Official US Government Icon

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure Site Icon

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Transcript of U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg Remarks at Reconnecting Communities Award - Birmingham, Alabama

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Thank you.  Good morning.  Thank you for joining us.  What a pleasure to be back.  Thank you very much to your extraordinary Congresswoman Terri Sewell, who is – I think you already know this, but she lives and breathes her Alabama communities, and she never lets us forget what they need.  There is always, when I see her, a “thank you for this, and here is what my communities need now” – as it should be.  And as she noted, the only member of the Alabama delegation to vote for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Which means that every penny of this project and every penny of the billions coming to Alabama for infrastructure is there because she and others partnered with President Biden to get this infrastructure package done.  She believed in it.  She worked with us.  We are grateful to her.  

I want to thank Mayor Woodfin, who has been a friend and somebody I’ve respected greatly since we were both youngster mayors in the community of American mayors.  The job of mayor has only become more demanding and more difficult since I proudly wore that title. Though it would have been nice back when I was mayor if there had been a trillion-dollar infrastructure package come from Washington.  But Mayor, thank you for your vision, your leadership, and your friendship. 

I want to recognize all of the community and business leaders who are here who have joined us, including those we just heard from, Mr. Holloway, Ms. Hatcher, whose vision and passion and readiness to put their money where their mouth is in terms of taking risks in support of this community, as every entrepreneur does, is something that inspires us to make sure we match their investment and their risk-taking with those federal taxpayer dollars to help build up this community. 

I know Senator Doug Jones is here. I want to thank you for continuing to be a great leader and a great voice and a great friend.  

And even though he can’t be here today, you know, every Transportation Secretary winds up putting capstones on things where the cornerstone was laid by somebody else.  And I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge my friend Secretary Anthony Foxx, who got the ball rolling on the conversation in a whole new way about equity in transportation when he was serving under President Obama.  I do not believe this program would be possible if it were not for the leadership and the groundwork that he laid, so we are in his debt as well.  

Before we get into the moment and the project we’re celebrating, I do want to acknowledge that there continues to be shock and pain in Baltimore and around the whole country in the aftermath of the tragedy that took place one week ago yesterday.  We continue to mourn those construction workers who lost their lives. We’re going to work every day to deliver on President Biden's promise that the administration will make sure Baltimore can recover.  

So, look, we’re here because everybody here recognizes all the ways in which infrastructure shapes our lives. We feel it when something goes wrong. Sometimes we don’t pay attention to it when everything goes right.  But a lot of work goes into making sure that it goes right.  That’s what today is about.  It’s about better infrastructure for the future and that’s about putting right things that have been done wrong in the past. 

Part of what brings me to Birmingham today is recognizing the consequences of infrastructure decisions that were made generations ago and our regard for a community’s vision to change that. That’s part of why it's so special to be back in Birmingham a little less than two years since my last visit.  It was a real privilege this morning to tour 4th Avenue with Mayor Woodfin, with Representative Sewell, and with local community leaders to see the history, the heritage, and most importantly the hope for the future here.  

You can feel what it meant for generations as this district thrived, where Black residents opened shops and restaurants and cultural institutions like the Carver Theater. Alabama’s first Black-owned bank opened just a few blocks away in 1890. And of course, we are not far from the A.G.  Gaston Motel, a landmark of the civil rights movement which I had the privilege of celebrating with you, many of you who were here just a couple of years ago. And, I would add, that Motel, a testament and a symbol, reminding us of the connection between justice and civil rights and transportation.  Between the ability to freely move around our country and our communities, and the social mobility that was part of the promise of the civil rights vision of greater justice.  

But in the 1960s and 70s, two monumental infrastructure decisions began to divide and burden and disempower this neighborhood.  The construction of I-65, and the decision to convert 4th Avenue to a one-way street so that it could rapidly shunt people in and out of this city in ways that isolated a once thriving main street from that broader community. 

I've heard stories of how the incredibly important and historic 16th Street Baptist church lost membership. Some even saying that it didn't really remain possible to be the kind of neighborhood church that it used to be because the neighborhood itself had been disempowered. 

And yet that church, standing today, as a congregation that serves the next generation and as steward of one of the most important searing events of the civil rights movement, makes this such an important place to discuss the relationship between the past, the present, and the future. And that’s what we are knitting together right now. 

Those decisions made around the time of the '60s and '70s, but also for generations before, were felt most acutely by the Black community in Birmingham. That has happened again and again around the country, and it would be foolish to characterize that as a coincidence. Choices displaced Black homes and businesses and created physical barriers that still keep people apart, still limit people’s ability to walk safely and comfortably.  

