The Capitol Hill room was packed and the energy palpable at yesterday’s launch of the Equity Caucus at Transportation for America. Three members of Congress — Barbara Lee of California, Corrine Brown of Florida and keynote speaker Elijah Cummings of Maryland — joined a diverse crowd of advocates for equity from a variety of backgrounds and organizations to talk about transportation, a “21st Century civil rights issue,” as described by PolicyLink President Judith Bell. (PolicyLink serves as chair of the caucus)
The Equity Caucus was formed to stress transportation’s role as a crucial link to ensuring opportunity for all, and recognizing that the choices made in Washington about what to build and where have an enormous impact on people’s health, employment and quality of life.
Many of the more than 60 of the nation’s leading civil rights, community development, faith-based, labor and transportation organization that are part of the caucus were represented at last night’s event, from groups like SEIU, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.
In his keynote address, Cummings praised the wide-ranging participants in the caucus.
“I’ve often said our diversity isn’t our problem, our diversity is our promise,” he said.
Cummings, who was introduced by two pastors from his Maryland district, singled out access to transportation as a crucial quality of life issue to his Baltimore constituents, and the difference between working and not working for many.
“A lot of people in my district — they could get a job, but they couldn’t get to the job,” Cummings said, adding that transportation is a vital link for all aspects of life. His constituents in Baltimore are “not necessarily trying to get to Disneyworld, they’re just trying to get to the local park.”
Gesturing to a childhood friend who was in the audience, Cummings noted that Baltimore’s bus system was crucial to his and his friend’s own success growing up by allowing them to access a better education, and the bus helped Cummings’ mother get to work and support her family as well. Getting transportation policy right is important, he said, even though most who benefit are people we will never meet.
Tom Woodruff, international executive vice president at SEIU and a leader in the Change to Win coalition, noted that “so many workers when they go to work rely on public transportation.” Woodruff also put equity in a startling context — the fact that United States is the richest nation in the world, but one-fifth of our residents are living in poverty. In addition to helping people get to their jobs, investments in transportation also have the potential to put tens of thousands to work at decent wages and good benefits.
Congresswoman Lee, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said she would push for a transportation bill that promotes livable communities and is a “pathway out of poverty” for millions of Americans,and Florida’s Brown noted flawed arguments that public transit should pay for itself when “no transportation anywhere in the world pays for itself,” including road and highway projects.