Mind the gap: USDOT’s first take on reconnecting communities

A group of people representing a range of ages, genders, and ethnicities walk across a cracked road within a marked crosswalk.
Residents of Fowler, CA assess current conditions along State Highway 99 and Golden Street Corridor, which did not receive a Reconnecting Communities grant in the first round of funding. Photo credit: CalWalks and safeTREC

In March 2023, USDOT announced the initial 45 awardees for the opening round of the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program. This first-of-its-kind program represents the start of a new series of initiatives that confronts the legacy of inequitable infrastructure projects in the US and will (un)pave the way for the Neighborhood Access and Equity Grant program created in the Inflation Reduction Act. But to meet the needs of communities, the USDOT needs to expand its vision and scope of funds available.

An excavator digs a massive hole titled "Dangerous Roads $$$". On the other side of the hole, a man tries to fill the hole with a small pile of dirt (labeled "Safety Improvements $." The comic is labeled "U.S. Approach to Road Safety."
This illustration was produced for T4America by visual artist Jean Wei. IG/@weisanboo

435 communities applied for the first round of the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program (RCP), despite the fact that only $195 million in funding was available. To put this in perspective, the  Multimodal Project Discretionary Grants (MPDG) program received about the same number of applications for nearly 15 times the funding ($2.85 billion). If those numbers are anything to go by, we can see that the demand from communities to fix divisive transportation infrastructure far outstrips what even the largest discretionary grant programs could garner. This is especially true when formula funding, which dwarves discretionary funding, continues to perpetuate the very issues the Reconnecting Communities Pilot seeks to resolve. 

That demand comes from a diverse array of applicants. The Reconnecting Communities Pilot program received applications from 51 states and territories, from smaller communities like Phenix City, Alabama, home to less than 40,000 people, to large cities with millions of residents like Philadelphia and Los Angeles. 

With that variation in size came variations in resources. We know some of these project applicants, like the grant-winning recipient Reconnect Rondo, hosted accompanying websites and social media pages managed by activist community partners, boosting the strength of application narratives. On the other end of the spectrum, two individuals applying to the program accidentally gave their own names instead of the name of the city that the grant would apply for, a sign of the difference in preparedness for the competitiveness of this grant program.

Who were these applicants? USDOT has done great work releasing outcome information in this first year of the program, and we acknowledge their efforts to release the name and state of aspiring applicants. However, we are still missing crucial information to assess how funding has been distributed and lack information on 21 applicants. T4A has requested more data from USDOT, including the individual census tracts used to assess each community as disadvantaged according to the Justice40 initiative.

In the meantime, we conducted an analysis of every applicant at the county level using data from EJScreen, the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening tool. Though this method has limitations, it allowed us to learn more about the applicants, even those who did not receive awards and a profile from USDOT, across a variety of environmental and social measures. See the below map of applicants, with successful applicants marked in green and unsuccessful ones marked in red:

While it may be difficult to quantify the social costs of divisive infrastructure, the costs to physical health remain apparent. Including those who did not receive an award, RCP applicants had on average lower air quality, higher risk for cancer, lower income, and higher rates of unemployment than the typical American community according to EJScreen data. Many of these communities are severely marginalized, and may only be able to heal if we increase RCP funding to meet demand.

Among these many applicants was Stillwater. Stillwater is a smaller city in Oklahoma, and like many communities in the United States, highway infrastructure has left its mark on the community. Two state highways cut through the city’s downtown, creating dangerous barriers to people walking or biking in the city. In an attempt to undo the damage and support its status as a growing active transportation hub, Stillwater applied for an RCP grant to plan for a new pedestrian bridge over State Highway 51 and create a new active transportation map to connect the city and increase protections for vulnerable road users.

Photo of highway facing Main Street, with right turn lane directly next to sidewalk
Current conditions along State Highway 51 place pedestrians dangerously close to fast car travel. Source: Stillwater, OK Corridor Plan

Further west, Fowler is a small agricultural city in California. CA State Highway 99 and Golden State Boulevard cuts diagonally across Fowler, preventing access to almost half of the city. The community applied for an RCP grant to better connect the community across the highway. Fowler is located in Fresno county, which has some of the worst air quality and pollution in the nation.

Edinburg, Texas applied for a planning grant to convert a high-speed, arterial-style road into a Complete Street. The road, which requires children to walk across a nearly 80-foot-wide unsignalized crossing, runs adjacent to neighborhoods, a playground, and an elementary school. According to EJscreen data, Edinburg’s county has some of the country’s worst cancer-causing air pollution and has a higher proportion of people earning under the federal poverty line than 84 percent of the country. 101 of 113 census tracts in the county were identified as disadvantaged according to Justice40 metrics.

The outsized demand for the Reconnecting Communities Pilot and widespread community interest in the program’s unique mission is a sign that the pilot has been a resounding success. But with current levels of funding, the RCP will not be able to meet the massive scale of community need. Instead, USDOT should increase funding for the Reconnecting Communities Pilot and the Neighborhood Access and Equity Program to meet this historic demand. 

But competitive grant programs cannot be communities’ only recourse to restore community links. Funding for the Reconnecting Communities program would have to expand by an order of magnitude to meet the demand from hundreds of qualified communities. The approach to funding these types of projects needs to change on a system-wide level, and there’s no better way to fund these projects than through formula dollars. Almost 90 percent of Highway Trust Fund funding goes to formula programs, and states have vast flexibility in how formula dollars could be used. Most, if not all, reconnecting communities projects would already be eligible under existing formula programs. States should take the opportunity to use formula dollars to reconcile the legacy of damaging transportation infrastructure, rather than repeat past mistakes.

Eligible communities have an opportunity to apply to Smart Growth America’s Community Connectors program to help prepare for the next round of competitive Reconnecting Communities grants and other funding opportunities.

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