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Highways ruined Black communities, says Transportation chief

11th April 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Sarafina Wright
Contributing Writer

(Special from Washington Informer) – U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx recently said that the country’s highway system had been purposely placed through Black neighborhoods, systematically destroying those communities and causing displacement.

During a lecture at the Center for American Progress recently, Foxx explained such decisions can be corrected by “connecting people to opportunities.”

“I’d like to talk with you today about how transportation can help or hurt places,” Foxx said. “And how the growing gaps between the wealthy, the poor, and the middle class have been exacerbated by our transportation system.



“Nothing in our built environment is accidental,” he said. “To understand this point, we need to step back and understand how most things in our built environment are the product of intentional design.”

Foxx explained that in the 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the nation’s interstate highway program. The federal government funded up to 90 percent of project costs.

It started with eight miles in the middle of Kansas, eventually growing to “one of the most expansive and impressive road networks that the world has ever seen.”

“As we all know, it has served as an engine for our economy for decades,” Foxx said. “The highways were designed to get people from rural areas and suburbs into urban cores as fast as possible. Inevitably, the highways had to run through someone’s backyard.”

Foxx said this prompted protests known as “highway revolt” all over the country – no one wanted these thoroughfares running through their neighborhood, he said.

“We now know – overwhelmingly – that our urban freeways were routed through low-income neighborhoods,” he said. “Instead of connecting us to each other, highway decision-makers separated us.”

Blacks were disproportionately displaced and forced to move because of the highways.

Foxx said these actions were a consequence of the times.

“What decision-makers thought of low-income communities is reflected in where and how they built our transportation infrastructure – certain values of that time are embedded in that infrastructure,” he said.

Foxx said two of the country’s top highway officials at the time advocated for displacement.

“Folks, these were leading voices in our country,” he said. “Their views were widely embraced and took root all over America – including in a sleepy Southern city of Charlotte, North Carolina, where I grew up.”

“Early on, the neighborhood contained a small network of interconnected streets,” he said. “Later, federal money and state decision-making led to two highways surrounding the neighborhood, destroying the connective tissue.”

Foxx said that the highways separated neighbors from neighbors and the local corner store disappeared.

He said he grew up with those barriers, not realizing that it was not only physical but also psychological and economic.

“This barrier caused my community to become more dangerous and less desirable,” he said. “It became clear to me only later that those freeways were there to carry people through my neighborhood but never to my neighborhood.”

“Businesses didn’t invest there. Grocery stores and pharmacies didn’t take the risk. I could not even get a pizza delivered to my house,” he said.

Foxx said that when he served as mayor of Charlotte and served on the City Council, he made decisions about new roads, new transit lines and re-zoning with his experiences in mind.

“And I really understood how much people think about these decisions before they make them,” he said. “The people in my community were not invisible; it’s just that at a certain stage in our history, they didn’t matter.”

“Today, if you live near a freeway, chances are very high that you’re poor. Just look at Charlotte,” he said.

The evidence shows that people were forced to sell their homes at below-market value.

“As I have surveyed the country, this correlation is not unique to Charlotte,” Foxx said. In place after place, highways cut the heart out of low-income and minority communities.”

In Los Angeles, the Century Expressway was one of seven freeways that led to decay in African-American and Latino communities.

The list continues with New Orleans, Miami, St. Paul, Seattle, Des Moines, Atlanta, Baltimore, St. Louis and more.

Foxx said that federal money and state and local decision-making made this happen. The federal government puts about $60 billion into surface transportation every year. Ninety percent of that goes directly to states through a set formula.

“The same federal, state, and local governments that created these problems have an equally powerful ability to solve them,” he said. “We can’t fix this all at once. The way we fix it is one project at a time – one neighborhood at a time.”

The Department of Transportation has made access to opportunity a priority for discretionary funding with programs such as TIGER and Ladders of Opportunity Transit grants.

“While we cannot change the past, we can ensure that current and future transportation projects connect and strengthen communities, including areas that have, in the past, been on the wrong side of transportation decisions,” he said.

This article originally published in the April 11, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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