Pete Buttigieg
U.S. Secretary for Transportation Pete Buttigieg speaks to reporters and other public officials in Washington, D.C., on March 23, 2022. Credit: Noel-Marie Fletcher / Shutterstock

Roads might not seem like an obvious solution to structural inequalities. But for Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, addressing those inequalities requires restoring Black and brown communities torn apart by freeways and highways during the building boom of the mid-20th century.   

Over the last year, Buttigieg has crossed the country visiting cities where the Biden administration is funneling federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act dollars to deck over expressways and convert portions of interstate highways into boulevards to reconnect urban neighborhoods left with concrete scars. 

“I think it is only in American English that we have the expression wrong side of the tracks, which should tell you everything you need to know about how transportation infrastructure — whose purpose is supposed to be to connect — can also serve to divide, often along racial lines,” Buttigieg said in July.  

The infrastructure law has the first-ever dedicated federal funding stream to deal with this problem, Buttigieg noted. He’s taken his message to places including Buffalo, New York, where that funding is transforming the city’s Kensington Expressway with a project that will divert cars via an elevated deck, and will reconnect the original neighborhood below the deck. 

During a July press briefing in Washington, D.C, with members of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Buttigieg fielded a question about what the Biden administration was doing to address the lingering effects of a federal highway system that divided neighborhoods of color.  

His answer: investments in areas that have long not been invested in. 

Buttigieg pointed to Detroit, Pittsburgh and other places where work is planned or underway to restore neighborhoods, not just via decking to create much-needed open space in urban areas, but also by creating pedestrian-friendly zones in cities like Minneapolis, as well as addressing the affordability of electric vehicles and community charging infrastructure. 

“Part of what we mean when we talk about building good things well … is to build good things in a way that creates opportunity where it’s been excluded in the past,” Buttigieg said at the briefing.  

Decisions on where highways and freeways were built had both immediate and lingering effects. Toxic pollution is a big one: Heavily traveled roads exposed residents to leaded gasoline emissions, which settled in the soil in city centers and continue to pollute those neighborhoods today.    

Studies have shown that urban centers — which historically experienced the most traffic congestion — have the highest levels of lead in the soil today due the accumulation of the toxic particles from gasoline, paint and industrial emissions. 

Today, that contaminated lead pollution continues to harm low-income residents and people of color in racially segregated neighborhoods, contributing to ongoing health disparities, particularly among Black residents, according to scientists. 

Last year, with funding from the National Institutes of Health, a team of researchers examined emissions recorded by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency monitoring networks and found that average concentrations of lead in the air are five times higher in racially segregated communities than in well-integrated communities across the United States. 

The study, published in Nature Communications, examined fine air particles and their components, including toxic metals. Regulations that limit emission sources can address the pollution disparities, the researchers concluded.  

In a commentary for GeoHealth published in July, some of the country’s leading soil lead experts, researchers Mark A. S. Laidlaw, Howard W. Mielke and Gabriel M. Filippelli, argued that regulations targeting current emissions don’t go far enough and fail to recognize one of the primary sources exposing residents in these urban areas: reservoirs of toxic lead dust in soils that have been accumulating for the last century

“If you just focus on regulations, you’re not going to be able to stop this five-fold increase compared to non-segregated areas,” Laidlaw, a geologist and environmental scientist based in Australia, said in an interview. “So you’ve got to isolate the lead in the soil and [remediate] it.” 

Laidlaw said that mapping city soil lead, then capping contaminated areas with clean soil, is a proven approach to address this underrecognized problem. 

“Long-standing environmental and socioeconomic [lead] exposure injustices have positioned Black Americans at extreme risk of adverse health consequences,” the commentary he co-wrote notes. 

Addressing the soil lead crisis while reworking highway infrastructure in urban centers is an opportunity for policy makers to tackle two issues at once, Laidlaw said. 

“Anything they could do would be beneficial,” he said. “Unfortunately, what they’ll find is that the high lead levels adjacent to roadways are also located in areas where you have old houses and intersections of networks of transportation.” 

Whether future transportation infrastructure projects address that legacy soil contamination remains to be seen. The U.S. Department of Transportation did not respond to questions about that.

But as work is underway to literally break down the concrete divisions that have contributed to environmental and socioeconomic inequalities, Buttigieg said his broader aim is to ensure equal access to healthy communities on either side of the tracks. 

“When we talk about this legacy, it’s not to make people feel guilty, it’s to do something about it,” he said. 

When it comes to lead, there are definitely steps that can be taken to address it.

In the 1990s, when soil lead expert Howard Mielke conducted a study for Minnesota’s Department of Transportation on lead levels in soil alongside highways, he came to a striking conclusion. Because the agency had added clean soil atop contaminated roadside areas while expanding highways, these major arteries had very little lead in the topsoil.

Mielke’s research has shown that unremediated and highly trafficked freeways and roads, as well as neighborhoods near these thoroughfares, often have extremely high levels of lead. 

The irony is not lost on Mielke that in these neighborhoods, the play areas where young children spend the most time, in their own yards, are far less safe than those Minnesota freeway roadsides. 

“That was just a very strange combination of play areas and backyards with terribly contaminated soils versus areas along freeways with very clean soil that could be played in — except for the fact that it’s a freeway,” said Mielke, an urban geochemistry and health expert who teaches at Tulane University’s School of Medicine in New Orleans. 

Mielke, who has spent a large part of his career investigating the dangers of lead contamination in soil across the country, said that expanding such highway remediation work to address high levels of soil lead in nearby residential neighborhoods would protect children. Childhood lead exposure leads to lifelong impacts on health, including cognitive impairment that affects the ability to learn.        

“It’s what we need to do — bring in clean soil,” he said.

This article first appeared on Center for Public Integrity and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.