The Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town apartment complex is seen on October 19, 2006 in New York City.

The Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town apartment complex is seen on October 19, 2006 in New York City.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has a message for Americans this week and it’s an unusual one for someone in his position. When the country’s urban freeways were constructed, they were often routed through low income, minority neighborhoods. Instead of connecting us to each other, Foxx says many of these highways were intentionally built to separate us. He says it’s a legacy the country has struggled to address and it’s one Foxx hopes to begin to repair. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx joins Diane to discuss helping isolated, poor and minority communities get access to reliable and safe transportation – and a panel of experts react to his proposals.


  • Anthony Foxx U.S. Secretary of Transportation
  • Richard Rothstein Research associate, Economic Policy Institute
  • Sherrilyn Ifill President and director-counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund
  • Robert Puentes Senior fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program, The Brookings Institution.


  • 10:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina. Two interstates ran through his neighborhood effectively cutting off the community. It's a story that's played out in cities across America. It's an issue Foxx is speaking out on. Here to look at the legacy of America's highway infrastructure and new transportation policy proposals, Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution.

  • 10:07:28

    MS. DIANE REHMJoining us from Hartford, Connecticut, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute and joining us from Philadelphia, Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. But first, joining us from San Diego, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. And Secretary Foxx, welcome to you. I know you grew up in North Carolina. Tell us about your neighborhood in Charlotte and how that experience informs your message today.

  • 10:08:09

    MS. DIANE REHMSecretary Foxx? Oh, dear. Secretary Foxx, are you there? I'm afraid we may have lost him. I'll try once again. Secretary Foxx, are you there? I guess now. All right. Let's start with you, Robert Puentes. Talk about the creation of the highway system and what do you, looking back, see as having happened?

  • 10:08:49

    MR. ROBERT PUENTESWell, thank you very much for having me again. The context for this conversation is how we rammed highways through center cities a few generations ago when the idea was to connect America up, connect up metropolitan areas, get farmers out of the mud. There was this big national plan to build out this massive interstate highway system. But we also then directly went through cities and major metropolitan areas and often, to do that, it went through places where there were so-called few barriers, right?

  • 10:09:24

    MR. ROBERT PUENTESAnd so in a lot of cases, those would be areas that were "blighted" or so-called poor neighborhoods and oftentimes, black neighborhoods, neighborhoods that were heavily African-American. We didn't have the same kind of oversight that we do today. We didn't have the same kind of public input process and so this was a very easy, easier to do back then than it is right now and it devastated some of these neighborhoods.

  • 10:09:45

    REHMWhen you say input or oversight, so you're saying that the people who would be affected were not even at the table.

  • 10:09:57

    PUENTESIn fact, a lot of the places here in Washington and places in New York and in Manhattan, places where the highways are actually stopped, actually started these new models for how the public should engage with these massive decision that are made, that really do have tremendous impacts on the long term legacy of these neighborhoods. It's not the way we do it now. It's not perfect, but it's not the way we did it back then.

  • 10:10:21

    REHMRichard Rothstein, was there anything deliberate about the way these highways were constructed and where?

  • 10:10:33

    MR. RICHARD ROTHSTEINYes, there was. The highways were constructed in the way -- can you hear me?

  • 10:10:41

    REHMYeah, absolutely.

  • 10:10:42

    ROTHSTEINOh, okay. The highways were constructed this way as part of an overall federal program to segregate metropolitan areas. So it was not only deliberate in the highways, but the highways have to be seen in the context of other federal policies that were specifically designed to segregate metropolitan areas. For example, the Federal Housing Administration, beginning in the New Deal and shortly after World War II, suburbanized the white population specifically. The Federal Housing Administration gave production loans to mass production builders of suburbs to get the white population out of cities and into suburban areas.

  • 10:11:24

    ROTHSTEINAfrican-Americans were prohibited from moving into these areas and so they became more and more overcrowded in urban areas, not having housing options outside the central city ghettos. Once they were overcrowded by these federal policies, by the prohibition on them moving out into white communities, that then became the excuse for demolishing slums. So the slums were created by public policy, then the housing program, the Bureau of Public Roads, built these highways to demolish, to clear the areas of slums.

  • 10:11:58

    ROTHSTEINIt was actually quite explicit. As you know, much of our legislation is designed by lobbyists and the chief lobbyist behind the federal housing -- federal highway bill, rather, in 1956 the designed and created the interstate highway system was a fellow named Alfred Johnson who was the executive director of the American Association State Highway Officials. And he said later, in reflecting on how he had gotten the interstate highway system built, he said that city officials expressed the view in the mid 1950s, I'm quoting now and I'm sorry I have to do this, but I'm quoting.

