredibly expensive life in these type urban cities has become, and they have priced themselves out of affordability for the vast majority of Americans.

  23. Yes, they are going to have to move to self-sustaining areas, because subsidies will be cut and suburban home prices will plunge. Without home price growth, the suburbs have nothing. The housing will become abandoned and soon return to farmland.

  24. Salaries are much higher in NYC and SF; millions of people live in those cities. The majority of people who can’t afford the costs of these cities live in areas that are not as productive. The problem is not with the more productive areas, its with people living in areas that are not productive. As much as I like Appalachia, it is not viable economically. You can choose to live there but don’t blame NYC or SF for being cutting edge.

  25. Highways are significantly subsidized; gas tax only pays a declining fraction of highway building and repair costs.
    I believe most of the subsidies for railroads is for Amtrak, not for freight trains.

  26. You miss the point. You are confusing consumption with self-sufficiency. Debt-fueled and subsidized suburbs continue to grow in the outlying areas, where land is cheaper, but they are not econically viable, based on the basics, immutable laws of economics. Surely we can agree that basic economics states that the less dense the population, the less efficient the housing model. Numbers do not lie. A simple examination of the cost of wire shows that it costs more to run electricity, for example, to one distant exurban house than, say my building, which has 250 apartments. The only way for the exurban house to be affordable is to make everyone pay the same electricity rate, which is mandated by law in most areas. That is a subsidy based on the inefficiency of the exurban model. If the cities wise up and stop subsidizing the exurbs – because, why should they? Then the true price of the inefficient, unsustainable exurban model – based on the simple cost of things – becomes manifest. So, the exurbs – like so much of America – consumes more than it produces. As simple as that. Such a model, historically, is a sign of a declining economy – example: The Spanish Empire. They stopped producing and just consumed. The result is logically and inevitably the same: the system can only sustain so much debt, and then it collapses.

  27. If I’ve missed a point, you’ve missed several points. Not sure exactly how you define suburb and exurbs. In any case, urban cities cannot handle all the population, by any stretch. Suburbs are not all single family homes, indeed 250 unit buildings exist in suburbs. Your point about the Spanish empire is redundant, indeed your theories are more suitable for history or philosophy class, they have no real application in current society. This can remain your dream, or your theory, but seriously, suburbs will continue to exist in much the current form, way beyond your and my lifetimes. Tunnel vision definitions of society by city dwellers is entertaining, at minimum.

  28. As before, you present conclusions with no facts, and apparently no research. Cities can handle large populations. If you have only the population density of Manhattan, you could fit the entire human population into a space the size of New Zealand. As for the future of the suburbs, I am not psychic, but common sense and human history show that flawed, unsustainable economic models always fail. If the Spanish Empire is too much trouble to look up and grasp, consider the Soviet Union, another unsustainable system. So, while we’ll have to wait and see for sure, it seems reasonable to suggest that typical suburbs and exurbs will eventually – perhaps soon – stop being subsidized as they are now (because the USA is out of money). When this happens, home prices will collapse; without home price growth, the suburbs have nothing. If you live in the suburbs, better learn how to farm.

  29. The people who really “hate America” are the car and oil companies (and their political stooges and mindless consumer followers) who have destroyed our transportation system and replaced it with a $6 trillion monstrosity that doesn’t work, that kills 40,000 people each year, that costs America $871 billion in accident costs, and that has devastated our cities (the engines of prosperity). You may like cars, you may like highways, and you may like living in the suburbs, but the economics are clear and they are demonstrably terrible. Suburbs and car-based lifestyles are only possible due to massive government subsidies. So while people like you may somehow believe that cars and highways are inevitable, cities that rank highest in world scales (Melbourne, for example) have extensive, cheap, safe, and quiet transportation system that don’t rely on cars. And here in Chicago, we once had prosperous black communities that could get around and to jobs by streetcars; there were torn up and replaced by massive 14-lane highways (that in some cases – such as Fuller Park – literally cut black neighborhoods in half). And now we in Chicago have massive traffic jams, billions lost in traffic/commuting, and neighborhoods that are cut off from jobs and transportation. Guess which neighborhoods have the high crime in Chicago? (Answer: the ones that were devastated by highways…)

  30. Yes, it is somewhat encouraging. There is also evidence of the benefits of tear-downs, such as in New York City. I hope someday all urban highways are torn down. Imagine the thousands of prime urban real estate returned to productive use.

  31. Sorry, Joe…you don’t get it…land use and ANY infrastructure must be aligned to maintain our quality of life. Democrats and their cronies that range from eco-Socialist so-called & misnamed “environmentalists” and greedy, often wealthy low-density community residents, that are developers and builders in urban areas don’t give a darn about densifying our communities beyond a Quality of Life capacity–as you note in chicago. Same occurred in LA when Democrats took over in the late 60’s (Mayor Bradley from Mayor Yorty). Joe, also, tabulated the huge benefits of personal and transit mobility, far greater than the cost your Reply notes, Get real.

  32. I have no idea what you are getting at here. Can you rephrase as a coherent message? Also, other than blanket statements with no facts, can you site some specifics, some numbers, sources? It’s not even clear what time frame you are addressing.

  33. His points represent a viewpoint/opinion, and of course everyone can have their opinion. As far as Transportation policy validity, it may or may not continue to be valid in a few months. Our nations transportation policy should represent the majority of citizens requirements, not as advocate for a agenda.

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