We recognize that reality, we acknowledge that reality. First because it is important to understand how conditions of the present are related to the choices of the past, but also because facing our past as Birmingham has taught us again and again is the first step toward making better choices about the future. This is not an exercise in blame or guilt, it is an opportunity to mend, to repair, and to make current and future generations better off, which is exactly what you are doing here, and exactly why we are so proud to support it. 

I know this vision is a long time coming. Miss Hatcher talked about how it was 20 years in the making. I won’t even tell you what I was doing 20 years ago. But now it is here.  And that is why on behalf of the Biden-Harris administration, I’m thrilled to join you to officially celebrate the $14.5 million award to restore and reconnect Fourth Avenue. 

It’s going to revitalize 15 blocks. It’s going to restore the two-way design that was original to this neighborhood, but also add more modern features.  People are going to find it easier and more comfortable and safer to move on this corridor, whether walking or yes, biking or riding the bus or drive.  

A road can either divide a neighborhood, while blasting vehicle traffic through the heart of a city without regard to those who live and work there. Or that same road with a better design could tie that neighborhood together. A road can either serve to evacuate or to invigorate a neighborhood. And I know that this area will be invigorated, that people will be better able to take a walk, to shop at a local business, to get their haircut, to walk to church, to eat at Green Acres - something I am sincerely looking forward to doing a little bit later on. And to run into people and have those chance encounters that make cities cities.  

I know what this kind of transformation can mean because we lived it in South Bend when I was mayor. We had a pair of two (one)-way streets that went right through our city.  They moved cars really quickly, but they choked off the life of our downtown. And the public dollars that we invested in that transformation quickly came back to us when we turned them into livable, walkable, complete streets, as tens of millions of dollars in private investment came from businesses who told us the street transformation was part of their decision.  Restaurants thrived, businesses grew, and most importantly, traffic collisions decreased. And I fully expect that you’re going to see similar benefits here in Birmingham. 

There’s so much more at stake here than just a mile and a half of roadway. It’s a place that shows that historic restoration is not an academic exercise.  It is an investment in a better everyday life.  It is one of the most practical things you can do. 

And yet the symbolic resonance of doing it here is not lost on me.  I know that we are on hallowed ground.  Sixty years since the Civil Rights Act, the courage that people showed on these streets changed America’s history for the better, helped make our democracy more democratic.  

And yet we know that was also far from the end of the story.  The relationship between our past and present and future is physically encoded in our infrastructure. That’s true here, it is true across the country from Buffalo, New York, to Atlanta, to Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine. Just about every city in between.  That’s why President Biden made sure to weave equity into the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, creating a first-of-its-kind, Reconnecting Communities program to build infrastructure that unites where federally funded infrastructure once served to divide. And we know that the example from here can radiate out, as Reverend Shuttlesworth said, “As Birmingham goes, so goes the nation."  

Now, as was mentioned, we were here to announce this program a couple of years ago, but that didn’t come with any guarantees that we were going to be able to fund a project.  So, I want to make sure you know how much you have to be proud of.  This is an unprecedented level of funding, but we still got far more applications into this program than we could support.  

As a matter of fact, three and a half times more funding was requested around the country than we were able to support. So, you have a lot to be proud of that your project is one of the winners.  And no pressure, but we have very high expectations for the results from this project.  

I just want to note that we’re doing this work all across the region too. We got to celebrate the launch of the Birmingham Xpress in 2022.  And 2023, we were proud to support Birmingham with $21 million to support another section of the city’s streets. 

And not just here. In Decatur, we’re helping to reconnect Old Town to the stores and shops along the riverfront. And in Pelham we’re building a bridge so that drivers and pedestrians and importantly, emergency vehicles can safely and efficiently get across a rail line where trains block half the community for a big part of every day. I know what a community headache that is in so many parts of Alabama. In West Montgomery, we’re connecting residents to the Selma to Montgomery trail, so people can walk safely or take their bike to jobs downtown. 

So, this is a good day. I know we’re living in turbulent times. Times that sometimes make you hesitate to turn on the television, see what the news is. But we have good news today to celebrate together. 

And just the last thing I’m going to mention, something that all 40,000 infrastructure projects that the Biden infrastructure plan is funding have in common, is not one of them was cooked up at the U.S. Department of Transportation headquarters in Navy Yard, Washington, D.C. 

These are locally-led, community-driven visions. The Biden-Harris administration came to office, understanding that the good ideas weren’t all going to come from Washington, but that more of the funding should, and now, at last, it is. 

Congratulations, and I’m thrilled to see what you’re going to do with this.