The conversation around infrastructure is evolving—and action is soon to follow

This column published as "Learning from History" in July/August 2021 issue

Brian W. Budzynski / July 07, 2021 / 3 minute read
Brian W. Budzynski

In my April editor’s letter, I alluded to instances of surface transportation projects reinforcing, whether inadvertently or otherwise, racial or economic divides.

Over the intervening months, there have been a plethora of articles in multiple news outlets limning this particular issue from a variety of perspectives. The movement toward prioritizing social equity in transportation planning—and even funding—is gaining strength to the degree that one wonders if it will be long before ubiquity sets in.

One such example is right now in the planning in Tennessee. According to a recent piece by the Nashville Tennessean’s Yue Stella Yu, a plan is coming together, spearheaded by Metro Nashville, to build a large-scale connecting “cap” over I-40, in effort to bring back together the predominantly Black communities that lay to the north and south that are presently separated from one another by the interstate. This would be located in the Jefferson Street area, a historic section of the city bolstered by Black-owned businesses, churches, and restaurants, and home to a once-thriving music scene that helped give the world Etta James, Little Richard, and Jimi Hendrix. The cap would run approximately 3.4 acres and provide green space, multimodal access for bicyclists and pedestrians, and various outlets for community activities, as well as ample areas of respite from heat and noise.

Back in the late 1960s, Black community leaders sought to prevent the then as-yet unrealized I-40 from dividing their neighborhoods. They formed the I-40 Steering Committee and eventually took the state to federal court, only to eventually lose their case when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear their appeal.

But times have changed.

The project, though led by Metro, is expected to be community-driven, with more than two dozen local groups co-signing letters of support in request of federal investment in the project. Moreover, improved safety measures along I-40 are being planned in conjunction with the proposed cap project, as is planning for mixed-use redevelopment of local areas focusing on affordable housing.

According to the Tennessean, Mayor John Cooper had this to tweet this past May: “Reconnecting the Jefferson St. community with this proposed cap is exactly the kind of project the Biden-Harris Administration’s American Jobs Plan will accomplish in cities like Nashville, correcting historic wrongs and bringing prosperity to our most vulnerable communities.”

The project is being tagged at $120 million, and the hope is that the securing of a federal Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grant, applications for which opened in March, will largely foot the bill.

So it would appear that this project (and others like it) is making it put-up or shut-up time for the Biden Administration. As the fight for an infrastructure bill continues, the idea that surface transportation bears a greater degree of social responsibility is not going away.

The future, it seems, is now.

About the Author

Budzynski is senior managing editor of Roads & Bridges.

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