Summary and Analysis of the GROW AMERICA Act

Prepared by PolicyLink[1]

May 2014

Summary of the legislation

The Generating Renewal, Opportunity, and Work with Accelerated Mobility, Efficiency, and Rebuilding of Infrastructure and Communities throughout America Act (or GROW AMERICA Act) is a $302 billion, four-year surface transportation reauthorization proposal. It was submitted to Congress by the Obama Administration in April 2014. The legislation provides formula and discretionary funding for construction and maintenance of highways, roads, bridges, transit, as well as bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. The bill would increase total investment in such projects by nearly 40 percent over current spending levels. For public transportation investment, the bill features an increase of nearly 70 percent, above current spending, roughly $72 billion over 4 years. In addition, it includes a focus on increased access to “ladders of opportunity” through investments in projects that connect people to centers of employment, education, and critical services.482140897_medium

Key equity-focused provisions of the legislation

As a leader in the movement to build more equitable transportation policy, PolicyLink is deeply invested in ensuring that our nation’s surface transportation policy contains provisions that will advance economic and social equity and expand opportunity for all—particularly low-income people, communities of color, and other disadvantaged groups. The following goals are core to an equitable transportation agenda for America[2]:

  1. Expand access to transportation jobs for low-income people, women, people with disabilities, and communities of color.
  2. Foster equitable investment in public transportation, bicycling, and pedestrian projects.
  3. Leverage data collection, performance measures, and interagency collaboration to ensure transportation projects benefit all.

The GROW AMERICA Act includes several provisions that help to advance those goals, as described below.

1.       Expand access to transportation jobs for low-income people, women, people with disabilities, and communities of color.

While transportation represents a significant sector of our workforce, women, communities of color, low-income people, and people with disabilities are significantly under-represented in the ranks of transportation sector employment. At the same time, transportation workforce training needs are significant. For example, during the next 10 years, the transit industry will need to hire and re-train more than three-fourths of the current workforce.[3] Federal transportation investment should create conditions for all to participate and prosper in the economy. The following provisions in the GROW AMERICA Act move toward that objective:

  • Targeted hiring on transportation projects. GROW AMERICA would allow for the awarding of federally-funded highway or transit contracts[4], partially on the basis of the extent to which the contractor guarantees that a portion of work hours would be performed by workers from low- and moderate- income households living in communities nearby the project, particularly where the unemployment rate exceeds the national rate. This would provide an important tool for communities that are struggling with high rates of unemployment among workers of color and low-income workers. Such a tool can be used to leverage transportation investments to employ these workers in quality, good-wage jobs in the transportation sector, including construction, operations, maintenance, and repair.
  • Federal collaborations on workforce development. The legislation allows for the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and the U.S. Department of Labor to make grants for public transportation training programs that increase the number of women, people of color, and people with disabilities in the public transportation sector.[5] Such a collaboration would ensure that these workers will have access to programs where they can build the skills necessary to secure good-wage employment in the public transportation sector.
  • Incentives and demonstration programs to implement workforce training. Under this legislation, the Secretary of USDOT would match a state’s allocation of transportation workforce training dollars at twice the amount of the state allocation.[6] In addition, the Secretary may provide funding for up to 20 states to demonstrate success in placing women, people of color, and other disadvantaged groups in stable transportation jobs. This would incentivize states to create and/or sustain workforce training activities that women and workers of color need to get into the pipeline of quality transportation jobs.
  • Workforce training funds. GROW AMERICA maintains the provision that allows states to utilize 0.5% of federal highway dollars for workforce development activities[7] to implement transportation workforce development activities, such as apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships, with a particular focus on women, people of color, and low-income individuals.
  • New state-level coordination activities. The legislation requires state departments of transportation (DOTs) that participate in the USDOT workforce development program[8] to develop a workforce plan that identifies the existing workforce needs and the under-representation of women and workers of color, and to offer strategies for greater inclusion of those workers. In addition, state DOTs must establish a “workforce development compact” with the state workforce investment board. This would empower states to take actions to foster greater diversity among our nation’s transportation workforce.

2.       Foster equitable investment in public transportation, bicycling, and pedestrian projects.

In too many communities, transportation options are unaffordable, unreliable, or nonexistent. This is particularly the case in low‐income neighborhoods and communities of color. According to the U.S. Department of Treasury, transportation expenses for households in the bottom 90 percent income bracket are twice that of those in the top 10 percent income bracket. Investments in bicycling, pedestrian, and public transportation infrastructure hold great promise for promoting economic prosperity and expanding opportunity for all. The following provisions in the GROW AMERICA Act move toward that objective:   

