Following a year of tireless advocacy for federal aid and support for hard-hit New York state amidst the COVID pandemic, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand today brought Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to visit I-81 in Syracuse where together they pushed for the Reconnecting Communities Act and to make permanent an expansion of the local hire pilot program as part of the American Jobs Plan, which would help fund the I-81 transformation project while supporting local workers and revitalizing Syracuse.
“Highways like Syracuse’s I-81 have too often been built through low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, displacing residents, dividing cities, increasing pollution, and limiting economic opportunities in impacted neighborhoods,” said Senator Schumer. “After a long and thorough outreach process by NYSDOT, strong community consensus chose this approach of replacing I-81, which we are pleased to support by bringing Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to Syracuse. Secretary Buttigieg saw for himself today how the community plan to remove a hulking, physical barrier to mobility and opportunity for impacted communities could transform the area and how with federal funding, I-81 can revitalize downtown Syracuse and connect local workers to good-paying jobs.”
“When the I-81 viaduct was built, it divided the 15th Ward, a close-knit black community, and caused increased traffic levels, dangerous levels of pollution and the shuttering of local businesses. Similar stories played out in communities of color across New York and the country—highways cut through cities, destroyed neighborhoods and displaced more than a million people,” said Senator Gillibrand. “Now, we have the chance the help right the wrongs of the past. We are honored to host Transportation Secretary Buttigieg in Syracuse to share with him the community grid plan for the I-81 viaduct, which will revitalize this community, boost the economy and create local jobs right here in Syracuse, and importantly, help lay the foundation for a brighter, more equitable future.”
The infrastructure bill that is part of the American Jobs Plan includes the Reconnecting Communities Act, a trailblazing initiative that would provide federal investment in construction, planning, and community engagement to expand economic opportunity in New York and across the country by reconnecting and revitalizing areas that were harmed by the disruptive construction of highways through neighborhoods. The senators explained that while highways like I-81 were instrumental to the connectivity of the country, they also upended many communities, especially low-income areas and communities of color, displacing residents, hurting local businesses, and impacting quality of life across neighborhoods. Schumer and Gillibrand said it is long past due for strong federal investment into the project to replace I-81, which will reinvigorate communities that have been negatively impacted by the presence of the highway.
Specifically, the American Jobs Plan calls for $25 billion for the Reconnecting Communities Act and other related transportation investments in marginalized communities and workers. The Reconnecting Communities Act would provide federal funds for three categories of grants:
- Community Engagement, Education, and Capacity Building Grants: These grants would fund efforts to educate community members, build community capacity, identify local needs, form community boards, and engage community members in transportation planning. Funds would expand the ability of community members to participate in transportation and economic development decision-making to ensure investments address community needs. Local and Tribal governments, MPOs, and nonprofit organizations would be eligible recipients of community engagement, education, and capacity building grants.
- Planning and Feasibility Grants: These grants would fund state and local planning activities to design projects and study traffic, access, and equity impacts, assess the project feasibility, conduct public engagement and environmental review, and establish a community land trust to develop real estate created by the project. State, local, Tribal governments, MPOs, and nonprofit organizations would be eligible recipients of planning and feasibility grants.
- Capital Construction Grants: These grants would fund construction activities to remove or retrofit an infrastructural barrier in a way that enhances community connectivity, including by capping or replacing it with an at-grade roadway; improving connectivity across a barrier; replacing the facility with a new use like a public park or trail; and other projects that would address the mobility needs of the community. Grants would go to the owner of the infrastructure asset, with whom State, local, Tribal government, MPOs, and nonprofit organizations could partner to be eligible recipients of capital construction grants.
Recently, the senators also successfully included a permanent expansion of local hire or other geographic or economic hiring preferences for construction jobs created by projects funded by the U.S. department of Transportation in the Surface Transportation Investment Act, which passed out of the Commerce Committee with a bipartisan vote of 25-3. This provision also includes support for the federal government, states, localities, labor, and community organizations to work together to offer training through pre-apprenticeship and registered apprenticeship programs to expand access to new job opportunities for local residents, with a focus on connecting disadvantaged and underserved populations to high-quality construction jobs.
Schumer and Gillibrand have been vocal advocates of the need for local hire and other targeted hiring programs as part of federally-funded construction. Last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) heeded the senators’ calls to implement a local hire pilot program for highway projects. The provision passed out of the Commerce Committee would provide the DOT with the authority to turn the local hire pilot into a permanent authority across all DOT programs, not just the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration.
The senators explained that on March 31st, the Biden Administration unveiled the American Jobs Plan, which calls for ‘reimagining and rebuilding’ a new economy. The Plan included a direct mention of Syracuse’s I-81 as one example of a project that would aim to reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments and increase opportunity, including through the use of local hire jobs programs, advance racial equity and environmental justice, and promote affordable access.
The senators led the introduction of the Reconnecting Communities Act in April. Local hire and federal resources to rebuild local communities were also central provisions of the Economic Justice Act, legislation that Schumer and Gillibrand introduced last year to invest more than $435 billion to address systemic racism and underinvestment in communities of color. Additionally, Senator Gillibrand previously introduced in 2019 the Build Local, Hire Local Act, legislation that makes bold reforms to federal infrastructure programs, creates good-paying jobs, and works to right the wrongs of decades of disinvestment and exclusionary federal policies that have cut off communities of color and marginalized populations from opportunity in urban and rural areas alike.