  • 10:12:33

    ROTHSTEINHe said, "city officials expressed the view in the mid 1950s that the urban interstates would give them a good opportunity to get rid of the local nigger town."

  • 10:12:41


  • 10:12:42

    ROTHSTEINThat was the design of the federal highway system.

  • 10:12:44


  • 10:12:44

    ROTHSTEINSo this has to be considered in context of a whole series of federal policies to segregate metropolitan areas.

  • 10:12:50

    REHMAll right. And now I do think we have Secretary Foxx with us. So sorry about that connection, Secretary Foxx. Welcome.

  • 10:13:01

    MR. ANTHONY FOXXThank you, Diane. Good to be with you.

  • 10:13:02

    REHMSo glad to have you. Tell us about your own experience in Charlotte, North Carolina, what you saw happening here and how that affects your thinking today.

  • 10:13:17

    FOXXWell, Diane, I grew up Charlotte in a small community in the west side of the city and my grandparents had purchased a home in 1961 and at that time, the community had a network of interconnected streets and then, later, decision makers decided to put two of the busiest interstates on the eastern seaboard right near the area, I85 and I77. And by the time I grew up, those highways were present and so two blocks to the right of the house, there was I85 and two blocks straight ahead was I77.

  • 10:14:02

    FOXXSo I didn't see the horizon as many people can from their front door. I saw fences and freeways.

  • 10:14:11

    REHMSo this was not only in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was happening all over the country. How did this happen, in your view?

  • 10:14:23

    FOXXWell, let's remember that the highway interstate system and program was started in the 1950s. This was prior to things like the voting rights act and so everyone was not at the table and a lot of the early decision-making laid out alignments and designs that ran through low income communities. And as a result of that, we now live with a system that has, in some case, bifurcated neighborhoods, in some cases, put a constraint on the ability of some areas to be as economically healthy and as strong as they possibly can be.

  • 10:15:04

    FOXXSo this is a challenge that we live with to this day. The good news is that we are at a point where a lot of this infrastructure is aging and we'll either have to repair or replace it. And so we need to be thoughtful about how we do that.

  • 10:15:18

    REHMBut the problem is there is no money yet and what money there is, goes through the states. How do we know this won't happen again?

  • 10:15:34

    FOXXWell, I think, first of all, I would say that things have gotten a little better. I think there's been an effort to have a little more robust public input, but it's still not where I would like to see it. I think we've got to do several things. First, federal policy should really look at putting not only more dollars, but putting more dollars into local communities so that, as these decisions are made, there's real money that allows local areas to really have robust discussions about where these facilities should be placed.

  • 10:16:10

    FOXXSecondly, there's a lot of work that's going on in many communities to refashion this infrastructure and we need to have resources dedicated to doing that. The cap in Columbus, Ohio, over I71 is an example of restorative infrastructure. In Rochester, New York, they're burying a freeway that ran through the middle of the downtown. So there are a lot of examples of where people are figuring out they need to redo this stuff, but we need to just be able to scale it.

  • 10:16:42

    FOXXAnd then, finally, I would just say that citizens, everyday citizens, we've got to help get folks really plugged into the public input process and make it meaningful.

  • 10:16:53

    REHMAnd last quick question, you've been transportation secretary since 2013. So why wait until now?

  • 10:17:05

    FOXXOh, well, I haven't waited. We've actually been doing quite a bit since I came into the department and put, you know, putting into our discretionary programs criteria that focus in on opportunity issues. I hired the first chief opportunity officer in the federal government. We are stepping up our Title VI enforcement and changing the guidance, which hasn't been done in 40 years. We've been doing quite a bit. This actually is coming a bit at the tail end of a lot of activity we've already started and the hope is a public conversation will help take it even to the next level.

  • 10:17:40

    REHMI'm so glad. Thank you so much for joining us. Anthony Foxx is U.S. Secretary of Transportation. Short break now, we'll be right back.

  • 10:20:02

    REHMAnd welcome back. You've just heard from U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. And joining us here in the studio, Robert Puentes of The Brookings Institution, Richard Rothstein is at the Economic Policy Institute, Sherrilyn Ifill is president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Sherrilyn Ifill, you've heard what Richard Rothstein said. You've heard what Secretary Foxx said. I am interested in your thoughts. Could Secretary Foxx's ideas have a real impact on people's lives?

  • 10:20:56

    MS. SHERRILYN IFILLWithout question, Diane. And I'm so happy that you're addressing this issue because I think people tend not to notice or to pay attention to issues of transportation and transportation infrastructure as a civil rights issue and it's one of the matters I've been pressing. Because access to jobs, access to mobility, reducing housing segregation, all of these things are deeply dependent on transportation decisions that happen in many ways out of sight and out of mind.

