Foxx Spotlights Role of Race in Highway Construction

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says federal funding decisions about highway construction have been shaped by racial and socioeconomic contours for much of the past 50 years.

📅   Thu March 31, 2016 - National Edition


Foxx, a former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., cites neighborhoods like the one he grew up in that were divided by large interstates a generation ago.
Foxx, a former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., cites neighborhoods like the one he grew up in that were divided by large interstates a generation ago.

The Detroit News is reporting that Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is spotlighting the role of race and class in decisions about highway construction as many federal interstate highways reach the end of their useful life.

Foxx, who is in his last year in office, says federal funding decisions about highway construction have been shaped by racial and socioeconomic contours for much of the past 50 years. Foxx, a former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., cites neighborhoods like the one he grew up in that were divided by large interstates a generation ago.

“My childhood neighborhood had one road in and the same road out,” he says in avideo released by the transportation department. “It was bordered by two highways. That infrastructure sent a signal to me about my life.”

Now in his final year as the nation's top transportation official, Foxx is issuing a set of “Core Principles for Connecting People to Opportunity” to ensure that future highway construction decisions are not made with the goal of separating existing communities from each other.

The plan calls for the transportation department to use “every tool at its disposal to expand access to opportunity, promote safety, revitalize communities, and create pathways to jobs through technical assistance, program guidance and competitive funding.”

Foxx said in a speech on Wednesday at the Center for American Progress it is important to begin thinking about where and how the next generation of roadways in the U.S. will be built. Much of the current infrastructure was built in an era when highway planners were less interested in keeping minority communities intact.

“Transportation does get us places; that is a lot of what we do. But transportation also makes places and it can make places harder to get into and get out of,” he said. “We've got to acknowledge that transportation not only connects people to opportunity, but transportation also creates opportunity.”

Foxx said highway planners in the past were reflecting the social mores of their time.

“These decisions weren't accidental. They were well thought-out. They were just in a time capsule that I think many of us wish we could replay again,” he said.

The phenomenon Foxx is describing was played out in Detroit: A vibrant African-American residential neighborhood known as Black Bottom — and its commercial and entertainment district known as Paradise Valley — were bulldozed in the 1950s and early 1960s to make room for Interstates 75 and 375.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat who is also president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said highways have been built to run through neighborhoods that were once-thriving minority communities in cities across the country.

“As mayors, we still bear witness to the scars of these earlier decisions, as our citizens and city neighborhoods labor under the lingering effects of the missed economic opportunities and the disruption, dislocation and even destruction of community bonds and assets,” she said in a statement that praised Foxx for being “courageous.”

“All government leaders — at every level of government — must ensure that future transportation investments do much more to bring all families and neighborhoods into the economic mainstream,” Rawlings-Blake continued.

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