U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg decried the Kensington Expressway as a "gash through the community" Friday morning, on a visit to Buffalo promoting a $55 million federal grant to help reconnect East Side neighborhoods torn apart by the highway's construction more than a half century ago.
The grant, announced last month, is the largest "Reconnecting Communities" grant of the 45 dispensed around the country in 2023 to address mostly Black and Brown communities harmed by the placement of federally funded highways in the 1950s and '60s. The money came out of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill championed by President Biden that Congress passed in 2021.
"We see patterns like this across the country, but few are as vivid as the Kensington Expressway," Buttigieg said. "It literally cuts like a gash through this community, and you can see how hard it is to get from one side to the other, except to cross a handful of bridges where you used to have a nationally significant parkway network connecting things."
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Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., and 2020 presidential candidate, was joined by Gov. Kathy Hochul, who initiated the long-discussed project in January 2022, Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, Rep. Brian Higgins and Mayor Byron Brown in a victory lap for one of Buffalo's biggest infrastructure projects.
The transportation secretary met for a roundtable with community members prior to the public event, and praised Restore Our Community Coalition for its persistence in advocating for the project and Western New York lawmakers for making the project a reality.
The Kensington Expressway "played out not overnight but in slow-motion, put in without voice or view from the local community," Buttigieg said to a gathering at the Buffalo Museum of Science, a stone's throw from the expressway. "That is why we are here. And so it's fitting we are here with the members of the local community that actually made this all happen."
"Oh, my goodness, I feel like I have to pinch myself," Stephanie Barber Geter, ROCC's chairwoman, said. "We have two big chunks of money – a billion and $55 million as of today – and we have a road and a community to restore. This is just awesome."
The Route 33 project, in the second year of a federally required environmental review, calls for a nearly milelong tunnel where the highway runs through the East Side. The project calls for an above-ground deck with greenery in an attempt to replicate part of the once-grand Humboldt Parkway that the highway destroyed.
Hochul has said she hopes to have construction begin by the end of 2024.
"You can't ignore the reality that this highway left this community more segregated and more isolated from the social and economic life of the rest of the city," Buttigieg said. "Some of the planners here and elsewhere built them directly through the heart of vibrant communities, sometimes to reinforce segregation, sometimes because they were the path of least resistance, and almost always because Black and low-income neighborhoods didn't have the power to resist or reshape those projects.
"Most of the people who made those decisions aren't around today, and no one here today is responsible for creating that situation in the first place," Buttigieg said. "But all of us are responsible for what we do in our time to repair it, and that is why we are here today."
Hochul also spoke of the harm the highway did to the East Side neighborhoods, and why she acted to remedy what she called a historic wrong.
"Last January, in my very first budget as governor of the State of New York, I had the resources, the knowledge of this community and the passion to right that wrong once and for all," she said.
Hochul said mandated local hiring for the project will ensure 1,500 good-paying jobs for a project she predicted would transform that part of the city.
"This will be one of the hottest properties in all of Western New York, mark my words," Hochul said.
Schumer also echoed the enormity of the project.
"The restoration of communities along the Kensington Expressway is going to be one of the most significant infrastructure projects in Buffalo ever. Ever," Schumer said.
"It's appropriate and maybe a little bit ironic that the expressway is just a few blocks from the Tops supermarket, where 10 people were murdered in a racist attack last year," he said.
"The federal government was responsible for segregating neighborhoods like this, and now the federal government has a responsibility to undo that," he said. "That's what this program does."
Schumer said he will be back to ride his bike along the green-filled deck when the project's completed.
"I'm not a Spandex guy, I don't ride 40 miles per hour, but I love riding my bicycle and I'll be here to do that," he said.
Brown said the needs of the East Side go beyond infrastructure.
"We have to focus on homes, we have to focus on Black businesses, we have to make sure there are Black and Brown workers when over $1 billion is being spent to reconnect the community, and all of these leaders up here have agreed to that," Brown said. "So I'm a happy person today."