A week in America | 13 August 2021

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This week Martin Liptrot discusses the U.S. $1trillion Infrastructure Bill and how the politicians might have a chance to make inner cities rival the suburbs as the place to be.

I don’t know what you did on Tuesday night but U.S. politicians spent $4.5trillion.

After what has been months of political wrangling, jockeying and posturing the Senate finally passed the $3.5trillion Budget Resolution, but first it passed a trillion-dollar Infrastructure Bill – which will see about half of that money ploughed into a range of projects in the next 60 months.

While the bills must clear the House before they can be signed and stamped in the Oval Office by President Biden, the fact the Infrastructure Bill sailed through the Senate with a bi-partisan majority of 69-31 is encouraging.

The U.S. system of checks and balances through Congress – The Senate and House of Representatives – means everything must be a compromise and the final bill has been whittled down from an eye-watering $2.25trillion to a more digestible $1.2trillion.

As a result, it is missing some of its initial eye-catching elements.

Gone are the promise to upgrade the network of Veterans’ Administration hospitals which are on average 50 years older than private medical facilities. Likewise, the $400billion package to improve aged care and support for people with disabilities has been written out, as has the idea of raising taxes on the super-rich to pay for it all.

But key packages like reducing the cost of wireless and broadband access, electrifying America’s fleet of yellow school buses and new measures to change tax codes for cryptocurrency and bitcoin traders are still intact.

One intriguing element which did survive but has had little political discussion or media scrutiny is the more than $1billion earmarked for Reconnecting Communities.

In the 1950s and 60s whole swathes of America’s inner cities were bulldozed to make way for highways and freeways. Neighborhoods were razed, homes demolished and predominantly Black, minority or poor communities were split and divided by 6 lanes of asphalt. Anyone who has driven through New York’s outer boroughs, across Los Angeles county or into the city of New Orleans will have gawped from their cars into the windows of apartments and homes only a few metres from the highways.

Back then, urban planners like Robert Moses had ‘space age visions’ of happy suburban families jetting across the intrastate system in their shiny motor cars. They also had the backing of President Eisenhower and, unsurprisingly, the financial clout of the men from the automobile companies and their oil industry counterparts.

Of course, we now know these roads have contributed much more harm through pollution, congestion, noise, displacement and community dispersal than any good.

50 years later, many of these freeways and highways are now crumbling and, if this bill passes, city leaders will be ‘supported in funding ideas to replace them with something which reconnects communities’.

City and civic leaders are being encouraged to redraft that Reagan era refrain:

Mr Biden, tear down these walls’.

In Britain it seems, similar discussions have taken place about removing intrusive roadways too. The Mersey Tunnel flyovers are going, going, gone in Liverpool. In my hometown of Birkenhead, the other end of the tunnel, roads which walled off much of the residential sector from the town centre are likely to be demolished in new town regeneration plans. Hurray!

And as we imagine a post-COVID world where our relationship with cars is changing, big thinking about our city centres is being encouraged.

In Seaside, my current sleepy corner of Northwest Florida, untroubled by freeways and highways criss-crossing our communities, we are the nation’s primary location for what they call new urbanism – by which they mean walkable places to live.  The Seaside Institute houses an annual conference on the topic and draws together planners, urbanists and experts to discuss.

One leading think tank, Congress for New Urbanism, has a program called ‘Highways to Boulevards’ specifically focused on the challenge of removing these roadways from the heart of our cities. While I’m not sold on the idea of ‘boulevards’ – it sounds a bit ‘hoighty-toighty’ to my proletarian ears – the concept of making our cities ‘people-friendly’ rather than ‘car-centric’ appeals.

Of course, there are opponents to all this.

Not just the petrol heads and fossil fuel lovers, but also those living in these divided communities who doubt the real motivation.

They fear this is an attempt to gentrify their communities rather than restore the working class and ethnically diverse neighborhoods which once stood there.

They may be right, but U.S. Transport Secretary, former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, is at least awake to their concerns. He told reporters;

 “There has been a legacy of misguided investments and missed opportunities in federal transportation policies that reinforce racial and economic inequality… We must take care that these mistakes are not repeated in projects now underway.”

Also in the Infrastructure Bill is $39billion for public transit – the largest public transport investment since the creation of Amtrak 50 years ago. Hopefully these funds will be combined with other initiatives to not only reconnect communities which were divided, but also ensure they are networked into the rest of the city and amenities like parks, sports facilities and transport hubs.

New homes, close proximity to transport and easy access to everything the city has to offer – it does sound a bit like a gentrification charter.

But if housing authorities, city planners and politicians can ringfence the new properties for key workers, local residents, affordable housing and discounted business rates for local and minority owned enterprises we may have a chance of seeing our inner cities once again rival the suburbs as the place to be. That would be a good night’s work by our politicians.

Martin Liptrot is a writer and commentator on public affairs and politics based in Florida.

A week in America | 27 May 2021

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