DOT Launches 5-Year, $1B Grant Program Targeting Highway Removal and More
The Biden administration this week kicked off a first-of-its-kind federal grant program to help communities nationwide address physically divisive infrastructure like highways, bridges, and railways that have historically divided neighborhoods and urban populations.
The Reconnecting Communities program will provide $200 million annually, or $1 billion over five years — a fraction of the $15 billion President Biden had originally proposed — in a pilot effort that federal officials say emphasizes equity in grant decisions and can leverage other investments to help cities make lasting infrastructural changes.
In its first year, USDOT will provide $145 million in capital grants for actual construction projects and $50 million in planning grants. Eligible applicants include state, local, and tribal units of government, metropolitan planning organizations and nonprofit entities, as well as owners of eligible infrastructure who can partner with any of those government entities or MPOs on grant applications.
While much of the focus and branding for the pilot has been on removal of segregating urban highways — infamous examples include New Orleans’ Claiborne Expressway, Baltimore’s Highway to Nowhere, and an I-81 viaduct n Syracuse, New York — officials emphasized that grants can help with more changes than highway teardowns. FHWA Deputy Administrator Stephanie Pollack noted on a press call Wednesday that eligible projects for grants could also include transit, pedestrian walkways, linear parks and trails, roadway designs, Complete Streets conversions, and main street revitalizations, among others.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg touted the Reconnecting Communities Pilot (RCP) as “the first-ever dedicated federal initiative to unify neighborhoods and communities that are still impacted by infrastructure decisions from the past” — one that can use taxpayer dollars to address historically inequitable infrastructure choices that were also funded with taxpayer dollars.
“This is about empowering and supporting people who have long known what these problems are and what can be done about them,” said Buttigieg.
According to the new program’s Notice of Funding Opportunity, the maximum grant award will be $2 million while the minimum construction capital grant, with no codified maximum, will be $5 million, under Section 11509 of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). The NOFO says planning grants are expected to range from $100,000 to $2 million, and capital grants from $5 million to $100 million.
Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy Christopher Coes told reporters USDOT expects “huge demand for this program,” and estimated the number of capital grants will range from three to 15 projects in the pilot’s first year.
These grants are meant to help leverage other funding streams, Coes added (more on that below). Per the NOFO, planning grants are capped at 80 percent of a project’s total cost, requiring recipients to find matching funds totaling at least 20 percent. Capital construction grants are capped at 50 percent of a project’s total costs. Matching funds can include other federal programs, state grants, and in-kind contributions, as well as donations from private sector entities or philanthropic organizations.
Eligible projects can include any highway or transportation facility “that creates a barrier to community connectivity, including barriers to mobility, access, or economic development, due to high speeds, grade separations, or other design factors,” per the NOFO. Among the types of facilities named are:
- Interstate and state highways
- Arterial roadways
- Limited access highways
- Transit and rail lines
- Gas pipelines
USDOT will rate applications using four categories of merit criteria (each detailed further in the NOFO), including:
- Equity, environmental justice, and community engagement
- Mobility and community connectivity
- Community-based stewardship, management, and partnerships
- Equitable development and shared prosperity
Capital construction grant applications will also assess for project readiness and benefit-cost analysis, among other criteria. USDOT officials noted the program incorporates requirements from the IIJA for hiring and using disadvantaged business enterprises, or DBEs, as well as local hiring and incentives for use of community advisory groups in project planning.
Planning grant activities eligible for funding include public engagement activities and studies “to assess the feasibility of removing, retrofitting, or mitigating an existing eligible facility to reconnect communities.” The latter can include traffic analyses, redesigns of roadways, impact studies on mobility of freight and people, as well as safety, cost estimates, anticipated economic, environmental, public health, and community impacts; and other planning activities like conceptual and preliminary engineering studies or work advocating for a wide range of changes, from land-use and zoning reform to affordable housing and managing gentrification.
Additionally, the RCP will devote up to $30 million over the next five years for technical assistance for applicants and grant recipients. In that vein, USDOT announced Thursday that it is also launching the Thriving Communities Initiative to provide technical assistance and planning support for projects serving disadvantaged communities. The agency has launched DOT Navigator, a new website with information about the agency’s technical assistance programs and guiding users to different grant funding opportunities.
Catalyst, Not a Catch-All
As originally proposed by Biden in 2021, the Reconnecting Communities program aimed to $15 billion annually for such projects — notably, to cheers from those advocating for removing highways in urban areas to create more inclusive and safer spaces and pushing against more highway expansions funded with federal infrastructure dollars. Even before Biden was elected, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in 2019 had included a “community connectivity pilot program” in a markup of the highway title section of the bipartisan surface transportation reauthorization bill. While the new program called for funding removal of highways, it offered an average of only $24 million in annual funding — a paltry amount given the high costs of such projects.
When Biden took office in early 2021, he announced a goal to provide $25 billion for his “Restore/Reconnect Thriving Communities” plan, of which $15 billion would be devoted to a freeway removal and conversion program. That May, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee moved a revised version of its 2019 surface reauthorization bill that included language for the RCP, with $100 million in annual funding, or four times what it had originally proposed. That same language was included in the IIJA last year, and Division J of the bill (now law) doubled annual funding by allocating another $100 million from general fund advance appropriations.
The resulting $200 million in annual funding — now not only reserved for highway removal projects, but also other categories like pedestrian bridges, parks, and more — has been disappointing to proponents of the recent highway teardown movement. In response to questions about limited availability of funds for cities, USDOT officials emphasized that the IIJA allows for these funds “to be a catalyst” to draw on other federal funds, such as the RAISE grant program, funded at $1.5 billion annually for the next five years under the IIJA, and the Multimodal Projects Discretionary Grant program, an amalgam of three prior discretionary grant programs that the IIJA merged into one roughly $3 billion annual program for the next five years.
Of the RCP program, Coes explained, “we don’t expect this project by itself to pay for all very expensive projects.” However, Pollack said, “it can catalyze far more investment than what it provides directly,” including through planning grants and by combining