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New Federal Committee Will Push for Transportation Equity By Helping DOT Reckon With Its Past

“No one alive today is necessarily responsible for the origins of the [transportation] inequities that we inherited. But everybody who was alive today and in a position of responsibility, is accountable for what we do about it. That's why we're here.” 

Photo: George Kevin Jordan

To create a transportation system that is truly accessible to all, federal transportation leaders must do more to reckon with the harms caused by the racist impact of its past and present policies, advocates told DOT leaders last week.

During the inaugural meeting of the Advisory Committee on Transportation Equity — a 24-person advisory group established by federal transportation officials in May 2022 — Secretary Pete Buttigieg challenged his fellow officials to listen deeply to advocates’ concerns and own the legacy of the department’s mistakes, even if they didn’t personally make them. 

“No one alive today is necessarily responsible for the origins of the [transportation] inequities that we inherited,” he said. “But everybody who was alive today and in a position of responsibility, is accountable for what we do about it. That’s why we’re here.” 

The members of the ACTE were selected from an application pool of over 240 applicants spanning the planning, policy, academia, and transportation sectors, with a goal of providing independent advice and recommendations on issues related to civil rights and transportation equity, according to the committee charter.

Unraveling the policies and practices of the past, though, may not be easy. As demonstrated in research from groups like Smart Growth America, low-income and BIPOC neighborhoods are still experiencing the physical and financial impacts of highways that were slashed through their neighborhoods more than half a century ago, displacing whole communities and stripping them of millions of dollars worth of intergenerational wealth.  

Destiny (Thomas) De Guzman — founder and Chief Executive Officer of Thrivance Group, a firm that works with transportation and land use leaders to help bring justice into public policy, planning, and community development spaces —  said that leaders to revisit these historical harms in order to reimagine what repairing them might look like. And she says they also need to look back even further, to the genocide of Indigenous people across the US and the horrors of chattel slavery.

“We need to consider what these interventions look like from a reparative standpoint,” De Guzman said. “Not reparative as in ‘just repairing what’s broken,’ but reparations, and what that looks like from a land use and transportation planning perspective. … [The government needs to] directly place some of those resources back into the hands of descendants of those atrocities.”

The members of the committee stressed that transportation inequities are still deeply felt across the country today, in ways big and small. According to DOT’s Equity Plan report, the average commute for bus riders is 47 minutes while it’s only 26 minutes for drivers. The country’s lowest-income households also spend about 37 percent of their income on transportation, compared to just 19 percent for middle class income families.

To help correct those disparities, the ACTE will work in tandem with DOT’s 2022 Equity Action Plan and Strategic Plan, which collectively lay out how the department will provide transportation access for all — while also centering underserved and marginalized communities who often either don’t receive resources, or are negatively impacted by past and present transportation decisions. 

That plan focuses on four key areas, which the department hopes to infuse into all the transportation decisions the DOT makes:

  • Wealth creation for underserved businesses to help them secure more DOT contracts; 
  • Building power to ensure communities have a voice during transportation decisions, and enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act legislation before grants are awarded;
  • Interventions to provide assistance throughout the planning, development and grantmaking process, to make sure underserved communities have access to and benefit from transportation investments, and;
  • Expanding access to opportunity through the creation of a cost burden measure that allows DOT to identify, address, and mitigate barriers to transportation.

ACTE members have until June 2023 to provide Buttigieg and DOT with their recommendations.The committee is expected to meet several times over the coming months to craft this report.

For advocates like Jack Nierenberg — Vice President of Passengers United, a grassroots transportation advocacy in the New York tri-state area — those actions can’t come soon enough. Before he attended the ACTE meeting, he was a little skeptical of the committee,  which he worried would be all talk and no action. But he soon changed his mind.

“I’m really glad that a spotlight is really being put on this issue, because for way too long, equity just happens to be thrown in in the process,” Nierenberg said. “It’s not at the forefront of any transit decision at this point.”

The diversity and expertise of the committee members was impressive, but for Nierenberg what really stood out was the committee’s independence.

“I am hopeful that given the level of independence that this committee is supposed to be having, that they’re actually going to be fulfilling that and doing what they need to be doing, regardless of whether it’s for or against a particular project or initiative by the federal government or any agency,” Nierenberg said. “The fact that they can really focus on [equity] and not get caught up in the biases of any particular government agency, or anyone — I think that speaks volumes.”

Editor’s note: The members of the Advisory Committee on Transportation Equity include many mobility justice leaders whose work has been covered or featured by Streetsblog USA. Check some of it out below.

Anthony Foxx, Professor of Practice, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University and former U.S. DOT Secretary

Stephanie Gidigbi-Jenkins:Partner, North Star Strategies; Vice President, Communities First Infrastructure Alliance

Charles T. Brown, Founder, Equitable Cities

Flora Castillo, President, Pivot Strategies

Veronica O. Davis, Deputy Director, Houston Public Works; Director, Transportation and Drainage Operations, City of Houston

Destiny (Thomas) De Guzman, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Thrivance Group 

Priya Sarathy Jones, Deputy Executive Director, Fines and Fees Justice Center

Diana Mendes, Corporate President for Infrastructure and Mobility Equity, HNTB

Roger Millar, Secretary, Washington State Department of Transportation

The post New Federal Committee Will Push for Transportation Equity By Helping DOT Reckon With Its Past appeared first on Streetsblog California.

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