  • 10:21:28

    MS. SHERRILYN IFILLThis is not only a matter for the cities. To be perfectly honest, I first became engaged with this issue on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in the mid-1990s, when there was a plan to build a bypass out to Ocean City adjacent to an African-American community. It turned out it had been the third time in 60 years that this African-American community either had a highway built through it or directly adjacent to it. And when you stand at the intersection of Route 50 and Route 13 out in Salisbury, Md., in Wicomico County, you can look at all sides and see a community that has been literally bifurcated...

  • 10:22:03


  • 10:22:04

    IFILL...cut in half, with churches hanging on one side and residences on another side, in order to built this highway out to the beach. The irony, of course, is that when these highways were being built, African-Americans were not even allowed to actually be at Ocean City except on one prescribed day in September.

  • 10:22:21


  • 10:22:22

    IFILLSo these highways were built for the convenience of whites and to support and invigorate the white middle class. And very often this was done at the expense of African-American communities. And despite Secretary Foxx's efforts -- and I applaud his efforts -- I would have to say that this continues to this day, not just with the placement of highways but also with the withholding of important transportation infrastructure like the Red Line in Baltimore City, which the governor, last summer, from one day to the next, decided would not be constructed.

  • 10:22:57

    IFILLThis was the subway system, the long-planned, 15-year planned subway system that would have connected the African-American community in Baltimore, east to west, to jobs on the outer edges of the city.

  • 10:23:08

    REHMAll right. I want to go back to Richard Rothstein for a moment to talk about the history. Because you have all mentioned that this construction went on during the '50s and as the Civil Rights Movement was getting underway. So there really were efforts to try to undermine the churches where this activity was going on, Richard. Tell us about that.

  • 10:23:42

    ROTHSTEINWell, specifically, there were many efforts to undermine the churches. I think what you're referring to, perhaps, is a plan by the state highway director in Alabama to run the interstate that was built -- being built in Montgomery, Ala., through the home of Ralph Abernathy, who was Martin Luther King's deputy, as well as to destroy the two churches that were involved in the organization of the Montgomery bus boycott. The -- he -- Ralph Abernathy himself wrote to President Kennedy to protest this action. And the response from the Bureau of Public Roads was to tell the state highway director to cool it for six months and let the dust settle and then go ahead with his plan.

  • 10:24:28

    ROTHSTEINAs it turned out, the state highway director was caught in that period skimming funds from the Highway Department and that attracted too much attention to him so the plan never went forward. His design was moved a couple of blocks so that it skirted the churches and saved Ralph Abernathy's home. But this was typical of the way in which highways were used throughout the country.

  • 10:24:49

    ROTHSTEINI'd like to say one other thing about this. Secretary Foxx said that this was all before the Civil Rights Act and he's true -- and that's true. It was before the Civil Rights Act. But that doesn't excuse federal officials. Because these policies were unconstitutional in the 1950s, as they were in the 1940s. It didn't take the Civil Rights Act to prohibit these. They were violating their constitutional obligations under the Fifth, the Fourteenth and even Thirteenth Amendments.

  • 10:25:15

    REHMRobert Puentes, what about the activities of Robert Moses in all of this?

  • 10:25:24

    PUENTESYeah, Robert Moses, the famous highway builder in and around the New York Metro area is responsible for a lot of the infrastructure that's there today. And all of this was framed, as he was trying to do -- putting the sinister stuff aside, the evil things aside for a second -- this is all framed around this issue of mobility. And that dominated the transportation planning and engineering field for a long, long time, which was about moving vehicles as fast as you can, getting people into cities and getting them back out again as fast as possible. And the metrics that we used -- we measure speed, we measure velocity, all these kinds of things.

  • 10:25:55

    PUENTESWhat the secretary is talking about and what's really exciting here is this shift then to accessibility, which Sherril talked about as well. What are we trying to access through this transportation system? Nobody really just wants to move around. That's not really the point of transportation. It's about connecting you to economic opportunity. And what we're trying to understand now, and starting to understand very clearly, is that the way we've built highways and the transportation network in the past has actually not done very -- a very good job in connecting people to economic opportunity, in particular, low-income neighborhoods and low-income households. So...

  • 10:26:27

    REHMAnd, Robert Rothstein, talk about Robert Moses.

  • 10:26:32

    ROTHSTEINWell, Robert Moses, you're right, implemented policies of segregation throughout his career, not only in highways. But one of the things he did with highways was when he built Jones Beach and the Southern State Parkway going out to the beach, he purposely, for racially-explicit reasons -- this, again, was not just an accident -- he purposely built the overpasses over the Southern State Parkway at a low height to make sure that African-Americans who would be traveling to the beach by bus rather than by car couldn't get access to the beach.

