Reflections from “The Bus to the Capitol: Promoting Equity in the Next Federal Transportation Bill”

Several of the nation’s leading spokespeople on transportation recently offered their perspectives on the current debates in Washington DC and how to advance an equity agenda for the next surface transportation bill.

Roy Kienitz, Undersecretary of Policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, Wade Henderson, President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, James Corless, Director, Transportation for America, and Radhika Fox, Federal Policy Director at PolicyLink spoke to over 150 people during a webinar held on March 18th, titled “The Bus to the Capitol: Promoting Equity in the Next Federal Transportation Bill”.

To hear their remarks visit our webinar archive. To join our next webinar, click here.

A technical glitch prevented the speakers from fielding the questions posed by participants during the webinar.  Lucky for us, we were able to retrieve the questions and posed them to our speakers.

Below are the questions and the speakers’ responses:

QUESTION: While there is clear indication that federal policy is shifting in favor of investments that promote equity, sustainability, and economic competitiveness, what steps are necessary to ensure that our state DOTs—which control vast sums of federal transportation dollars— more effectively consider appropriate outcomes in their decision-making processes that so profoundly impact our lives and influence our future? We simply can’t continue to define urban transportation needs in terms of highway design and capacity constraints – the only “transportation needs”, from some state DOT perspectives.

RESPONSE FROM JAMES CORLESS: Historically, transportation projects haven’t been subjected to a lot of rigorous cost-benefit analysis, particularly from a broader perspective that balances economic, environmental, and equity goals.  Both the increasing calls for a more performance-based transportation system combined with decreasing revenues – perhaps somewhat ironically – may do more to alter decision-making processes around transportation plans and projects than just about anything else.  The key is whether Congressional lawmakers on both sides of the aisle will agree that asking for a more robust analysis of outcomes for the expenditure of transportation dollars is about promoting accountability more than intruding on local control.

RESPONSE FROM WADE HENDERSON: The decision-making process by the state departments of transportation and metropolitan planning organizations (MPO) does not effectively promote the equity needs of low-income and minority communities.  In addition to language barriers that may prevent minority and low-income communities from participating in the transportation planning process, unequal power in the decision-making process explains at least some of the disparities. Increasing participation of minority and low-income communities in the planning process of state DOTs and local MPOs is particularly important because of the large scale of their projects and the amount of transportation funding they control. Community-based groups that assist transportation agencies should be encouraged to improve outreach processes and be formally recognized on MPO advisory committees and decision-making boards.  In addition, MPOs, local governments, and community-based organizations need funds for data collection and analysis about transportation access to basic needs such as jobs, affordable housing, public education, and health care.

RESPONSE FROM RADHIKA FOX: There is significant evidence that decision making by metropolitan planning organizations and state departments of transportation are not always accountable to meeting outcomes or providing benefits for historically disadvantaged communities.  A critical step for ensuring that state DOTs consider how to achieve more equitable outcomes is the completion of an equity analysis for major transportation projects.  The head of the Federal Transit Administration recently released guidance to State DOTs and transit agencies that instructed them to conduct equity analysis on key activities such as major service changes.

QUESTION: What is future of the Coordinated Plan Requirement for FTA Sec 5310, 5316 & 5317?

RESPONSE FROM ROY KIENITZ: The coordinated human services requirements would continue to remain in force.

QUESTION: What is being done about assessing the social equity implications of high speed rail?

RESPONSE FROM JAMES CORLESS: It’s critical that high speed rail connect population centers and existing urban and suburban centers rather than skirt around the edges of metropolitan areas.  If planned properly, high speed rail can reinvigorate downtowns and draw new riders to local public transportation systems, boosting ridership and thus the cost-effectiveness of local and regional transit.  There should also be some critical analysis developed looking at the more traditional equity questions around who pays and who benefits for high speed rail, specifically around the potential for discounts based on income.  Amtrak already provides a critical long-distance mobility option for the elderly and those on fixed incomes.  There’s no reason new high speed rail systems shouldn’t do the same.

RESPONSE FROM RADHIKA FOX: When thinking about investments in rail, we must ensure it doesn’t leave people behind the same way highways have, and must balance that with investment in other forms of public transit, such as bus systems, and investments that increase the opportunity for walking and biking. It is important to keep in mind, with regard to rail investments, that it will be a missed opportunity for high-speed rail if we don’t pay attention to the communities that are most in need of public transit and the jobs that are associated with the construction, operations, local manufacturing, and maintenance of high speed rail infrastructure.

