The US Infrastructure Bill will deliver a $1.2 trillion worth of new federal infrastructure investment from bridges to roads to national broadband for over five years – a vital funding injection that the nation’s infrastructure needs.
Part of the US$1.2 Trillion Infrastructure Bill or the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) will be spent for reconnecting neighborhoods, particularly Black communities who were harmed and displaced by highways and other infrastructure investments in the past.
It will fund planning, design, demolition, and reconstruction of street grids, parks, and other projects in communities devasted by discriminatory and damaging policies that have been implemented under the need for better infrastructure.
One of these communities is Jackson Ward, known as the “Harlem of the South” in Richmond, Virginia, and the construction of Interstate 95 in 1950 has disconnected the city.
Visiting the city to endorse the II JA and seeing the harm that the I-95 construction did, US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said:
“Transportation is about connection,” said Buttigieg. “You see in Jackson Ward how transportation dollars can disconnect communities. What you see is a community cut through by a highway. Whether through more crossings or capping the highway, transportation should always be about connecting and not dividing. Twenty-first-century planning has to be about how any new transportation asset integrates the surrounding areas. How do we knit it all together in a way that benefits all?”
Virginia Mercury reports:
“Initially constructed by city and state leaders as the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike, the highway corridor through the heart of Virginia’s capital destroyed around 1,000 homes and businesses in favor of an interstate to serve largely white commuters fleeing to the suburbs. Instead of following the natural contours of Shockoe Valley around Richmond’s downtown, transportation planners intentionally targeted the financial and cultural heart of Black Richmond: Jackson Ward. By the time I-95 was completed, roughly 10 percent of the city’s Black population had been displaced due to the demolitions.”
Making amends through infrastructure development
Seeking to deliver on the promise for a more equitable Infrastructure investment, the IIJA sets aside billions of dollars to reconnect communities, especially those of color. The result could be more impactful and even transformational when focused on a few areas.
Richmond Democratic Representative Donald McEachin says, “It’s not enough to just say, ‘I’m sorry.’ You have to back up regret with restorative actions. This is a way for us as a nation to atone for what we did to that community and help current residents come together and be that vibrant hub of entertainment, business, and culture again that it once was.”
Richmond City is proposing a master plan called Richmond 300. The project will build a one-block cap over I-95, which will add green space to the area, connect another city area to the south, and possibly add two more block-long caps of the I-95 to increase connectivity further.
The city also plans to use the Department of Housing and Urban Development grants to improve public housing and set up infrastructure development in impoverished areas like Gilpin and Creighton. These communities haven’t seen infrastructure upgrades in decades.
Given Richmond’s lousy record of following through with public housing replacements, it is no surprise that some residents and advocates have expressed concerns that redevelopments will again displace existing residents in favor of wealthier ones.
But officials believe that this new development will be different with federal backing and will be a win for public housing residents and the city.
Jackson Ward is just one example of the many other communities and cities in the US that biased infrastructure investments have displaced.
Buttigieg frames the US Infrastructure Bill as a “first step towards restoration,” adding that the government would need to demonstrate effective strategies and ensure that money keeps on coming to continue the work.