For months, urban advocates have been excited by the prospect of a major piece of infrastructure legislation that would earmark new federal funding for urban highway removal. Early versions of the bill set aside as much as $20 billion for tearing out highways, and the White House appeared keen on highlighting the projects as one way to target social equity in its signature infrastructure initiative. There was much disappointment, then, when earlier this week a bipartisan infrastructure bill passed the Senate with a greatly reduced pot of money for a highway removal pilot program – some $1 billion to be spent over five years.
Still, $1 billion sounds like a lot of cash, particularly when allocated for an idea that only a few years ago was largely considered a fringe concept in transportation circles. What exactly is the “Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program” established by the new Senate bill, and how might it affect Dallas’ I-345? I spent some time digging through the text of the legislation to try to find out.
The first thing to note about the new program is that it is a pilot program, which means its scope, scale, and timeframe is limited by design. In theory, the “Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program” is designed to test the feasibility and effectiveness of highway removal funding. Within two years of passage, the United States Comptroller General must issue a report that identifies examples of highway removals, evaluates their effects on the communities in which they exist, assesses the applicability of existing sources of federal funding for these kinds of projects, and provides future recommendations. Then, the Department of Transportation must submit its own report by January 1, 2026 that evaluates the pilot program’s success in achieving mobility, environmental, and economic improvements. The hope with this kind of program is that, if successful, legislators may be willing to dedicate additional funding in the future. But given the state of D.C. politics, there is no way to know what will happen.
What is certain is that, if this bipartisan bill passes the House, it will set up what is essentially a grant program. It creates two buckets of funding: planning grants and construction grants. Planning grants may not exceed $2 million per project, and the federal contribution cannot exceed 80 percent of the total planning cost of a project. Construction grants start at $5 million per project and go up from there, but they may not exceed 50 percent of the total project cost. There is a provision in the bill, however, that allows other sources of federal funding to be allocated for the remaining 50 percent of each project, but the total federal dollars spent on any individual removal still cannot exceed 80 percent.
Right away, these funding caps reveal clear shortcomings in the bill. Sure, $1 billion sounds like a lot of money, but when it is doled out in $2 million and $5 million-plus chunks, its impact will be limited. The latest TxDOT I-345 plans don’t include specific cost estimates, but over the years estimates have ranged anywhere from $100 million to $1.9 billion (though that second figure is likely much too high). I-345 will still need to rely on state and regional funding as well as the significant re-capture of any property value increases generated by reconnecting the neighborhood.
In a letter objecting to the new $1 million budget that is signed by 91 cities, transportation groups, and urban planning organizations (including several Austin and Houston organizations but, notably, no one from Dallas), highway removal advocates argue that the reduced budget may cripple the program from the start.
“[F]unding the program at 1/20th of its original proposed budget would greatly reduce this opportunity to reconnect and heal communities divided by interstate highways and other infrastructure,” writes Jordan van der Hagen, the founder of the Duluth Waterfront Collective. “Many freeway capping and highway-to-boulevard projects have already entered into feasibility studies, a large number of which individually are estimated to cost more than the program’s current $1 billion budget. Without additional funding, the program will either fail to adequately fund even one full project from planning to implementation, or will grant many communities the opportunity to reimagine their neighborhoods without providing any follow-through in the form of dedicated capital construction funds.”
That is the danger of the new legislation: it sounds great, but it will not be enough to push I-345 – or any other project – from the planning table to reality. And if the new federal program can’t achieve that, why is the federal government throwing $1 billion at it?
But there are other ways in which this new legislation may prove impactful. For example, in addition to grants, the bill gives the U.S. Department of Transportation leeway to spend upwards of $15 million to provide direct technical and organizational assistance to removal projects. In other words, the bill grants the DOT the ability to insert itself into the planning process around local highway removals, participating in anything from organizing community support and feedback sessions to providing planning assistance.
That could prove impactful. The direct involvement of the DOT in a project like I-345 would bring to bear its own set of performance expectations and project outcomes. And the criteria laid out in the bill read like they were written by highway removal advocates. For example, the bill says that pilot program investments will be graded not merely on how they impact traffic and congestion, but how they improve overall mobility, safety, the environment, and the local economy.
The DOT will also prioritize projects that address existing facilities that are out of context with surrounding land use. The bill allows federal dollars earmarked for a highway project to be spent not only on the highway but also on improving a city’s existing street grid. The DOT will target projects in economically disadvantaged communities and grade projects based on their potential for creating economic opportunity. And a condition of receiving any federal funding through the program is the creation of a community advisory board consisting of community members, business owners serving the community, labor organization representatives, and state and local government officials.
These criteria, as well as the grant-based funding method, makes this new pilot program look a lot like the TIGER Grant program, which was passed during the Obama administration. You may remember, the TIGER Grant program was instrumental in helping to kickstart the Oak Cliff Streetcar. In that instance, it wasn’t the city of Dallas or the North Central Texas Council of Governments that solicited TIGER grant funding for the streetcar; it was an independent neighborhood group that submitted a winning application and helped push the city and DART into moving forward with the streetcar construction.
Similarly, in addition to state, regional, local, and tribal governmental agencies, this new federal program allows nonprofit organizations to apply for “Reconnecting Communities” grants. And here is where I see an opportunity in the new bill. While an individual federal grant won’t be enough on its own to make a I-345 removal a reality, an independent nonprofit group – like, say, the Coalition for a New Dallas – could apply for funding under this new program to conduct additional planning, design, or even potential construction of a component of an I-345 removal. (Full disclosure, the Coalition was founded by D Magazine‘s late founder Wick Allison, is still led, in part, by D Magazine executives, and is probably housed somewhere in our downtown offices, though I don’t know where.)
If a nonprofit received funding under this program, that would invite the DOT into the planning process while submitting the project to the federal criteria laid out in this new program. In other words, perhaps more than the potential of a $5 million-plus grant, the value of this new bill may be the way it ensconces in legislative language expectations around how urban highways should be designed and evaluated. And the advantage of seeking a federal grant would be that it could bring a powerful new highway removal advocate – the U.S. Department of Transportation – directly to the I-345 negotiating table. This is essentially what happened when the Oak Cliff community group received a TIGER grant for the streetcar. In order to secure those federal dollars, the city of Dallas and DART had to ensure that the streetcar project met the feds’ mobility expectations as laid out by the TIGER grant program.
If this Senate bill passes the House, it will be interesting to watch how the Texas Department of Transportation and the North Central Texas Council of Governments respond. For a $100-million-plus project like I-345, chasing a relatively small federal grant may not be worth it for either of these organizations, particularly if it means inviting new DOT scrutiny over how those funds are spent. But if an independent nonprofit secures the money – particularly a nonprofit that has been engaged in the planning process from the very outset of the discussion around I-345’s future – things could get, well, interesting.