  • 10:27:04

    REHMHow do you know that? How do you know that he deliberately did that?

  • 10:27:09

    ROTHSTEINWell, there's a wonderful biography written of Robert Moses by Robert Caro, which goes into detail about the racial attitudes of Moses. It wasn't just with highways. He -- somehow Moses had the idea that African-Americans didn't like cold water. So the swimming -- the public swimming pool near Harlem was kept at a lower temperature than the swimming pools throughout the rest of the city. But this comes from Caro's biography. It was called "The Power Broker." And it's been well documented elsewhere.

  • 10:27:40

    REHMSherrilyn Ifill, do you want to chime in?

  • 10:27:44

    IFILLWell, I want to say that there are all kinds of words and phrases that can cover what ultimately produces the racial disparities that we're talking about. In the case that I refer to on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, it's really an example of how these decisions build on one another. Once you've built one highway through an African-American community, you have undermined that community, you have devalued that community, it then becomes a matter of policy within the state highway system or the federal highway system that, when you plan to build another highway, you want to connect with the highway that you've already built. And so you begin to find that these decisions build on top of one another.

  • 10:28:26


  • 10:28:26

    IFILLOne of the things we did, Diane, is we interviewed every person who was 88 years old or older to try and recreate what the community looked like before the highway was built.

  • 10:28:38


  • 10:28:39

    IFILLBecause the rationale for building it was that the community was a slum. And what we learned was that this was a thriving African-American community that had been destroyed by a highway.

  • 10:28:48

    REHMWow. Robert Puentes, does Secretary Foxx have a real chance of changing this system?

  • 10:28:58

    PUENTESAbsolutely. And I think that he's on the forefront of this. This is happening across the country. And I think in a lot of ways he's reflecting what's going on in cities and metropolitan areas across the country. I think we've recognized the failures of a mobility-first framework and the metrics that we've used just to measure how fast we can move vehicles and the need to connect people to economic opportunity. And so places like Denver, places like Chicago, places like Kansas City, San Francisco, are all at the forefront of doing this.

  • 10:29:26

    PUENTESAnd so what the secretary is trying to do, I think, is to reflect what's going on out in the cities and the metropolitan areas and use his position on the federal level to amplify the need, to start to provide this kind of culture change and then to do what they can with existing federal money, which they have discretion, to start to award particular grants to places that are starting to look at accessibility as the right measure, as opposed to just straight...

  • 10:29:49

    REHMSo, Sherrilyn, do you think you can really convince local officials to spend money on something other than upkeep?

  • 10:30:01

    IFILLWell, the perfect example, Diane, is in Baltimore, where I -- as I was referring to earlier, where this Red Line subway had been planned. You know, Baltimore is regarded as a major American city. But for anyone who's been there, you'll note that it's a major American city without a major transportation system. And every city that started out, you know, getting a transportation system at the same time as Baltimore, including Washington, D.C., has far surpassed it. So this subway system was really essential. The city had already put -- the state had already invested $300 million in the plans for it. And the Department of Transportation, Secretary Foxx, was holding $900 million this summer to begin construction on this Red Line.

  • 10:30:42

    IFILLIt was anticipated that it would produce 10,000 construction jobs, that there would be career training at the predominantly African-American high schools on the west side of Baltimore, which is where Freddie Gray -- the young man who was killed by police last year, which led to the unrest -- where he lived, would be trained so that they could do the construction jobs for the subway. This was going to revitalize the community and was designed to, in some ways, ameliorate what had happened to the west side of Baltimore 30 years ago, when there was a planned highway that destroyed the Harlem Park neighborhood and then was abandoned.

  • 10:31:18

    IFILLAnd so the disparate impact of this on African Americans is very clear and very evident. We filed -- my organization filed a complaint under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the Department of Transportation. We've asked them to look at the governor's decision...

  • 10:31:33


  • 10:31:34

    IFILL...and to determine whether or not that decision can be reversed based on Title VI. This was in one day, Diane, that a single man, the governor, eliminated a project that had been 15 years in the making...

  • 10:31:46


  • 10:31:46

    IFILL...and an over $1 billion investment at that moment in Baltimore City. And for African Americans in Baltimore living on the east and the west side, who need that transportation to be able to get to jobs, they were just swept away in this process.

  • 10:32:00


  • 10:32:02

    ROTHSTEINI think, Diane, that for Secretary Foxx to be successful in this -- or his successor, really, because, as you pointed out, this is at the end of his term -- to be successful in this, there has to be a much broader public understanding of the fact that there's a constitutional obligation to remedy these -- the highway designs and the way in which they interacted with our housing policies. It's not just a matter of good policy. It is good policy, but there's a constitutional obligation because the highways and the cities around them were created in an unconstitutional fashion.