  • National goal on connecting to opportunity. GROW AMERICA allows the Secretary of Transportation to establish a goal[9] of ensuring that the transportation system connects people to economic opportunities, with a particular focus on disadvantaged groups. Setting this national goal could have a ripple effect at the community level, empowering local transportation officials to prioritize the needs of struggling families and empowering equity advocates engaged in shaping local and regional transportation plans to hold their officials accountable to that goal.
  • Connection to opportunity pilot program. The legislation allows the Secretary to select ten regions[10] that will identify the location of disadvantaged populations in the region and the physical and economic barriers that keep these populations disconnected from economic opportunity. It also allows the Secretary to develop performance measures that will address these challenges. Up to $9 million is available over 3 years for these activities. This pilot program could be an excellent resource for advocates seeking to realize more equitable outcomes from local and regional transportation plans and projects.
  • Funding for infrastructure investment programs. GROW AMERICA allocates $5 billion in funding over 4 years for discretionary grants to build projects that include roads, transit, and bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure.[11] These grants are similar to the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants that were initiated under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The legislation also includes a $2 billion discretionary grant program for bus rapid transit projects in communities that have seen “moderate to significant” growth between 2000 and 2010.[12] These programs could be strengthened to ensure equitable outcomes by building in incentives for projects that improve the mobility of transit-dependent populations and preserve or expand affordable housing, as is the case with the New Starts capital grant program guidelines.

3.       Leverage data collection, performance measures, and interagency collaboration to ensure transportation projects benefit all.

Federally-funded transportation projects should help to erase barriers to economic inclusion for all. A project’s performance should be measured by the following outcomes: enhanced mobility for people and goods; reduced household transportation and housing costs; access to jobs for those without vehicles; and improved health and safety for bicyclists and pedestrians. In addition, performance measures associated with these outcomes should be developed through a meaningful community engagement process in order to foster greater accountability and transparency. The following provisions in the GROW AMERICA Act move toward that objective:

  • Funding for regional planning. GROW America authorizes a discretionary grant program that incorporates public transportation, bicycle, and pedestrian projects. It also provides that up to 10% of those funds can be used for planning activities that coordinate transportation, housing, economic competitiveness, storm water, and climate change impacts.[13] This could be strengthened to ensure equitable outcomes by requiring would-be grantees to describe how they will engaged traditionally-marginalized communities and by setting aside a portion of the project budget for community engagement activities, as is the practice of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through their Sustainable Communities Initiative grants.
  • Community engagement. The legislation strengthens the existing language regarding community engagement to require that transportation decision-makers offer opportunities for the public to provide input on plans early in the plan development process.[14] Historically, communities of color and low-income communities have been excluded from local and regional transportation decision-making processes. This change provides additional standing for equity advocates to be engaged in these processes.
  • Certification for regional and state agencies. GROW AMERICA continues the requirement that Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) must be certified by the USDOT, as a condition of receiving federal transportation funding. It also creates a new requirement that state DOTs receive certification from USDOT.[15] This establishes a framework for public accountability for state DOTs and MPOs. However, to ensure equitable outcomes, this provision should be strengthened to require USDOT to develop an assessment of how states and MPOs are faring with regard to aligning their priorities and projects with the provisions of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Executive Order on Environmental Justice, and the Fair Housing Act.[16]
  • Research and data collection. The legislation creates a program to collect and maintain national datasets about travel behavior that can be used by state DOTs, MPOs, and other agencies in their decision-making.[17] To ensure that such a program fosters equitable outcomes, it will be critical for USDOT ensure that travel behavior can be disaggregated by demographic categories such as race/ethnicity and income. Moreover, such data collection and analysis efforts should be coordinated with other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, that are building datasets that could have an impact on transportation decision-making.

Conclusion

The Obama Administration’s GROW AMERICA Act contains key elements of an equitable transportation agenda, for which PolicyLink and our allies have been advocating. It represents a strong starting point for the development of a new long-term surface transportation policy for this nation.


[1] PolicyLink is a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity by Lifting Up What Works®. This analysis was prepared by Anita Hairston (anita@policylink.org) and Melissa Wells (mwells@policylink.org).

[2] These goals are consistent with those of the Transportation Equity Caucus, of which PolicyLink is a co-chair. For more information, please see: www.equitycaucus.org.

[3] According to data from the Transportation Learning Center, which tracks worker demand due to expected transit system expansion and worker retirements.

[4] The local and targeted hire provisions for highways contracts are described in Sections 2301 of the legislation. The local and targeted hire provisions for transit contracts are described in Sections 3007 of the legislation.

[5] This provision is described in Section 3005 of the legislation.

[6] This provision is described in Section 1208 of the legislation.

[7] This provision is described in Section 1208 of the legislation.

[8] The USDOT workforce development program is described in Section 1208 of the legislation.

[9] The goal is described in Section 1207 of the legislation.

[10] The pilot program is described in Section 1208 of the legislation.

[11] These provisions are described in Section 1401 of the legislation.

[12] This provision is described in Section 3011 of the legislation.

[13] This provision is described in Section 1401 of the legislation.

[14] This provision is described in Section 1206 of the legislation.

[15] This provision is described in section 1204 of the legislation.

[16] This recommendation is consistent with the provisions of HR 2019, Transportation Opportunity and Accountability Act of 2011.

[17] This provision is described in Section 2102 of the legislation.

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