The Biden Administration has recently proposed spending over $2 trillion on a range of public investments. The proposal has set off a debate about what we mean when we say “infrastructure,” which investments we should prioritize, and how these investments will impact different communities. But if we don’t address the historical racial and economic impacts of previous infrastructure spending like the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, we will squander a once-in-a-generation chance to begin to dismantle the roots of the climate crisis in America: suburban sprawl, racial segregation in housing, and communities built for cars rather than for people.
Federal highways have carved up and polluted Black and brown communities in the Bay Area and throughout the country for generations. As a result of decades of organizing by frontline communities, the Federal Highway Administration has begun to take a more critical look at proposed highway expansions, and there is political momentum to take down some existing freeways. However, without a clear set of anti-displacement protections, those efforts will likely lead to further gentrification, leading the most-burdened communities to suffer yet more consequences from the dismantling of these racist highway projects. Equally important, rural communities like those in the Central Valley, and indigenous communities, especially on tribal lands, are still waiting for basic infrastructure investments to address the lack of sidewalks and the flooding of local roads.
The political rhetoric of infrastructure traditionally emphasized “roads and bridges,” but the data show that expanding transit service outperforms similar investments in transit capital projects. We need to restore dedicated federal funding for transit operations that was cut in the 1990s. The current federal funding formula continues to direct 80% of all federal transportation funds to highways, and the vast majority of federal transit funding goes to build capital projects instead of supporting and expanding transit service. This policy remains in place despite the climate impacts and clear evidence from previous recovery packages that transit investments create more green union jobs than highway investments. Investment in transit service also helps provide quality jobs for communities that have experienced decades of systematic disinvestment.
While Bay Area traffic has almost returned to pre-pandemic levels, transit service in the Bay Area is still running well below pre-pandemic levels and is not expected to fully return until as late as 2023 on some systems, despite the infusion of $1.7 billion in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. A just recovery, one that addresses past race and class inequities, can only happen if we redefine what we mean by infrastructure and start meeting the needs of frontline communities like those who depend on their bus showing up.