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Why equity is critical to our future infrastructure spending

The first freeway in Los Angeles, Interstate 10, was completed in 1935 at a cost of $877,000, about $14 million in today’s dollars. It was considered a triumph in traffic management and design, ushering in a new era of mobility that accelerated the region’s economic growth. It also had another impact: entrapping Ramona Gardens, a mostly Black community, in a constant flow of highly noxious emissions. Today, the 1,700 residents of Ramona Gardens suffer from dangerously high levels of respiratory disease, including twice the state average rate of childhood asthma.

There are countless examples of vulnerable populations decimated in the name of progress and expansion. From the 1950s through at least the 1970s, Black Bottom in Detroit, Magruder in Virginia, Hanford Village in New York, Hanford in Ohio, Overtown in Florida, and hundreds of other communities across the country were impacted. They were displaced, bulldozed, or forced into decline when President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, among other public works, paved them over or boxed them in.

For the last century at least, infrastructure in U.S. cities has been planned, designed, and built too often without consistent and meaningful regard for the impacts on vulnerable communities, historically people of color, particularly those living in poverty. As our highways, bridges, and walkways crumble, they expose a history of racial inequity unrecognized by most Americans. Until now.

Connecting equity with infrastructure is not intuitive for most people. Diving into the topic, however, as President Joe Biden is doing through the introduction of the $2.3 trillion “American Jobs Plan,” reveals both a past that needs to be reckoned with, and an opportunity to create a more positive future.

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