The Philadelphia Tribune: New infrastructure law can Build Back Better for Philly communities divided by highways

An editorial by Congressman Dwight Evans

Philadelphia’s neighborhoods could finally be reconnected, thanks to President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion Infrastructure and Jobs Act.

It’s no secret that racism shaped our interstate highways, especially here in Philadelphia. Planners of the interstate highway system routed some highways directly — and sometimes purposefully — through Black and brown communities. This targeted separation left a deep psychological scar on neighborhoods whose homes, churches, schools and businesses were divided by highways.

Thankfully, we have a president who is committed to rectifying this situation. Biden’s infrastructure bill, now signed into law, includes $1 billion for the Reconnecting Communities Initiative I co-led that could directly impact our neighborhoods here in Philadelphia. The initiative is designed to repair damage caused by highways predominantly built through communities of color. It will help neighborhoods identify and remove or retrofit highway infrastructure that creates obstacles to mobility and opportunity. In many of these communities, nearby highways continue to represent real barriers for getting around and getting ahead.

The Reconnecting Communities Initiative can empower our residents to reverse this unfortunate legacy by building spaces over and around our highways, revitalizing nearby areas as a result. This legislation will help fund highway caps, changes and removals to reconnect cities and open the door to a more equitable and sustainable future.

From the beginning, Biden promised to address the racism ingrained in historical transportation and urban planning, and with partnership from leaders in Congress, that’s exactly what he’s doing. The House-passed Build Back Better bill includes another $4 billion in similar equity funding for neighborhoods like these across the country, and I urge the Senate to pass it soon.

As a Philadelphia representative in Congress, I made it my mission to ensure we address this very issue in our own neighborhoods. The Reconnecting Communities Initiative, for which I and my colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus advocated, will rejoin neighborhoods like Nicetown and Chinatown that have been divided and polluted by racist urban renewal projects engineered decades ago.

Nicetown was fractured by the Roosevelt Boulevard and Vine Street expressways, and a 2019 study from the Union of Concerned Scientists found neighborhoods bordering the expressway are exposed to more harsh pollution linked to respiratory illnesses and heart disease. In Chinatown, residents have sought government aid to cap the Vine Street Expressway for years. The Delaware River waterfront neighborhood is divided by I-95. Now we have a real opportunity to deliver for these communities.

From 1957 to 1977, unjust highway planning across the United States displaced over 475,000 households and 1 million people, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The new infrastructure law takes our neighbors’ stories into account and works to ensure the same harm doesn’t come to these communities again. It is time to right the wrongs of the past.

I am thankful to President Biden for working with me and my colleagues, and for his commitment to rectify these historical inequities with the new infrastructure law. In addition to the substantial investment to reconnect Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, the new law provides $2.8 billion for mass transit in Pennsylvania, $11.3 billion for our highways and $1.6 billion for bridge replacement and repairs in our state.

Right now, we can see that race frequently explains which communities receive the benefits of our transportation system and infrastructure and which communities are forced to face heavy burdens. I hear it from my constituents often — the mistakes of the past have made it harder for Black and brown people to access and take advantage of opportunities. This shouldn’t be.

For people in Nicetown, Chinatown and the Delaware River waterfront neighborhood, for our communities in Pennsylvania and for everyone in this nation, we need a strong infrastructure foundation and the historic investments that Biden’s infrastructure law provides. This new law helps correct the mistakes of the past by reconnecting communities divided by highways and it points us in the direction of a brighter future. It supports stronger supply chains, increases connectivity between people and places, means millions more good-paying American jobs, connects our local businesses in Philadelphia, strengthens our public transportation and enables the United States to win the 21st century.

Building back better in Philadelphia is a long-term project, and I was proud to work with the president and my colleagues in Congress to pass this bill into law. I will never stop fighting for our community and, with this Infrastructure and Jobs Act, we are taking an historic step forward.