QUESTION: Given that participation is critical to influencing outcomes for major investment studies, and further that many of such studies are dominated by engineers, technical documents, and otherwise unwieldy or intimidating processes that take years to complete, how can low-to-moderate income families and communities of color be more effective in getting their voices heard and needs recognized? Existing requirements and guidance for outreach to EJ [environmental justice] communities is ineffective, as it is all too often ignored or implemented in a seemingly haphazard manner.

RESPONSE FROM JAMES CORLESS: It’s time to admit that the transportation planning process – from specific projects to long-range regional plans – needs serious overhauling.  Particularly for disadvantaged communities, we too often expect that we can hold a hearing and that people will show up if they’re interested.  If not, then silence must equal consent.  One way to begin turning this paradigm on its head would be to proactively solicit the input, ideas, and priorities of low-income and disadvantaged neighborhoods throughout a region.  The development of such “community-based transportation plans” would be bottom up, but guided by technical experts who could translate community desires into action plans and project concepts.  The idea would be to get important mobility and transportation gaps identified, translated into planning and engineering documents, and then incorporated into official transportation planning documents so that when funds are identified, local projects and programs are “shovel-ready” and can get moving.  A little money could go a long way for this one, and the next federal transportation bill is one place to start.

RESPONSE FROM WADE HENDERSON: When decisions are made about transportation resources and funding, those decisions are often made by those with the resources and the leverage to influence local officials.  Rarely are those decisions made after consulting low-income people who tend to rely heavily on public transportation as their main access to employment, education, or even grocery stores. Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) disproportionately represent suburban interests (because a less dense county has an equal vote with a highly populous urban jurisdiction in a metro area), and their memberships are not representative of metro area demographics. Eighty-eight percent of voting members of the 50 largest MPOs are White. Not surprisingly, this underrepresentation of urban interests affects MPOs’ decisions about transportation investment. One way to eliminate barriers preventing minority and low-income communities from participating in the transportation planning process is to provide resources and incentives to community groups and nonprofit organizations to actively participate in transportation planning.  MPOs partnering with community groups that are more representative of the geographic and racial diversity of the community could increase the participation of people from low- income communities and communities of color.

RESPONSE FROM RADHIKA FOX: Transportation and infrastructure is far too important to leave to transportation professionals. We all need to be engaged.  One of the vehicles for engagement is though Metropolitan Planning Organizations or MPOs, who are responsible for developing short- and long-range transportation plans for communities and regions across the country. Unfortunately, MPOs have not historically been representative of the geographic, economic, or racial composition of the communities they represent. An idea worth exploring for the next transportation bill is to reform MPOs to make them more representative of the geographic and racial diversity of the regions they represent.  Then the needs of low-to-moderate income families and communities of color could have a chance at having better outcomes result from transportation projects.

QUESTION: Do you anticipate that the $30 billion Infrastructure Bank will focus on bike/ped/transit due to the innovation priority?  If so, do you see the Infrastructure Bank as a target from those looking to substantially cut federal spending?

RESPONSE FROM ROY KIENITZ: The Infrastructure Bank is intended to be fully multimodal, so these projects would clearly be eligible.  Whether they are funded would depend on their ability to generate cost effective benefits for the communities they serve.  Based on the experience with the TIGER program so far we believe there is a strong likelihood that projects of this kind would compete well.

QUESTION: How do you view the participation of communities of color and traditionally under-represented groups into the process of establishing the criteria for project selection within the Infrastructure Bank?

RESPONSE FROM ROY KIENITZ: The process for developing these criteria has not yet been spelled out due to the stage we are at. Once an actual bill is under consideration by Congress these questions will begin to be addressed.

QUESTION: What is the relationship between the recently proposed Build Act in the Senate and the President’s proposed Infrastructure Bank?  Are the same types of projects supported by both?

RESPONSE FROM ROY KIENITZ: The two proposals share many common elements and are aimed at meeting similar needs.  The scope of project support for the BUILD Act is somewhat broader than what is envisioned by the administration, but this will be a matter for discussion during the legislative process.

QUESTION: I would like to hear about how the White House and USDOT envision continuing the Sustainable Communities Program as part of the next transportation bill.

RESPONSE FROM ROY KIENITZ: Our transportation reauthorization proposal would establish dedicated “Livability” funding programs at DOT which would continue to work with the other partners in the interagency effort.

QUESTION: Given what we are hearing from the House and the Senate committees with jurisdiction over the next transportation bill, are you able to provide more information by way of timing of the administration’s draft bill?

RESPONSE FROM ROY KIENITZ: When we have more news on this front we will be sure to let you know.

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