More than a century ago, it was a rail car. Sixty-plus years later, it was a bus. Today, perhaps the greatest example of the longtime relationship between civil rights and equality and transportation is the nation’s highway system, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Wednesday in New Orleans.

The country’s transportation system has become more just than it was in 1892, when Homer Plessy was arrested for boarding a “whites only” railcar in New Orleans, or in 1955, when the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott began, he said.

“The challenge that we have in the 21st century, now that we are less encumbered by a system that legitimates discrimination, is to figure out how we can have a proactive, progressive view of how our infrastructure system brings people together,” said Foxx.

Foxx was in New Orleans on Wednesday to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The landmark legislation made it illegal to discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

“As much as we celebrate the work that was done 50 years ago, there’s another truth, which is that there is still more work to be done,” said Foxx, who is African-American. “It’s an unfortunate truth that even our highways can be divided.”

New Orleans is grappling with what to do about part of its own highway system, the elevated Interstate 10 expressway above Claiborne Avenue. In a 2010 proposal to the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development for a $3 million grant to study ways to revitalize the corridor, the city called the history of the elevated expressway “a tale of environmental and social injustice ... intimately tied to the overall decline of many of New Orleans’ most historically and culturally significant communities.”

Through its Livable Claiborne Communities initiative, the city is exploring scenarios for improving the corridor that include tearing down the expressway or removing some of its exit ramps.

The recent removal of a highway in Columbus, Ohio, has helped to restore a struggling community, Foxx said.

“It is these choices, these projects and projects like them that will help bring people together,” he said.

“As we dream of the infrastructure in the 21st century, let’s dream up infrastructure that is connective tissue, not divisive tissue.”

At the invitation of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Foxx was joined by Xavier University President Norman Francis, former Mayor Moon Landrieu, former Freedom Rider Dodie Smith-Simmons, Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson from the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation for Education, Preservation and Outreach, plus representatives from the Regional Transit Authority and a handful of others at Gallier Hall on Wednesday to talk about the relationship transportation has with civil rights, justice, economic development and inclusion.

“I think the question as a matter of public policy ... is how can we make sure that transportation continues to be a connector?” Mitch Landrieu said. “How can we make sure that it produces equity? How can we make sure that it produces growth and value for all people and not just some?”

Foxx was in New Orleans on the one-year anniversary of his swearing-in as Transportation Department chief. The former mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, replaced Ray LaHood in the position.

The department was in the news this week when Foxx warned that the federal government will begin rationing funds for highway repairs Aug. 1 unless Congress intervenes. In letters sent to the states on Tuesday, the department said the Highway Trust Fund is facing demands far greater than the revenue it receives from federal gasoline taxes.

Beginning next month, unless Congress intervenes, the federal government will no longer make “same day” reimbursements to state governments for major transportation projects and instead will repay them as it collects receipts for gasoline sales, the department wrote in letters to all 50 governors. States lean on the federal government to pick up the tab for the majority of large highway projects.

Foxx referred briefly to the looming financial cliff during Wednesday’s discussion, urging those present to petition Congress to pass the department’s Grow America Act, legislation that he said would direct more funding to local governments for transportation projects.