Standing under moody monsoon clouds and near an old Tucson bridge Thursday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg touted a $2.2 billion transformation for local roads, highways and transit infrastructure in Arizona and throughout the country.

After a slew of high-profile transportation failures, there’s little disagreement over the disrepair and danger in aging U.S. infrastructure. But some critics question whether ongoing massive investment in a system that prioritizes automobiles is sustainable.

Buttigieg has been vocal about rebuilding in a more equitable and ethical way that will bring marginalized communities together and develop transit systems for the future. His visit to Arizona to celebrate infrastructure investments in Tucson, Phoenix and across the state and nation comes before the midterm elections as the Biden administration works to sway voters in swing states. The funding comes as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed last November, which has been used in thousands of projects in all 50 states.

As a train — emblazoned with an American flag and the number 5929 — rolled by behind her, Tucson Mayor Regina Romero championed a $25 million dollar grant to repair and update the 22nd Street Bridge. She was flanked by Buttigieg and fellow Democrats Sen. Mark Kelly and Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick.

Tucson Mayor Regina Romero speaks at a news conference on Aug. 11, 2022 about the local projects funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Credit: Michael McKisson for Arizona Luminaria

The announcement spotlighted three other grants for Arizona infrastructure, including another $25 million for a bike bridge in Phoenix, a traffic study in Navajo County and road repair in Mohave County.

Arizona is expected to receive nearly $8 billion, with the majority of it going to highway projects.

• $5.3 billion for roads and bridges

• $903 million for public transportation

• $76 million for EV charging

• $348 million for airports

A slate of other competitive infrastructure repair and development grants, including some dedicated specifically to Indigenous groups, will be available in coming months. 

The $25 million grant for the 22nd Street Revitalization Project will make improvements on the one-mile strip from Kino Parkway to Tucson Boulevard, and replace an existing bridge that currently can’t carry large vehicles due to weight restrictions.

Currently, large trucks, buses, school buses, and emergency vehicles are forced to use a detour to bypass the crumbling bridge. The repair project also presents an “opportunity for future rail expansion for the trains that run under the bridge, which will improve the nation’s supply chain infrastructure,” according to a news release. Tucson also plans to build a separate bicycle and pedestrian bridge as part of the project, though there were no specifics about what that would look like.

A train runs under the 22nd Street bridge looking southeast on Aug. 11, 2022. Credit: Michael McKisson for Arizona Luminaria

When the trillion-dollar bill was passed last November, Romero said that it represented a “once in a lifetime opportunity to invest in America’s infrastructure needs.” 

The federal government isn’t the only entity focused on road repair and construction. 

In May, Tucson residents signed Prop. 411, a 10-year extension of a half-cent sales tax to be dedicated to road improvements. The tax would bring in an estimated $740 million dollars in revenue. Romero saw the vote as a sign that “people want to see investment in infrastructure.” 

“One of the greatest responsibilities of our government is investing in public infrastructure,” Romero said. 

The question is what kind of investment.

Not a long-term solution

With the bridge and the trainyard as a backdrop, Buttigieg said that the grants are one piece of the “strongest federal investment in public transit in American history.” Mark Tebeau, an urban historian and professor at Arizona State University, basically agrees with Buttigieg’s vision. But he also sees the current infrastructure plan as “putting a band-aid on a gushing wound.” The overwhelming majority of funds are still going to highways and roads, Tebeau pointed out, which prioritize cars over public transit, bicycles, and pedestrians.

“We need a more dramatic public transportation solution,” Tebeau said. “We need a broader vision that’s less freeway dependent.” 

When the modern U.S. highway system was developed, it was specifically designed to spread cities out, pushing people into the suburbs. But the gutting of downtowns and the daily individual commute set up an unsustainable system. 

Massive highway construction, Tebeau said, “destroyed the lives of countless people, making them dependent on automobiles.” 

Even as residents have long called for a public transportation system to transport people between the state’s two major cities — Phoenix and Tucson — this May Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill sending $400 million to expand I-10 between Casa Grande and Phoenix. 

There was renewed hope for a train linking Tucson and Phoenix after the infrastructure bill was passed, which included $66 billion slated for Amtrak, but there have been no concrete announcements on whether any of that will be focused on Arizona. 

Over the next five years, however, $903 million from the infrastructure bill will go toward public transportation in the state. While some projects have been unveiled, it’s unclear how all funds will be distributed.

Both Tucson and Phoenix are also investing in bikeways and electric vehicle docking stations, among other more environmentally careful initiatives. 

On Friday, Buttigieg will join Representatives Rueben Gallego, D-Ariz., and Greg Stanton, D-Ariz., and Mayor Kate Gallego to discuss the $25 million grant for the City of Phoenix’s Rio Reimagined Third Street Bicycle-Pedestrian Project. 

The money will go toward a new bike and pedestrian bridge to connect the north and south banks of the Rio Salado trail systems, “creating an accessible, safe, and direct crossing between South Phoenix and Downtown,” according to the press release.

