USDOT Debuts Reconnecting Communities Pilot ProgramWritten by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) on Feb. 28 reported that its new Reconnecting Communities Pilot Grant Program will distribute $185 million to 45 projects; this includes six capital construction grants (with one rail-related project) and 39 planning grants (with nine rail-related projects).
Established by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (also known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act), the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program is providing “technical assistance and funding for communities’ planning and construction projects that aim to connect neighborhoods back together by removing, retrofitting, or mitigating transportation barriers such as highways and railroad tracks,” according to USDOT.
This first round of grants will fund construction and planning for projects slated to “revitalize communities, provide access to jobs and reduce pollution,” such as capping interstates with parks; filling in sunken highways to reclaim the land for housing; and creating new crossings through public transportation, bridges, tunnels and trails, the Department said.
USDOT teamed with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to review applications; prioritized were those received from “economically disadvantaged communities, especially those focused on equity and environmental justice, and that demonstrated strong community engagement and stewardship, and would catalyze shared prosperity in its development and job creation.”
Following are the 10 rail-related projects that received awards (download the complete list below):
- New Jersey Transit’s (NJT) Long Branch Station Pedestrian Tunnel, NJT (Long Branch, N.J.): This project will receive a capital construction award of $13,215,036, which will help remove an at-grade rail crossing and construct a pedestrian tunnel at Long Branch Station. The tunnel is slated to provide “access from multiple directions to the station and eliminate a problematic crossing for passengers and pedestrians,” according to USDOT. NJT’s Long Branch Station has the 5th highest ridership of the 20 stations on the North Jersey Coast Line, with more than 1,000 average weekday boardings in 2019. Originally built in 1875, there is no access to the station from the western side where a retaining wall on the outbound platform acts as a barrier. Those seeking to access the west side of the station must exit the station and travel via Third Avenue to the north or south around the station and yard complex to reach their destination. Likewise, east side residents and workers struggle to access neighborhood service on the west side of the station area. This project is slated to replace a portion of existing parking with a green station plaza that includes stairs and ADA-compliant ramps to provide access to all parts of the station. It will also include installation of bike racks and a bus shelter. Key design integrations in the project will include green spaces, illuminated art installations, and a mural and mosaic panel in the tunnel station connection. Additionally, there will be a new plaza that will offer a community space to residents. A project labor agreement will ensure the creation of good-paying union jobs and workforce development initiatives focused on underrepresented groups will also be utilized, according to USDOT. The estimated total project cost: $26,430,072.
- Birmingham Transportation Capital Investment Plan, city of Birmingham, Ala.: The project will receive a planning award of $800,000 “to advance data-driven transportation recommendations in the nine ‘Imagine Birmingham’ plans and other relevant assessments to mitigate the negative impact of interstates, railroads and major arterial roadways,” USDOT reported. “The Transportation Capital Investment Plan will identify implementation projects that leverage existing corridors to reconnect Birmingham’s historic neighborhoods, thriving urban villages, and commercial areas. When a controversial racial zoning law was struck down in 1950, Birmingham planners used the ensuing construction of interstates to advance a segregationist agenda. This was done by purposefully building the new highways along a route that mirrored the old racial zoning boundaries. The new highway network resulted in a clear physical and psychological delineation between black and white communities—one that continues to this day. The city used census data and other available tools to evaluate the existing issues in the community and the need for the planning study. The need for the project is supported by data about a compelling description of how the existing rail and highway infrastructure present barriers to access and mobility. The city will develop a representative community advisory group to lead the planning study, and to recruit paid community ambassadors.” Estimated total project cost: $1 million.
- Monterey Road Highway to Grand Boulevard Design Study, city of San Jose, Calif.: The project will use the $2 million planning award to help assess the feasibility and conceptual designs for converting Monterey Road from a highway to a boulevard. It will undertake planning, design, conceptual engineering and environmental review to reconstruct the road and intersections as a complete street, prioritizing safety and improving accessibility for individuals who walk, bike or use transit, according to USDOT. The project is expected to include dedicated transit lanes, protected bike lanes and urban greening. “Monterey Road has been an important transportation corridor for hundreds of yeas—in the 1700s it was part of ‘El Camino Real’ (Spanish for ‘The Royal Road’) and later became an established stagecoach route,” USDOT reported. “Ever-expanding development led to Monterey Road as it exists today: a 100’ wide, six lane facility with speeds up to 50 mph, rendering walking or biking along or across the corridor unwelcoming and dangerous for the community that lives alongside it, a population of roughly 84,000, with over 20% of households defined as low-income. From 2019 to March 2022, Monterey Road was the site of 42 fatalities and severe injuries, 357 injuries, and 476 collisions.” Connectivity and mobility restrictions exist for both east-west and north-south travel due to the limited number of crossings over Monterey Road, and as a result of no parallel city streets that run continuously through the project area. Additionally, Monterey Road runs directly adjacent to the Union Pacific line with active freight and passenger trains, and California High Speed Rail service will soon be added. The project area consists of many historically disadvantaged neighborhoods that have been disproportionately impacted and will be included in the transportation decision making process, according to USDOT. Potential project improvements to be considered include dedicated transit lanes, protected bike lanes, urban greening, and reconstructed intersections. Estimated total project cost: $2.5 million.