  • 10:32:34

    ROTHSTEINAnd if I can take a moment, if I may, to describe -- let's take Los Angeles, because we've had a lot of examples from border states like Baltimore or Montgomery in Alabama, but Los Angeles. In the 1950s there was a neighborhood in Los Angeles that was a white middle-class neighborhood that wealthy African Americans began to move in to. Ethel Waters, for example, moved to this neighborhood. Another famous African-American actress Hattie McDonald (sp?) moved into the neighborhood. It was called Sugar Hill.

  • 10:33:02

    ROTHSTEINThe first thing that happened was that the neighborhood association in that neighborhood tried to buy them out. The neighborhood association got together and tried to buy out the African-American families who were moving in, offered them more money than they paid to get them out of the neighborhood. When that didn't work, they tried to enforce a legal agreement prohibiting them from living in the neighborhood. And when that didn't work, the city council then decided it would be an African-American neighborhood. It rezoned it for multiple-family housing. It eventually became a slum. And then the Santa Monica Freeway was built to clear that slum...

  • 10:33:34


  • 10:33:34 destroy the neighborhood. So these policies all worked together in an unconstitutional fashion to segregate Los Angeles.

  • 10:33:42

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." So, Robert, how hard would it have been, then, for people to get to jobs with that kind of construction?

  • 10:33:59

    PUENTESWell, the -- I think what's happened recently and since then is -- particularly in the '70 -- 1970s and 1980s, when we decentralized metropolitan areas because we had built out this massive highway system, it facilitated the out-migration of people and jobs from the center city. And so we had population loss in many center cities across the country. And so we had this unending kind of chase towards things like traffic congestion and building out on the suburban fringe. And that spread out jobs and economic opportunities so far, it made it very difficult, I think, for lots of different households, particularly low-income households, to get to the opportunities that were increasingly located far out on the suburban fringe.

  • 10:34:36

    PUENTESNow that we're starting to see concentrated poverty in particular really taking root in many suburbs across the country, we're starting to see just how difficult it is to connect up people to those jobs because of the low-density nature of these places. You can't really build a lot of public transit because these places are low density. It doesn't really work in the same way. So we've got to start to switch this mindset from just the highway building and that is the only way to connect people, and trying to rebuild these communities through things like public transit is one example.

  • 10:35:06

    REHMAll right. I want to go to the phones to Matthew in Buffalo, N.Y. You're on the air.

  • 10:35:15

    MATTHEWHi. Thanks for taking my call.

  • 10:35:16


  • 10:35:17

    MATTHEWThis is a really great subject and I'm glad that it's such a push to, like, rethink how -- putting in the expressways. Because here, in Buffalo, we had a beautiful park system by Frederick Law Olmsted who, in the '50s, they tore out a 2-mile long section of park and put in an expressway that chopped off the east side of the city and pretty much, like, put a little stranglehold around the center of the city, and even through it -- through the Delaware Park. And so now they're ripping out part of the Robert Moseley (sp?) Expressway in Niagara Falls to restore park access to people in Niagara Falls and trying to actually fix the expressway problem they put into Buffalo.

  • 10:36:00

    MATTHEWI'm just kind of curious, like you were talking about it causing racial segregation. I mean, they did that in Buffalo with the...

  • 10:36:06


  • 10:36:06

    MATTHEW...expressways. And...

  • 10:36:07

    REHMRight. Robert, do you want to comment?

  • 10:36:10

    PUENTESI just think this is a really interesting phenomenon that's happening in cities across the country, where the trend seems to be interest in actually taking down a lot of these elevated freeways that did blow through these neighborhoods. It's happening in places like Boston, famously the Big Dig, the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, which was planned to be taken down, the earthquake knocked it down -- but Milwaukee, Long Beach. Austin, Texas, wants to bury I-35.

  • 10:36:32

    PUENTESAnd then, as the caller said, Buffalo, Hartford, Trenton, National, New Haven, Syracuse, lots and lots of examples where there are very real proposals to spend money that would normally be spent to build freeways and actually take them back down to rectify some of the problems we've had in the past. It's a really interesting phenomenon happening now.

  • 10:36:49

    REHMExtraordinary. Robert Puentes is senior fellow for the Metropolitan Policy Program at The Brookings Institution. Also with us, Richard Rothstein, research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, and Sherrilyn Ifill, she's president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. We'll take a short break here. When we come back, more of your calls, your questions. Stay with us.

  • 10:40:01

    REHMAnd welcome back. As we talk about how highways have been built to, in some cases, deliberately segregate communities from one another, creating areas of poverty, blocking off access to jobs and mobility. Here's an email from Katherine, who says, it's about time this is discussed. I grew up in Oak Park, Illinois. They built an interstate smack through the West Side of Chicago, dividing my little historic suburb in half and creating a Northside verses Southside mentality, even amongst the whites. Then the FHA sponsored the White Flight sell off of the historic Austin community on Chicago's Westside.

  • 10:41:02

    REHMNowadays, that's the drug sales capital of Illinois and DOT is planning to widen the interstate to service the far western suburbs in a different county. The beat goes on. Sherrilyn, do you want to talk about that?

  • 10:41:23

    IFILLWell, I love that email, because what she's doing is pulling together all the pieces that I think so very often are behind the veil. You know, last spring, when Baltimore was engaged in this unrest, people were looking at, you know, four, a four block radius in Baltimore. And they wanted to understand what happened here. How did West Baltimore get to be this way? What was Freddie Gray's Baltimore? Why was that CVS burning? But they weren't going to pull the thread off of all the decisions that contributed to that moment.

  • 10:41:53

    IFILLAnd one set of those decisions has to do with transportation policy in Baltimore. It has to do with the isolation of communities in West Baltimore that really have no means of -- the parents have no means to get to the jobs on the outer edges of the city. To go five miles in Baltimore City, on the bus, takes over an hour.

  • 10:42:11


  • 10:42:11

    IFILLIf you get up really early in Baltimore at five in the morning, when it's still dark, and you go out in West Baltimore and you look at the bus stops, you will see women standing on the bus stops in their nursing smocks, waiting for the bus to go to those jobs at Johns Hopkins (unintelligible) on the eastern edge of the city. They're out there at five 'o clock in the morning, even though their shift doesn't start until seven. What does that mean, Diane, for their children who now have to go to school on their own, who maybe didn't have breakfast. Who maybe didn't get their homework finished the night before, because the mom got home late.

  • 10:42:42

    IFILLWe have lots of judgments about who those children are and who their moms are, but we're not there at five in the morning watching what it takes just to get to work in a major American city.

  • 10:42:52


  • 10:42:52

    IFILLAnd not a very big city. And this is all part of it. So, the writer of that email is pulling together the disparate pieces that help explain the cities that we see today, and when we decide, for example, that we're not going to have a subway system in Baltimore, which every other major American city has, we're not going to allow that mother to be able to leave her home at a reasonable hour and make sure her kids are secure. We're making decisions that have collateral consequences through the lives of the parents, that child, the school, the teacher, and all the other issues that we regard as ills, urban ills in our society today.

  • 10:43:27

    REHMAll right, and apparently, in Birmingham, Alabama, that struggle continues. Jonathan, you're on the air.

  • 10:43:37

    JONATHANHey, I just wanted to mention, there's an effort in Birmingham to move Highway 2059, currently which bisects several African-American communities. And I know some non-profit organizations that want to take a stance on it, but are afraid of the Alabama Department of Transportation basically taking their seat at the table on other things, so it's not a stand that people are willing to take.

  • 10:44:08


  • 10:44:09

    JONATHANThey should call me.

  • 10:44:09

    REHMWhat do you say to that? What do you say to that, Robert? What do you say to Jonathan?

  • 10:44:14

    PUENTESWell, I think, I mean, Birmingham's a great example of a place that is starting to rethink their transportation network and it's clear that in many cases, we, you know, the highways have come through and have destroyed these neighborhoods. But it's not all transportation, because while the highways may have destroyed neighborhoods, things like public transit can actually build the neighborhoods. So, it's not just transportation investments, or it's not infrastructure broadly.

  • 10:44:35

    PUENTESYou can think about different types of infrastructure, and so if we're taking down this particular freeway or right sizing it in Birmingham, you can actually think about different kinds of investments that can actually boost the neighborhood, provide additional economic opportunity and additional resources to the people that live there.

  • 10:44:50

    REHMBut Jonathan sounds as though he's afraid to speak out because he will be left out, Richard.

  • 10:45:00

    ROTHSTEINWell, I think this goes back to the misunderstanding that we have of how this all arose. We're just not motivated to do much about it and there's not much public support to do much about it because it's controversial, because it requires changes in how people live. And we don't think it's our fault. We think it's the fault of people who live in these neighborhoods who are too poor. Robert, I admire what you're saying, but I want to correct one thing. You say that the highways were created to facilitate the movement of people out of the cities.

  • 10:45:36

    ROTHSTEINBut that they were created to facilitate the movement only of whites out of the cities. I mentioned before, Levittown. The Long Island Expressway was built to enable whites to move out to the suburbs of Nassau and Suffolk County. But African-Americans prohibited, not because they were too poor. They have the same incomes as the whites who bought homes in Levittown for 7,000 dollars in 1947. They were prohibited from doing so, and so the highways were part of an overall plan to segregate metropolitan areas.

