Pittsburgh’s Hill District has been at the nexus of African American cultural and economic life for decades. As the Great Migration kicked off after World War I, the neighborhood became a destination for blacks escaping the inequality and violence of the Jim Crow South. Beginning in the 1920s, the area became known as “Little Harlem” and “the Crossroads of the World” for the eclectic jazz clubs and theaters that were essential stops for superstars like Earl Hines, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne. It was also home to one of the most prosperous African American communities in the country, boasting dozens of black-owned businesses. “Because of these stories, a lot of people consider the Hill District home,” says Marimba Milliones, president and CEO of the Hill Community Development Corporation. “It was the place where their family connected with the city, where they landed. It was the figurative and literal heart of the city.”
But the glamour faded by the late 1950s. City officials labeled the low-neighborhood a slum and slated it for “urban renewal” and highway construction projects. Interstate 579 was one of countless expressways rammed through inner-city neighborhoods in the 1960s and 1970s. By the time the highway opened in 1962, I-579 had displaced thousands of residents and severed the neighborhood’s connection to downtown. The neighborhood lost more than 400 businesses, while its population dropped from nearly 54,000 in 1950 to about 9,500 in 2013. Home to more than two dozen nationalities, today 40 percent of its residents live below the poverty line—twice the city average. “It gutted the Hill’s economic core,” says R. Daniel Lavelle, a Democratic Pittsburgh City Council member who represents the neighborhood. “It never recovered. When you displace that many people, you essentially damn that community.”
But the Hill District may rise again. Next summer, construction will begin on a federally funded, three-acre park above I-579. The $19 million project will reconnect the Hill District to the city’s downtown core for the first time in five decades, and represents a small but significant shift in federal policy spearheaded by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. The ambitious former mayor of Charlotte made repairing the damage caused by decades of urban highway construction a federal priority. By strategically connecting the department’s discretionary funding to its bully pulpit, Foxx has helped refocus transportation policy on issues of equity, accessibility, and justice.
While the proposed highway “cap” won’t erase decades of division and decline, local leaders say it’s a big first step toward revitalizing the Hill District. The green space, which will be built on a structure than spans a section of the highway, will include a garden, music venues, food kiosks, and local artwork, while also serving as a walkable connection between the neighborhood and downtown Pittsburgh. “The cap in and of itself is great from a physical standpoint,” says Milliones. “But what the project could mean is true economic vitality and a celebration of our cultural history.”
Revitalizing distressed urban neighborhoods by obliterating the concrete barriers that isolate them from other areas from is a personal crusade for Foxx, who grew up in a Charlotte neighborhood walled in by two of the busiest interstates on the East Coast. “I grew up living with those barriers even though I had no idea how they came to be or what they really meant,” Foxx said in March. “I had no idea that it was not only physical, but also psychological and economic.”
Foxx was an unusual choice to head the Department of Transportation: He was the first secretary in two decades not to have served in Congress or the executive branch. But as mayor of Charlotte from 2009 to 2013, Foxx harnessed innovative transit investments to expand accessibility and create jobs. He secured federal funding to extend the city’s light-rail network, broke ground on a new streetcar line, and expanded Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. His successes made him stand out as a candidate for the Transportation post. When Foxx’s name first surfaced as a possible successor to Ray LaHood in 2013, transportation advocates saw the move as a nod to the growing role of city government in crafting transportation policy. His nomination flew in the face of the kind of top-down federal planning that leveled communities like the Hill District.
“Foxx has taken a different tack than previous secretaries, especially in his recognition that transportation investments can connect people, but can also separate people,” says Robert Puentes, president of the Eno Transportation Center, an independent Washington think tank. “Foxx’s lasting legacy will be the recognition that transportation is about something broader—it’s about connecting people. That thinking can ripple throughout the system.”
With his tenure at the department coming to a close, Foxx has called for a new way of thinking about transportation policy through high-profile speeches and talks across the country. “The role of the secretary bully pulpit is very visible,” says Puentes. “Foxx is talking about the negative impacts of these policies, about the connections between housing and transportation. Especially from somebody like him who was a mayor, it’s a really important perspective.”
Highlighting his personal story of growing up in a neighborhood surrounded by major expressways (“I couldn’t see the horizon,” he told public radio show host Diane Rehm earlier this year), Foxx promoted a new narrative about the real-world impacts of DOT policymaking. In March, he kicked off a national speaking tour to raise awareness about the uneven impact of federal highway construction. “What decision-makers thought of low-income communities is reflected in where and how they built our transportation infrastructure—certain values of that time are embedded in that infrastructure,” Foxx said. “While we cannot change the past, we can ensure that current and future transportation projects connect and strengthen communities, including areas that have, in the past, been on the wrong side of transportation decisions,” he added.