But the $25 million dollars slated for the bikeway, just like the 22nd Street Bridge project in Tucson, pales compared to the more than $5 billion to be spent on highways. Tebeau sees the prioritization of car-centric roads as misguided. 

“It’s time to move toward more dramatic solutions that are designed to incentivize cities that are denser, offer multiple transit options (including low-cost or no-cost options), and more richly layered and zoned,” Tebeau said. “It would ask us to move away from freeways and sprawl as the defining feature of how we organize the landscape.”

Racist highways

Buttigieg has called out infrastructure planning for its more pernicious effects: marginalizing and segregating poor, Black and Brown communities. In June, he announced a plan to reconnect neighborhoods racially segregated or inequitably divided by U.S. road projects.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 marked a shift from state-funded highways to federally funded and planned highways. It laid tens of thousands of miles of asphalt and dramatically changed how cities functioned and who lived in them. As UCLA professor Eric Avila said, “Race strongly influenced routing decisions.”

As federally-funded highway construction began, protests, known as Freeway Revolts, hit at least 50 cities. In the end, an estimated million people, at least, were displaced by the flurry of highways that were rolled out.

Lydia Otero

Tucson faced its own racist infrastructure projects. Lydia Otero, Tucson author of In the Shadows of the Freeway, a book about how the construction of I-10 displaced them and their family from the Barrio Kroeger Lane, is wary of new infrastructure projects. 

“History has taught us that each new transportation project implemented in Tucson and Pima County in the past 50 years, even those that appear harmless such as widening a street or corridor have resulted in destroying homes and removing people,” Otero said. 

Tucsonans were mostly opposed to the I-10 freeway in the 1950s and ‘60s but public opinion changed after a major accident when a train crashed into a tanker truck and people started supporting a bypass to keep commercial traffic out of the city, said Demion Clinco, CEO of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation.

Of course it wasn’t just any people whose homes were destroyed. Destructive highway construction took an overwhelming toll on neighborhoods made up predominantly of people of color. Some downtown barrios and much of the town of Marana were demolished.

Tebeau called the way that America’s highways razed, split, and isolated communities a tragedy.

In Phoenix, I-17 and I-10 notoriously cut right through low-income neighborhoods, displacing at least 16,000 people from their homes. That reinforced long-standing policies, including red-lining (deprioritizing investments in non-white parts of the city, among other racist tactics), that segregated the city between white neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color.

But how to address such injustices? As Otero put it: “Any investment in infrastructural development needs to be matched by an equal, or more substantial investment in housing.” 

Romero explained that the $1 billion to redress racial inequities in infrastructure that was announced in June still has to go through a competitive grant process. She emphasized that the city has to make sure some of those funds come directly to Tucson, but speculated it could be another year before any of the money is allocated.

Asked what her priorities would be, Romero said, “We absolutely have projects lined up that we want to apply for,” mentioning possible bridges to connect south Tucson neighborhoods cleaved in two by the highway. 

Tucson Mayor Regina Romero speaks at a news conference on Aug. 11, 2022 about the projects funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg looks on. Credit: Michael McKisson for Arizona Luminaria

“All of the connections from east to west of the freeway need investment in pedestrian and bicycle readiness, from I-19 all the way to Prince Road,” Romero added. “We are so ready to invest in that connectivity for pedestrians and bikes.”

Buttigieg, speaking to Arizona Luminaria in Spanish, said, “Estas inversiones son para todos. Sabemos que las decisiones en el pasado han separado comunidades, especialmente comunidades de color. Ahora reconocemos que lo más importante con la infraestructura es hacer conexiones, no separar.”

Buttigieg added, “We’re not just replacing infrastructure from the 1960s, we’re modernizing the thinking of the 1960s that went into a lot of this construction. When you do see us funding a road or a highway project it often includes, as this one will, a vision for active transportation, making it safer and easier for bicycles and pedestrians. We think that’s got an economic benefit, an equity benefit, and of course an environmental benefit.”

Outside the cities

There were a slate of other projects announced along with Buttigieg’s visit, including a “multimodal planning study” for the southern Navajo County region, but the investment is only in a study, and barely breaks above a quarter million dollars when equitable investment in Indigenous communities is historically long overdue.

Another important but relatively small project is $25 million pumped into the Colorado Indian River Tribes to reconstruct 10 miles of Mohave Road from State Route 95 south to Agnes Wilson Road, which has been plagued by fatal accidents. 

Still, looking at the big picture, Tebeau thinks we need to address the over-reliance on automobiles, and that ongoing investment in roads, as much as they are needed, isn’t enough. 

Otero, thinking back to the initial highway construction in Tucson, described the “unresolved intergenerational trauma that many still carry.” She wants something better for this generation.

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John Washington is an investigative journalist based in Tucson with a focus on immigration and borders, as well as criminal justice and literature. His first book, "The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum...