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Transcript: Secretary Pete Buttigieg Remarks on Launch of Reconnecting Communities Program - Birmingham, Alabama 

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Thank you so much and good afternoon. I want to thank Representative Sewell for her warm welcome and introduction, for her leadership, and for her support for this Bipartisan Infrastructure Law -- like she said over five billion coming to this state alone for roads alone, hundreds of millions for public transportation, support for affordable internet, and so much more. And if I'm not mistaken, she is, I believe, the only voice from Alabama on Capitol Hill who was there with us and said “yes” and understood the importance of this legislation. And she has been just a fantastic partner to the Biden-Harris Administration as we seek to get big things done.

I want to thank Mayor Woodfin, who has been here with us throughout the day, somebody who I first got to know when we were both serving as mayors, has such as great reputation in the American community of mayors, and the job has only become more demanding and more important since I had it. Congratulations to you and the City of Birmingham on all the good things you have going on here. It's phenomenal. 

I want to thank Charlotte Shaw and the Transit Authority and all of the members of her fantastic team for hosting us, for showing us this terrific BRT project, and for what they do to connect people to opportunity. We're joined by Phil Gray, president of ATU Local, and we are so thankful for the frontline workers of our transit systems. I want to thank President Simelton of the NAACP for his words and his leadership. And I want to recognize my colleagues who are here as well -- Deputy Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration Stephanie Pollack, Federal Transit Deputy Administrator Veronica Vanterpool, and several other members of our team who are in from Washington as well as those who work right here in the region. 

And I want to thank everybody who has worked day in and day out, in ways visible and not, to connect people to opportunity, which is what today's news is all about. 

This is as fitting a place as you can find in the country to talk about the history and about the future of transportation equity in America. As was mentioned, we had a great discussion earlier where I heard and learned about how neighborhoods, from right here in Woodlawn, which is doing such remarkable work to move forward, to Titusville, to the community of Harris Homes, and so many others who find themselves constrained by pieces of infrastructure that were put in without regard to the well-being of that community. 

And that's part of why I'm so thrilled about the news that we're going to make today. It's a major milestone that we have been working at throughout this administration. 

We're here to announce a first-of-its-kind initiative to help cities and towns not only address the consequences of past choices that live on to affect transportation today, but to deliver a transportation future that connects communities and helps residents get where they need to go. Traveling in the country, across the country in the year and a half since I was sworn in, I've seen wonderful examples of how infrastructure can transform communities for the better, like this Birmingham Express Bus Rapid Transit project we're celebrating today, which will provide access to over 70,000 jobs. No small thing in a community this size. It's saving people time and money whether you take the bus or whether you drive on what will now be a less congested road, and I'm sure that my predecessor Secretary Anthony Foxx and President Obama will be proud to see the funding that they awarded coming to life this summer. Congratulations again to the community on making this a reality. 

And we're supporting similar projects across the country -- Arizona to Illinois to Nevada and more that are going to make it possible for people to get where they need because the evidence is clear: when people have access to opportunity through physical mobility, the result is more social and economic mobility and prosperity. 

But we've also seen firsthand everywhere in the country, from Syracuse to Richmond to Baltimore to, yes, here in Birmingham, how a piece of infrastructure that is supposed to connect people can sometimes have the opposite effect and cut people off from opportunity, sometimes dividing or even destroying whole neighborhoods or communities. 

The way I-65 was constructed, for example, here in the middle of the century, through the heart of Birmingham, displaced black neighborhoods and created physical barriers, and dead zones that still keep people apart. 

Our national transportation system represents one of the great accomplishments in the history of this country. As the mayor noted earlier today this city is here largely because of how railways joined it. And from the interstate system to our national aviation system, we have a lot to be proud of. 

But we can't ignore the basic truth that some of the planners and politicians behind those projects built them directly through the heart of vibrant, populated, communities -- sometimes in an effort to reinforce segregation. Sometimes because the people there had less power to resist. And sometimes as part of a direct effort to replace or eliminate Black neighborhoods.

While the burden is often greatest for communities of color, Americans today of every background are paying the price of these choices. A child born in the 2020s could face a greater risk of asthma because they are too close to the pollution from a highway that went right by their residence. Home and business owners may see their property values and revenues affected because they're cut off from customers or workforce. And some workers can’t take advantage of a good-paying job opportunity because their commute would just be longer and more expensive than they could afford. 

Consciously or not, we are all conscious – or, aware, I should say, consciously or not, of how infrastructure can divide, because it is woven into our everyday language. Think about what it means that we have the expression, "wrong side of the tracks." It means we have known this for a very long time. 

A decision made a hundred years ago can have this effect today, but that's why today we're doing something about it. 

With funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we're working to build infrastructure that will serve people well for the next several generations.

And we are proud to announce the launch of Reconnecting Communities: the first-ever dedicated federal initiative to take places that were divided by past infrastructure choices and reconnect them for a better future that begins today. 

We're going to deliver about a billion dollars over the next five years, and communities can start applying for that funding today. Sometimes that will help move a project from a drafting table to shovels in the ground. Sometimes it will help communities develop proposals that can then go on to get other sources of funding, like state dollars or our federal RAISE grants. 

In fact, we're already using funding like RAISE grants to help reconnect communities around America. In Atlanta, we're supporting the planning for a project that envisions putting a cap over part of I-75/I-85 that divides Midtown from the old Fourth Ward and building pedestrian-friendly streets and parks on top of that cap. In St. Louis we’re helping build a public greenway, which will mean better walking, biking, and other connections to transit between neighborhoods. In Baltimore, it's a bus rapid transit vision to connect the east and west parts of the city, much like what we are celebrating right here in Birmingham.

But whatever the specific shape the project takes, what they all have in common is that they empower communities to innovate and define their future. They provide people with better connections to jobs and opportunities, and allow residents of places that are today holding them back to enjoy a safer, healthier, thriving, experience in their neighborhood. And today for the first time we have dedicated funding to support such projects across the country. 

Meanwhile, this work will happen while we are launching department-wide policies to make sure a fair share of jobs and contracts go to workers and businesses from the communities where the projects are happening, so that everyone can benefit. Far too often we hear from residents who say, "finally, construction has come to my neighborhood" only to note that the people in the hard hats with those good-paying jobs don't look like they came from anywhere near the neighborhood. We can change that and we're acting to make sure that generational wealth is created through these investments. 

Now, a lot of this work has bipartisan support, but I will say it's striking how much misunderstanding and resistance we sometimes see when we work on the issue of healing what was broken, reconnecting where there was division. So, I want to be very clear: this is not an exercise in blame or guilt. It is a reckoning with simple realities and an insistence that the future will be better than the past. Recognizing where taxpayer dollars isolated people or caused damage and using new resources to fix it - that's not divisive. What's divisive is a highway or railway or interchange that is dividing people from where they need to be in their own community… and fixing it will make a whole community better off. That's why we're doing this work. 

There's nothing sacred about the status quo. These highways, roads, and railways are not rivers, lakes, or mountains, they're not divinely ordained. They're decisions. And we can make better decisions than what came before. 

Now, every piece of transportation infrastructure, even the very best, comes at a cost, not just in terms  financially, but in terms of disruption, which is why process matters, it's why fairness matters, and why communities need to be empowered to face these trade-offs. So, when we evaluate applications for this funding, we'll be looking for project sponsors to demonstrate strong community input and buy-in, and looking for projects that will improve life for everyone with plans to serve the people who live in these communities already. 

And to help lift up those voices we're launching soon a companion program called Thriving Communities to help community leaders ensure that local priorities -- things like affordable housing -- are embedded alongside infrastructure decisions.

I can't wait to see all the project ideas that are going to come in and apply for this funding. 

Just imagine if instead of an overpass right by your house, there was a park where your kids could play with their friends on the weekend. 

Imagine if, instead of having to drive a mile or more out of your way to get around or rail line you could drive right over it, or even walk straight across a scenic greenway, similarly to what Birmingham did so successfully over a decade ago, transforming an unused railway viaduct, which used to divide the city, into a park that helps reconnect it. 

This is what Reconnecting Communities is all about. 

And this city and this state has so many powerful examples that we've seen of why this is important and the deep relationship between transportation and justice that was on display once again this morning at the A.G. Gaston Motel.

Good transportation policy connects everyone to where they need to go efficiently, affordably, and safely. And I believe that together we won't just be repairing legacies of the past. We will be creating a new one for the future that all of us can be proud of. So, I'm delighted to make that announcement here in Birmingham and honored to embark on this journey alongside all of you. 

Thank you very much for joining today.