The U.S. Dept.of Transportation has awarded $185 million in grants to 45 projects that aim to undo the harm done to neighborhoods years ago by highways and other types of infrastructure that cut residents off from jobs, schools, food stores and health care facilities. The DOT awards, formally announced on Feb. 28, represent the first installment of the $1-billion Reconnecting Communities program launched in the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

“Transportation should connect, not divide, people and communities,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement.

Of the 45 grants, six, totaling $138.2 million, are for capital construction; the rest are for planning projects.

As with other DOT discretionary grant competitions, including those that predate the IIJA, demand for the Reconnecting Communities money far out-ran the $185 million available. In all there were 369 unsuccessful applicants, which together sought about $1.7 billion from DOT.

The six new capital construction grants include: $55.6 million to the New York State DOT, to help construct a new highway cap and tunnel for Buffalo’s Kensington Expressway; and the City of Long Beach, Calif., which was awarded $30 million to redesign West Shoreline Drive, converting a freeway into a lower-speed roadway.

Among the other construction grants are: $21.7 million to the Michigan DOT to remove and replace a deck over Interstate-696 in the Oak Park suburb of Detroit; and $13.2 million to the New Jersey Transit Corp. for a pedestrian tunnel for the Long Branch commuter rail station on the north Jersey Shore. 

A $12.3-million construction grant went to Kalamazoo, Mich., for a pilot project to upgrade Kalamazoo and Michigan Avenues with traffic-calming features; and Tampa, Fla., received $5.4 million for a project to lower an interchange ramp to street level, thus restoring a connection harmed by I-275.

The project receiving the largest grant, the Kensington Expressway in Buffalo, involves capping about 4,100 ft of the highway and restoring features of the earlier Humboldt Parkway, which was designed by noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the project would help to correct a "50-year-wrong" and would "help reunite Buffalo's East Side and adjacent neighborhoods that were wrongly divided by the Kensington Expressway."

The federal grants only finance a portion of the selected projects' total costs. States, cities and other grant recipients can use other types of federal highway funds, including money from other IIJA programs. The recipients also can contribute their own funds toward the projects.

For example, the new federal Kensington Expressway grant only accounts for about 5% of the project's estimated $1.05 billion total cost.