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What Does Repairing Infrastructure Have to Do With Healing Communities? Everything.

Posted by: | Posted on: July 17, 2020

The U.S. Congress has routinely reauthorized funding for surface transportation to repair and improve critical roads and bridges throughout the country and is scheduled to do so again within the next few months. Now, with a renewed charge to protect our most vulnerable communities so embattled by systemic racism, and a prolonged health crisis resulting in a fragile economy, lawmakers are looking for innovative ways that at-first-glance-unrelated business (including road-paving) might also be an opportunity to positively impact the nation’s most pressing current needs. This proposed approach properly recognizes that legislation on physical infrastructure impacts our social infrastructure and should be tailored to improve both.

With the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (the FAST Act) and its associated federal funding commitments for current transportation construction programs set to expire in September, a bill titled “Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation in America” (the INVEST in America Act) has been introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives. The law proposes not only to repair and replace failing infrastructure—like less-comprehensive prior surface transportation reauthorizations—but also to promote smarter, safer, and more resilient infrastructure investments, creating jobs, and boosting the economy. Most significantly, various programs offered in the proposed legislation provide thoughtful ways to connect communities and neighborhoods.

As Congress works through a path forward on this legislation, over 150 infrastructure reuse projects have been revitalizing underutilized infrastructure in cities across the country by turning neglected spaces including abandoned railways or highways, polluted riverfronts or waterways, which have too often accelerated blight and contributed to inequality, into new hybrid forms of reactivated public space that lift up neighborhoods in need. These projects reconnect neighborhoods that were, in many cases, divided by interstates, railways, and major roadways by providing public space, and offering multi-modal options to residents including mass-transit, roads, multi-use trails, and greenspace.

Leading the way on this effort is the Alliance for Infrastructure Reuse and Redevelopment (AIRR), a coalition including The Underline in Miami, the New York High Line, the Atlanta BeltLine, the Waterloo Greenway in Austin, the Buffalo Bayou and Bayou Greenways in Houston, the Detroit Riverfront, the 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, D.C., and the Philadelphia Rail Park. Through public-private partnerships, projects like these are generating over $40 billion in economic development by leveraging and contributing millions of dollars to communities through increased tax revenue, tourism and job creation. In addition, these projects increase access to clean and healthier environments for residents, mitigate pollution, and increase natural disaster resilience. AIRR is presently working to create more inclusive federal grant programs for infrastructure reuse projects, while educating public officials on the benefits of their projects at the local and regional level.

Miami’s example, The Underline, is a project delivering and activating a 120-acre, world-class linear park spanning 10-miles below Miami’s Metrorail to transform regional mobility and celebrate diversity, culture and lifelong learning. Through innovative urban trails and impactful programming, it will connect people to their environment and each other to create a safe, healthy, equitable and sustainable community.

Leaders at all levels of government should continue to think creatively—and boldly—about finding solutions to connecting and healing our communities. This means thinking critically even about such everyday challenges as how we pave our roads and repair our bridges. And several key provisions of the proposed federal INVEST in America Act are opportunities for precisely that. This includes supporting competitive grant programs for infrastructure reuse projects that have strengthened and reinvigorated so many cities by improving underutilized infrastructure to create inclusive public spaces.

Put simply, the next legislation that addresses our ailing infrastructure should likewise be thoughtful about our ailing neighborhoods and neighbors. As the work of the public-private partnerships involved in infrastructure reuse and revitalization has shown, the issues are intertwined.

Daniel Balmori is a senior associate at Hogan Lovells and he also serves as pro bono counsel to Friends of The Underline, Inc. and The Underline Conservancy.

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