Biden infrastructure plan tackles historic racial inequities

By Jeremy P. Jacobs, Kelsey Brugger | 03/31/2021 01:47 PM EDT

The pillars of the raised federal I-10 Claiborne Expressway, pictured, sliced through New Orleans' historically Black Tremé neighborhood in the late 1960s, dooming a once-thriving business corridor.

The pillars of the raised federal I-10 Claiborne Expressway, pictured, sliced through New Orleans' historically Black Tremé neighborhood in the late 1960s, dooming a once-thriving business corridor. Christine Carlo/Tulane School of Architecture

President Biden’s $2.25 trillion infrastructure package includes unprecedented proposals targeting historic racial inequities, a move designed to make good on his environmental justice promises.

"[U]nlike past major investments, the plan prioritizes addressing long-standing and persistent racial injustice," it states.

Biden will formally unveil the proposal in Pittsburgh today, making it the administration’s top legislative priority.


It calls for historic spending on a wide array of priorities, from job creation to raising wages for home and child care workers. But it largely focuses on repairing the country’s crumbling roads, railways, ports and other infrastructure (E&E Daily, March 31).

"These investments," the plan states, "will advance racial equity by providing better jobs and better transportation options to underserved communities." The White House also wants to address the lingering burdens past transportation projects have left for communities of color and shortcomings in providing clean water infrastructure, and offer clean energy job opportunities to underrepresented communities.

In particular, the administration highlighted how poor public transportation has a disproportionate impact on low-income communities of color. Individuals who rely on public transit to get to work have twice the commute times, the White House said, and households of color are twice as likely to use public transportation.

Biden is calling for doubling federal funding for public transit, noting that the Department of Transportation has identified a backlog of $105 billion in maintenance needs for 24,000 buses, 5,000 rail cars and thousands of miles of track.

The proposal seeks $621 billion for transportation infrastructure and resilience, and the administration said that money will go toward redressing "historic inequities and build the future of transportation infrastructure."

That includes a proposal that would address communities of color that have seen highway and other projects tear through their neighborhoods, such as the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans or Interstate 81 in Syracuse, N.Y.

A new $20 billion program would "reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments and ensure new projects increase opportunity, advance racial equity and environmental justice, and promote affordable access."

Last month, the Department of Transportation convened its first equity task force meeting, Christopher Coes, the principal deputy assistant secretary, told White House environmental justice advisers yesterday at their inaugural meeting.

Coes stressed the department intends to take a bottom-up approach and include career staffers "who have been working on this for dozens and dozens of years."

Already its work has begun in earnest, putting the department ahead of other federal agencies on this effort.

"In response to the executive orders, we reviewed grants that were going out the door in real time, and we actually brought that back into review," he told the advisers, referring to Biden’s Jan. 27 climate and justice orders.

One of those grants was a more than $800 million highway grant that was reviewed and reenvisioned to include equity and environmental justice criteria as part of that grant, Coes said.

More broadly, he stressed the importance of asking "very simple questions" like tracking dollars and showing accomplishments (see related story).

"How are we looking at people versus places?" Coes asked. "How does transportation impact lives? How do we mitigate highway investments or other investments on communities? How can we create a transportation system that actually creates healthier communities or more resilient communities?"

DOT and other agencies are beginning to use tools that the administration is developing as part of Justice40 — Biden’s proposal to allocate 40% of investments in clean energy, transit and other climate-related funding to underrepresented communities.

The White House budget office will soon provide direction to agencies on Justice40, said Candace Vahlsing, associate director for climate, energy, environment and science at the White House Office of Management and Budget. And OMB is identifying existing programs and looking at state tracking efforts to measure success, she said.

The president’s plan also identifies racial justice components for its work on water systems and job creation.

Biden’s proposal calls for removing all lead pipes and service lines for drinking water, part of a $111 billion plan that the White House said would improve the health of children and communities of color. He plans to highlight Pittsburgh’s struggles with water contamination when unveiling the package today (Greenwire, March 30).

And the plan targets job creation in historically underserved communities.

"Structural racism and persistent economic inequities have undermined opportunity for millions of workers," it says. "All of the investments in workforce training will prioritize underserved communities and communities hit hard by a transforming economy."

That includes a job training program for formerly incarcerated individuals and making clean energy, manufacturing and infrastructure jobs available to women and people of color, the White House said.

Mustafa Santiago Ali, a former EPA environmental justice official, said it will be critical to track how the funding materializes in hot spots throughout the country — places such as Cancer Alley in Louisiana; Institute, W.Va.; Manchester, Texas; Indigenous villages in Alaska; and the Black Belt region in the South.

"How does transformation happen?" he asked, noting that accountability on the ground will be essential.

He also raised concerns that the package is not big and bold enough to address nonexistent infrastructure like adequate water pipes in some cities. "We can’t place a veneer over vulnerable communities," he said.

"We need a larger set of dollars to be able to fully develop the amazing vision that the Biden administration has for our country."