Transportation and Opportunity
The 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington
The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is quite a moment. A moment to reflect on what it took for those men and women to come together. A moment to think of where we are today.
Today, we honor so many who achieved so much, demanding fairness and equality in the face of hardship, discrimination, and violence.
As Secretary of Transportation, I can’t help but think of the historic connection between transportation and the civil rights movement. Literally or figuratively, transportation has played a role throughout the history of our nation’s progress toward civil rights. And it still does.
When escaped slaves sought their freedom, they traveled on the Underground Railroad.
In the mid-1950s, a young woman who sat down and refused to get up—she did it on a transit bus. And the boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus system resulted in changes that spread across the South.
The Civil Rights Movement was about all Americans having access to the same opportunities. And our transportation system connects people to those opportunities.
But unfortunately, transportation also has a history of dividing us. In many places, railroads have served to identify people who were living on “the wrong side of the tracks.” And rarely in the last century did an urban interstate highway plow through a neighborhood that wasn’t characterized as poor.
The challenge we face today is how to take a system that at one time codified bias and ensure that it now connects people, creates jobs, and allows people to grab a rung on what the President calls a “ladder of opportunity.”
In 2013, many communities are tearing down those divisions and building bridges.
I recently visited Columbus, Ohio, where Mayor Coleman is leading an effort to reconnect the King-Lincoln district in his city. This once-vibrant community was cut off from the downtown area when I-71 was built, leading shops to close and families to relocate.
Today, we’re working with City of Columbus and the State of Ohio on a project that will not only reduce congestion on two interstate highways, but reconnect the city’s communities.
In New Haven, DOT is helping the city reclaim a highway that has split the city in half, creating a barrier between New Haven’s downtown and the Medical District and Hill neighborhoods.
And when I was Mayor of Charlotte, I fought to bring a streetcar system to our city. The whole community got behind it. That streetcar is the first effort in Charlotte’s recent history to connect a poor part of the city with modern transit.
President Obama gets this. He understands that when you isolate communities, it’s not just those who are affected who are hurt. We’re all hurt.
Over the last four years, the Obama Administration has made unprecedented investments in our national infrastructure, putting people to work on our roads and bridges, runways and railways. But we can’t afford to slow down. Right now, where you live, there are bridges that need to be fixed. Roads, transit, airports, ports, and rail that could be connecting Americans to opportunity.
The poetry of that August day in 1963 painted a clear picture of where our country was and where it should be. We've made a lot of progress since then, but we're not there yet.
But the way we make progress isn’t always in poetry. Sometimes, the way we build bridges is by actually building bridges…and roads and transit. Through transportation, we can help ensure that the rungs on the ladder of opportunity aren’t so far apart—and that the American dream is still within reach for those who are willing to work for it.