The Agenda Behind Buttigieg’s Claim That Highways Are ‘Racist’

The Biden administration claims that its proposed $2 trillion infrastructure program would accomplish everything from expanding mass transit to launching an era of green energy. Transportation Secretary

Pete Buttigieg

has articulated another ambitious goal recently: reversing the “racist” history of America’s highway system.

“Black and brown neighborhoods have been disproportionately divided by highway projects or left isolated by the lack of adequate transit and transportation resources,” Mr. Buttigieg tweeted in December. In an interview earlier this month, he reiterated that “there is racism physically built into some of our highways” and said the infrastructure program includes money “specifically committed to reconnect some of the communities that were divided by these dollars.”

The average American might not think of highways as relics of Jim Crow. But some urban planners claim that building the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s evolved into a plot to segregate black neighborhoods. The point of running new highways, the theory goes, was providing middle-class whites with a path into suburbia. Academic literature is filled with studies with titles like “Segregation Along Highway Lines” and “White Men’s Roads Through Black Men’s Homes: Advancing Racial Equity Through Highway Reconstruction.”

Activists now argue it’s time to right those wrongs, including by dismantling roadways in the same way vandals have been pulling down Civil War monuments. “Want to tear down insidious monuments to racism and segregation? Bulldoze L.A. freeways,” a Los Angeles Times opinion piece argued last summer. In New Orleans, activists want to tear down a section of the Claiborne Highway that crosses the traditionally black Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans.

The Congress for the New Urbanism, a nonprofit, has a list of their top 10 “teardowns” in places from Dallas to Tampa, Fla., to Denver. Supporters point to several dismantled roads as models, including a Milwaukee project that eliminated a mile-long freeway spur 20 years ago. In Mr. Buttigieg, activists have a transportation secretary who seems willing to commit federal money to the effort.

There’s little doubt that some post-World War II federal road projects were misguided and poorly planned. Some local officials saw gleaming new roads as a way to replace deteriorating neighborhoods. Planners arrogantly imposed their visions on unwilling residents, undermining communities around the country—but not only Mr. Buttigieg’s “black and brown ones.”

In his acclaimed book “The Power Broker,” biographer

Robert Caro

tells how New York’s 20th-century master builder,

Robert Moses,

constructed the Cross Bronx Expressway through the largely Jewish neighborhood of East Tremont, tearing down 54 apartment buildings and displacing thousands of residents. The Indianapolis portion of Interstate 70 that runs through working-class Southside cut into a neighborhood of Jews, Italians, Germans and blacks. Boston’s Central Artery, built in the 1940s and 1950s, displaced residents and businesses in that city’s largely Italian-American North End.

But reversing the damage decades later under the banner of racial justice carries enormous risks. Boston’s so-called Big Dig project is an example of what can go wrong. City planners quickly recognized that the elevated Central Artery was a mistake; it increased traffic in surrounding neighborhoods as cars exited the roadway, and it blocked an access to the city’s waterfront.

The ambitious solution—tear it down and build a tunnel—began in the early 1980s but wasn’t finished until 2005. It cost five times its original estimates and disrupted the city for decades. Even with federal aid, local governments piled up billions of dollars in debt.

Here is the point of claiming the highway system is racist: turning an environmentalist agenda into a moral crusade. It is a way to sell the infrastructure plan the Biden team has been pitching. For cities, much of that plan, now reflected in a bill the administration says would double spending for mass transit, revolves around getting people off roads and into public transportation.

Many Americans are uninterested in this agenda. Mass-transit ridership has been declining since 2014, falling by double digits before the pandemic in more than two dozen major metro areas, despite billions of dollars in government subsidies. Since the pandemic, ridership has further collapsed, down by more than two-thirds. Merely returning to pre-pandemic levels will be a challenge, as employees continue to work from home. Data also show a significant number of people leaving dense cities, where mass transit is most used.

Even in normal times, designing and financing a transportation plan for the next 50 years would be challenging. Doing so amid a pandemic that is reshaping cities—and based on vague 70-year-old accusations of racial injustice—risks creating a new generation of boondoggles.

Mr. Malanga is senior editor of City Journal.

Main Street: Pete Buttigieg’s definition of infrastructure is not what the American people think it means. Images: Bloomberg/AP/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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