  • 10:46:07

    ROTHSTEINAnd a solution to this problem also has to be an integrated plan as Robert, you were talking about of housing and transportation. That rebuilds these communities on an integrated basis.

  • 10:46:19

    REHMBut I want to ask you, Sherrilyn, what would you say to Jonathan who is striving to be a part of the correctional process, and yet has a certain fear about speaking out?

  • 10:46:37

    IFILLI'm not at all surprised by that observation. I have to say, I would say even in Baltimore, there was hesitation. And part of the reason eludes to what Richard said. It seems so big. People look at the landscape, at the physical landscape and it feels inevitable. And people don't understand, first of all, the history that is a set of decisions that were made and if there were decisions that were made one way, they can be made another way. And so, my organization, the NAACP legal defense and I wish that he would write to us or send us an email.

  • 10:47:10

    IFILLHe can go to our website at We'd be very interested in looking into the issues that he's talking about. But I think people feel disempowered because the physical landscape feels overwhelming and feels inevitable. And I think the history that Richard is eluding to is so important for people to understand that the landscape was created by a set of decisions, many of those decisions made in a period and the deliberate intent to promote the lives of whites and with disregard for African-Americans.

  • 10:47:43

    IFILLAnd that we can make different kinds of decisions today. They will require investment. Robert is absolutely right. It's not just about taking down a highway. It's about infusing infrastructure that actually will provide opportunity for that community.

  • 10:47:57

    REHMAll right, Jonathan, I do hope you will do as Sherrilyn suggests and get in touch with her at the NAACP legal and educational fund. Thanks so much for your call. Richard, here's an email from Richard in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He says, when the interstates were built in the 50s, did they pass through low income or black areas because the lowest cost groups from A to B happen to pass through such areas or were the routes made in order to damage such areas?

  • 10:48:45

    ROTHSTEINI think they were primarily used to damage those areas. You're from Michigan. Let me give you an example from Michigan. Hamtramck, not far from Ann Arbor had a small African-American community in the 1950s. The Hamtramck, the city developed a plan document in which it called for the planned population loss of the city with the eviction of the elimination of the African-American neighborhoods. The federal, the bureau of public roads then proposed an interstate that would lead to a Chrysler plant that was being built in Hamtramck.

  • 10:49:26

    ROTHSTEINThe interstate was designed to run through the African-American neighborhood to destroy it. The urban renewal program then came in from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to -- well, it was not the Housing Department before that. To build the Chrysler plant itself. So the combination of the highway leading to the Chrysler plant and the Chrysler plant itself eliminated the African-American community from Hamtramck. It became an all-white community. It hadn't been before. Some years later, a federal appeals court found that this was done on a deliberate racial basis.

  • 10:50:02

    ROTHSTEINAnd ordered the city of Hamtramck to build housing only for those African-Americans who could still be found, who had been displaced some years before, who had moved back into the Detroit ghetto, and who wanted to move back to Hamtramck. Well, very few of them could be found at that point, so very little housing was built. Hamtramck was segregated by a combination of policies of the Housing Department, of the Federal Housing Department and the Bureau of Public Roads in order to create a segregated community that hadn't existed before.

  • 10:50:32

    REHMAll right, let's go to Jerry in Little Rock, Arkansas. You're on the air.

  • 10:50:39

    JERRYYeah, good morning and thank you for taking my call.

  • 10:50:40


  • 10:50:42

    JERRYIn this beautiful little backwoods state we have here, it seems as though everything your panel is talking about is still occurring. I.E., we have a major thoroughfare that runs through Little Rock, Interstate 40, and then it connects with 30 right there. And we have a terrible congestion problem. And you really can't change the past, even though we all know why these interstates were developed like they were. But now they're talking about expansion of 30 to relieve just terrible congestion at that major point right there.

  • 10:51:15

    JERRYAnd the expansion is going to once again disparately hit the African-American community, who is rising up and saying, hey, what about us? And it seems like the highway commission is not hearing them and really doesn't care. So, I mean, how would your panel resolve something like, all right, we have this major thoroughfare here, it needs to be expanded, it's going to affect it. How do we do this, and I'll take your call off air.

  • 10:51:40

    REHMAll right. Robert.

  • 10:51:41

    PUENTESI'm not going to say there's an easy answer, for sure. These decisions, these policies, these processes are deeply felt and very pervasive. But I would encourage the caller, maybe work with the city and the mayor. I mean, the interesting thing about Secretary Foxx, Secretary Castro over at HUD, these are former mayors of both Charlotte and San Antonio, respectively. And they get this in a very different way. They get, as Richard was saying, this is not just about housing. It's not just about transportation.

