Posted on December 4, 2021

Racial Equity in Infrastructure, a U.S. Goal, Is Left to States

Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Madeleine Ngo, New York Times, November 16, 2021

President Biden’s $1 trillion plan to rebuild America’s infrastructure comes with a built-in promise: No longer will roads, bridges and railways be instruments of bias or racism. Communities that ended up divided along racial lines will be made whole.

But the decision about how to spend the money falls largely to the states, not all of which are likely to put as high a priority on that promise as Mr. Biden does, raising questions about whether the legislation will deliver on his goal.

“It’s hard to have a national approach when the decisions are made state by state,” said Beth Osborne, who was an acting assistant secretary in the Transportation Department during the Obama administration. “A fundamental part of this program has always been to have the feds raise money, hand it over to the states and cross our fingers.”

The administration has said it aims to repair the damage from the United States’ history of racial disparities in how the government builds, repairs and locates physical infrastructure. In the 1950s and 1960s, highway projects often targeted Black neighborhoods, destroying cultural and economic centers and bringing decades of environmental harm. State and local officials often steered roads through Black communities, isolating them from parks or economic gain.

The task is complicated by a tangle of competing priorities. Some state and local governments might not share the Biden administration’s vision for racial equity; others might be aligned with the president politically, but would choose to spend the money differently. And the sheer size of the bill — it is the largest infusion of federal investment into infrastructure projects in more than a decade, touching nearly every facet of the American economy — makes it difficult to track every penny.

About $660 billion will be provided to the Transportation Department, the bulk of which will be directly distributed to states, who will have broad latitude in how to spend it. The package also includes about $211 billion in “discretionary grants” that require approval from the department.


Federal officials say there are provisions in place to encourage states to take equity into account. Transportation Department officials have been working with the Domestic Policy Council, headed by Susan Rice, who leads the president’s racial equity initiative, to reach out to local governments to implement the infrastructure package.

Christopher Coes, principal deputy assistant secretary for transportation policy, said projects that prioritize racial equity would be more likely to receive funding from the discretionary grants. He added that the administration would “use every tool in our arsenal, both hard and soft” to ensure that outcome.

The administration also notes that it already has made an effort to use new criteria in approving grants. In June, the Transportation Department awarded $905 million for two dozen state projects and considered climate change, environmental justice and racial equity in its criteria for the first time.

Mr. Coes also said the administration has already taken aggressive measures, including in March when the Transportation Department took the rare step of invoking the Civil Rights Act to pause a massive highway project in Houston.


At a White House briefing last week, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the country had a duty to reckon with past decisions that may have harmed communities of color.

He pointed to a provision in the infrastructure bill that would “reconnect” communities of color to economic opportunity by making it easier to access jobs. That program, which Mr. Coes said could take the form of developing new public transportation systems, bicycle lanes or even dismantling highways, was shaved down to $1 billion from the $20 billion originally proposed, although there is additional funding that is still pending in a domestic policy bill that Democrats hope to pass soon.

Transportation experts have argued another solution is to focus infrastructure spending on addressing a growing backlog of projects in need of repair rather than expanding freeways that historically separated Black and white neighborhoods. While a portion of the funds issued directly to states must address safety and repairs, experts say it is just a fraction of what is needed to address what the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates to be a $786 billion backlog for road and bridge repairs.