For two decades following the 1956 Highway Act, the federal government spent billions creating some 41,000 miles of freeways in and around the nation’s major cities. From the very beginning, federal officials singled out many low-income and minority communities for demolition, using massive highway projects as an excuse to clear “slums” and remove residents that local officials considered undesirable. The Transportation Department estimates that more than 475,000 households were displaced nationwide. Millions more were left with hollowed-out communities, as new highways ripped through neighborhoods, schools, parks, and commercial centers.
Communities like the Hill District, Baltimore’s Harlem Park, and many others have yet to fully recover from urban renewal. To address this ongoing crisis, Foxx set up “Ladders of Opportunity,” an initiative that aims to reconnect and revitalize neighborhoods through access to jobs, education, and health care. Foxx noted that the highway “cap” project in Pittsburgh, funded through a grant from the DOT’s $500 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program, demonstrates how the federal government can begin to repair the damage to these neighborhoods and put them on a better social and economic trajectory. “This has Anthony Foxx written all over it,” says Transportation for America’s Beth Osborne, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of transportation from 2013 to 2014. “It’s incredible to see how much of his personal experience he has brought to it.”
Yet Foxx has limited power to deliver improvements to places like the Hill District. Under federal law, 90 percent of the Transportation Department’s $77 billion annual budget goes directly to states, with few strings attached. While some state officials may pursue federal goals like improving social equity through new public transit options, many others, like Wisconsin under Governor Scott Walker, have moved forward with even larger and more intrusive highway projects, often at the expense of transit riders, pedestrians, and cyclists. Congress took a decade to finally pass a multi-year transportation funding bill, so major policy reforms seem out of reach. “We’re not going to see big changes in the next five years,” says Lynn Richards, president of the Congress for a New Urbanism.
Nevertheless, what Foxx has been able to do is use the department’s modest discretionary budget through initiatives like TIGER, a stimulus-era grant program that originated with Foxx’s predecessor, Ray LaHood. Although comprising just 1 percent of the total department budget, the program allowed dozens of local governments to expand transit options, update aging infrastructure, and repair communities damaged by past infrastructure projects. The program also provides cities with critical dollars beyond traditional state-level funds. “The fact that TIGER existed at all primed the pump for projects that are hard to fund through our regular set of programs,” says Osborne. “Before TIGER, people never thought projects like these would happen.”
Foxx has helped make equity and social justice a critical part of the department’s decision-making. The secretary has added social equity measures to the department’s TIGER review process. “The words he’s using, programs put in place, how he’s shifting the federal programs—they are small shifts that can make a big difference,” says Puentes. Last year, Foxx empowered the Transportation Department’s Office of Civil Rights to create a new position, Chief Opportunities Officer, the federal government’s first, to help ensure that department decisions and initiatives respond to community needs.
These issues coincide with a time of unprecedented public attention on transportation policy, much of it focused on the challenge of repairing the nation’s aging infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ latest report card gave U.S. infrastructure a D+ and estimated that repairing the existing system would cost $3.6 trillion. Meanwhile, the nation’s Highway Trust Fund has been teetering on the edge of insolvency for much of the past decade, and long-term fixes remain a no-go in Congress, despite strong bipartisan support for new investments. Foxx has viewed this challenge as a unique opportunity to overhaul the country’s aging transportation assets in a thoughtful way. The way forward isn’t just about funding projects, but about making sure that decisions about new roads, transit, bicycle, and pedestrian options include feedback from residents in the affected communities.
How much of this momentum carries into the next administration is an open question. Last fall, Hillary Clinton unveiled an ambitious $275 billion infrastructure plan that proposes the largest federal transportation investment since World War II. At the heart of the proposal is a $25 billion infrastructure bank, designed to leverage private investments and public-private partnerships to build and maintain much-needed infrastructure projects. Not to be outdone, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has vowed to “at least double” Clinton’s spending plan, and has spent much of his campaign bemoaning the nation’s crumbling roads and bridges. Although short on specifics, Trump proposed launching an infrastructure fund, paid for with government bonds.
But transportation advocates worry that such plans, while badly needed, may detract attention from the long-standing inequities within the existing transportation system. While an infrastructure bank may help solidify long-term funding, there’s no guarantee that projects will be selected or funded based on social equity needs or on restoring areas that have been scarred by previous projects. “With an infrastructure bank, the question is whether the project can pay back its loan, it’s not whether the project is good,” Osborne says. “One thing I’d like to see is more conversation on how that money will be spent.”
Others point to cultural shifts in federal policymaking that may influence the next administration. “It’s really about making sure opportunity and social equity are part of this conversation about transportation,” says Puentes. “That’s a long-standing concern that has now found its way into Washington.”
With transportation project selection and other policy decisions overwhelmingly in state hands and Congress unable to agree on major reforms, ensuring that the next generation of transportation investments meets the standards that Foxx has set will be no easy task. But ramping up the next generation of investments undoubtedly starts with a new way of thinking about them. “Transportation gets us places and transportation makes or breaks places,” Foxx said during his national speaking tour. “If we want a society in which everyone has a real shot at the American dream, then it is imperative that we acknowledge the divisions we’ve embedded with the concrete, steel, and asphalt in this country.”