  • 10:52:09

    PUENTESBut it's about how all these systems work together. And the state highway departments in some places, particularly in the south, are still operating in a very traditional kind of way. But the cities are starting to recognize there's something else here. I don't know what it's like in Little Rock. Maybe the mayor can be helpful. Maybe from the bottoms up, you can try to do different kinds of problem solving and change the traditional model to something that actually works for the 21st century.

  • 10:52:30

    REHMSherrilyn, it sounds as though you're going to have several new clients.

  • 10:52:36

    IFILLWell, I think this is the reason, Diane, why I think it's so important to focus on what the Secretary is trying to do and federal transportation policy. No major highway gets built in this country without federal dollars. So, on one hand, you want to focus on the state and local officials and influencing them, but on the other hand, if you want to have maximum impact, that is the impact that happens across the country, you really have to engage the Department of Transportation. Because they are providing significant funds to all of these projects.

  • 10:53:06

    IFILLI'd really like to see the Secretary have a kind of national town hall where we can begin to talk about reimagining the American landscape and the kinds of investments that we make in the American landscape. Because to try to do these things is like whack a mole. You're hearing it just, you know, on your call today.

  • 10:53:21

    REHMIndeed. Yeah.

  • 10:53:23

    IFILLWe need federal policy that thinks differently, that encourages state actors to think differently about how we deal with infrastructure and transportation. And how we revitalize and strengthen communities, particularly minority communities.

  • 10:53:34

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And now, to Detroit, Michigan. Whitney, you're on the air.

  • 10:53:45

    WHITNEYHi there. Yeah, I think this is a fantastic conversation. I grew up in suburban Detroit and I'm a college professor now. And my artwork, I'm an artist, all deals with Detroit history and its sort of decline over the last 60, 70 years. And this issue is really a huge one at the heart of it. A lot of the things I was finding about, some of the struggles of the African-American community there related to the highway system, that decimated African-American neighborhoods, moved whites and jobs out to the suburbs.

  • 10:54:24

    WHITNEYWhat I think's a little interesting now, though, is there's this huge push to revitalize Detroit. And there's been a lot of new construction, new businesses moving back into the city around these neighborhoods, or around these interstates that were constructed. But it does seem to be like a lot of the jobs and businesses in are tailored to upper class, young white people who are moving in. So, it's sort of interesting to see how we're seeing these neighborhoods revitalized. This effort tried to be corrective, but in a way, it's still problematic.

  • 10:54:57


  • 10:54:58

    PUENTESIt's certainly still problematic. I mean, Detroit just famously, recently, they didn't have a regional transportation authority until very recently. I mean, think about all these things we've talked about here today. People are in the suburbs, they're working in the city. To think about transport in these silent ways is untenable. But they're starting to think about it differently as the caller was saying. They're building a rail line in downtown Detroit, not to solve traffic congestion or any of these traditional measures.

  • 10:55:21

    PUENTESIt's thought about as an investment that's supposed to increase economic development and economic opportunity in that state. So thinking differently about transport and not just moving people, but as a way to build these communities.

  • 10:55:31

    REHMBut there's also talk about looking at Uber and Lyft for paratransit. Can you talk about that briefly?

  • 10:55:42

    PUENTESSure, this is -- we're going through a very dynamic time of the application of technology to the transportation system, whether it's the two companies you mentioned, autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles, things are changing, Bike Share, all these things are changing very dramatically. So, at this time that we're thinking about the purpose of the system is also coming at the time we have all these new technologies, all these new actors, particularly private sector actors. But we've got to identify, what do we want the system to do?

  • 10:56:07

    PUENTESWhat are the outcomes of the system if we can get to the focus on accessibility and connecting people to economic opportunity as the endgame, there's lots of different ways we can do that. Public, private, philanthropic, everything in between. But until we change the mindset and move out of this 1950s style theory for what transport's supposed to do, we're still going to get stuck making the same bad decisions over and over again.

  • 10:56:29

    REHMDo you really think there is going to be the money to do what needs to be done?

  • 10:56:37

    PUENTESYes. And I think that it may not be led by the federal government. The federal government just passed a multi-year transportation bill last year, which is a good thing. We have some assurances, but it's not any more money. It's not a whole bunch of new reforms. A lot of the new money, a lot of the new resources are coming from the metropolitan and the local level and also some states.

  • 10:56:55

    REHMAll right. Most interesting discussion. Robert Puentes of the The Brookings Institution. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute. And Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Thank you all so very much.

  • 10:57:19

    PUENTESThank you.

  • 10:57:20

    IFILLThank you, Diane.

  • 10:57:21

    REHMAnd thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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