- SW Rail Yards Planning Project, Region 1 Planning Council (Rockford, Ill.): This project will receive a planning award of $375,031. The funds will be used to study the feasibility of removing and repurposing eligible rail tracks and yards, as well as the configuration of additional rights of way for alternative uses and mixed-use development, according to USDOT. The study is slated to “identify development opportunities around a new passenger rail station along the existing CN tracks. The existing rail lines prohibit extension of the downtown street grid, which not only impacts economic and housing development but also prevents the residential community south of the eligible facilities from having a direct connection to downtown Rockford on the north side,” the Department reported. “Once a booming industrial area with residential housing for its workforce, this portion of Rockford underwent a significant decline in the mid-century as businesses and opportunities moved. The leftover rail yard and accompanying tracks have served as a barrier to those who remain, creating a food desert, causing safety issues, and limiting access to jobs and healthcare.” If constructed, the project would improve access to healthcare, grocery stores, and nearby greenspaces/parks as well as access and mobility within the area. Several letters of support from organizations near the project area indicate broad support and potential partnership, according to USDOT, which noted that the estimated total project cost is $468,789.
- DeFuniak Springs Multi-Modal and Rail Mitigation Planning Project, City of DeFuniak Springs, Fla.: This project will receive a planning award of $741,800 to plan and design one or more pedestrian bridges over the Florida, Gulf, and Atlantic Rail line and construct associated multi-use trails. “These efforts will facilitate pedestrian and bicycle access to the Historic Main Street district in downtown DeFuniak and provide easy access to the many of the commercial, employment and recreational resources that DeFuniak Springs has to offer,” according to USDOT. “The City of DeFuniak Springs clearly described how the DeFuniak Springs community was negatively impacted by transportation infrastructure. The Pensacola & Atlantic Railroad, U.S. 90, and Interstate 10 have severely restricted the mobility and community cohesion of an economically disadvantaged/African American community.” The project would include the Community Redevelopment Authority, and the total cost is estimated at $927,250.
- Wichita’s 21st Street Corridor, city of Wichita, Kans.: This project will use the $1 million planning award to study how to reconnect the 21st Street Corridor, which USDOT says is “a vital portion of the city that is divided by several at-grade railroad crossings and a recessed Interstate 135. Due to frequent at-grade train movements crossing the 21st Street Corridor, residents often wait up to 90 minutes at railroad crossings, leading residents to avoid the connection point and area altogether. These barriers also create a disconnection between two historically and culturally rich communities: the North End, home to Wichita’s predominantly Hispanic community, and North Wichita, home to some of Wichita’s predominantly black communities.” The project is slated to introduce an east-west transit line, sidewalks, bike/pedestrian pathways, solutions for persons with disabilities, and safe accommodation for all users. Improvements to the 21st Street Corridor would help reconnect the East and West End and facilitate access to daily destinations like grocery stores, medical facilities, after-school programs, and Wichita State University. An element of the project is “creative placemaking,” according to USDOT, “celebrating local history and culture through art, green space, and recreational spaces.” Estimated total project cost: $1,250,000.
- Reconnecting Kansas City: Repairing Connections for Kansas City’s Westside Neighborhood, city of Kansas City, Mo.: The project will receive a planning award of $1,058,620 to study how to reconnect Kansas City’s Westside neighborhood with the rest of the city’s commercial and residential centers. The Westside community is separated by Interstate 35 and rail systems, according to USDOT, which reported that the project will “develop a comprehensive plan to increase mobility and connectivity, repair the community, and redress inequities and barriers to opportunity throughout the Westside of Kansas City. Since the early 1900s, the Westside has been home to immigrants from Mexico, Central and Latin America who created a rich and diverse neighborhood that was a mix of housing, restaurants, and businesses. However, in the late 1960s, I-35 was constructed, cutting off connections between the residents and businesses in the Westside from the Central Business District and exacerbating disinvestment. Sixty-one percent of residents in the northern section and 47% of residents in the southern section now live below the poverty level.” USDOT noted that the I-35 viaduct has passed its projected life span and will need to be replaced in the upcoming years. The project proposes changes to the viaduct (structure or underpass), Beardsley Road, and West Pennway, and to improve transit access to address the barrier, according to the Department. Estimated total project cost: $1,323,275.
- Reconnecting a Post I-81 Viaduct Syracuse, city of Syracuse, N.Y.: This project will receive a $500,000 planning award to help study how to “address inequities on the south side of Syracuse created by a raised highway and elevated railroad that inhibit access to jobs, education, healthcare and recreation.” The project will consider the most effective methods to reconnect the project area, with considerations for pedestrian, bicycle and public transportation/Bus Rapid Transit pathways along multiple potential east-west routes across the dividing facilities while supporting community engagement. “In the late 1960s, construction was completed on the elevated Interstate 81 viaduct cutting south to north through the center of Syracuse,” USDOT reported. “To make way for the highway, the vibrant, primarily Black 15th Ward neighborhood was completely razed, demolishing homes and businesses while displacing residents permanently. The project’s planning effort prioritizes the removal of barriers to improve access and mobility to daily destinations and the enhancement of active and shared modes with significant consideration for safe accommodations for all users.” Estimated total project cost: $630,000.
- Critical Connections: Healing Salt Lake City’s East-West Divide, Salt Lake City Corporation, Utah: The project will use a planning award of $1,970,000 to “support planning analysis and prioritization of solutions to Salt Lake City’s transportation infrastructure-related east-west divide that foster connectivity and cohesion,” USDOT reported. “This may take the form of a series of multi-modal bridges or a novel solution that transforms the entire urban landscape, such as a tunnel, train box, greenway deck, or a combination. Salt Lake City is currently divided by a regional north-south transportation corridor that has divided eastwest connectivity. The planning project is the result of prior studies, including Rio Grande Plan, SLC Ped/Bike Plan, and SLC Climate Positive 2040. Beginning in 1870 with transcontinental railroad construction, the Westside neighborhood in Salt Lake City has always been more racially, ethnically, and socio-economically diverse than the city as a whole. While the rail lines were a cause for celebration, they were used to redline and divide the city in the 1940s, with homesteads and farms constructed west of the rails less desirable and often used as a dumping ground for waste. This legacy of limited access to opportunities and socio-economic disparity has led to current conditions, with over a quarter of the Westside’s largely Hispanic population having a poverty rate of 26% with highly limited English proficiency.” According to USDOT, the project application “describes how the existing railroad harms and divides the community, proving a significant barrier to schools, jobs, grocery stores, and other destinations. The planning effort prioritizes the elimination of barriers and is likely to improve access to daily destinations, while demonstrating a strong intention to address equitable mitigation of impacts.” The project is slated to include a Community Advisory Committee. The city is creating a housing trust and, if new land is opened up, affordable housing would be a part of future redevelopment. Additionally, the project intends to incorporate local art installations. Estimated total project cost: $3,740,000.
- Reconnecting Bluefield, West Virginia Dept. of Transportation/Division of Highways, (Bluefield, W.Va.): This project will use the planning award of $1,008,000 to support a planning study and preliminary engineering analysis to develop the Preliminary Plans and Environmental Documentation for the future development of a “T” shaped corridor that would expand and enhance access and transit between the East End, downtown Bluefield, and local amenities, according to USDOT, which noted that “Bluefield, an historic African American community, is hampered by crumbling bridge infrastructure and an active rail yard that quite literally divides the community. The active rail line sees over 19 trains travel thorough the 300-foot wide Norfolk Southern rail yard daily, with the gentrified commercial center on one side, and Bluefield’s historic ‘East End’ African American community on the other … Everyone in Bluefield is impacted by the rail lines, but the residents of the East End fared the worst, as the most recent census placed the population at less than half (9,658) of its peak in 1950 (21,500).” As planned, the corridor would traverse the East End side of the rail yard and from the East End to downtown Bluefield via Cherry Street, creating a “multi-modal street facility that would integrate with centrally located bridge landings on that side, and provide updated sidewalks, bike lanes, landscaping and streetscaping,” the Department said. “Collectively, the investments will rejuvenate and upgrade the ‘Main Street’ district of East End and connect Bluefield State University, a Historically Black University at the East End terminus, with the Bluefield Regional Medical Center at the downtown terminus. The applicant demonstrated how the rail facilities have divided the community since their creation. The isolated neighborhoods became hubs for Black culture, which the applicant intends to incorporate into the economic development created in part by this project.” Estimated total project cost: $1,260,000.