Why it’s critical to tackle the inequities in transportation infrastructure

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When asked to define infrastructure on a recent Sunday morning political show, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg gave a poignant response:

“Infrastructure is the foundation that makes it possible for Americans to thrive.”

Inherent in the secretary’s answer — and a guiding principle to his leadership at the Department of Transportation — is an acknowledgment that communities without these investments are at a clear disadvantage compared to those with them.

For decades, seemingly benign decisions of where to build a road, or lay railroad track down, or construct a bus stop, have led to results that are anything but benign. While millions of Americans are just one public transit ride away from work, school, medical appointments and social gatherings, millions more are not, because they live in communities where that infrastructure simply doesn’t exist.

Now, as Secretary Buttigieg and the Biden administration attempt to tackle the inequities in our transportation infrastructure head-on, we must be clear about the impact that these investments have both in creating opportunities for some Americans, and in keeping them out of reach of others.

It’s easy to see how investing in public transportation can lead to significant economic growth — in the short-term, these projects create shovel-ready jobs, and in the longer-term, they bolster economic productivity by helping the community stay on the move. In fact, every $1 billion invested in transportation infrastructure yields $5 billion in economic activity over 20 years and nearly 50,000 jobs as well. Given all of this, it’s not surprising that a Harvard University study on upward economic mobility found that transportation is the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty.

But it’s more complicated than that. These investments don’t just create opportunities — they can break them too. The 1956 Interstate Highways Act connected our nation from coast to coast with 41,000 miles of interstate highways, but it did so by paving right over thriving Black, Latino, and immigrant neighborhoods under the guise of “slum removal.” And while that example shows how infrastructure can decimate a community, the lack of it can be just as bad. In many low-income communities, sparse transportation offerings are the largest barrier to accessing quality housing, jobs, and education opportunities. Transit riders in these communities often face overcrowding, delays, limited connection options, reduced services and aging fleets that are more likely to break down. Public transit riders are more likely to be people of color and to have lower incomes than the general population, with 34 percent identifying as black, 27 percent identifying as Hispanic, and just 14 percent identifying as white. So not surprisingly, these same populations are the ones who suffer most when transit options are scarce.

As the World Economic Forum recently pointed out, one of the most important things we can do to bridge our equity gaps is develop better data on our transportation system.

The American Jobs Plan includes significant funding to reconnect communities historically divided by previous transportation decisions, and promote equity in future ones. This is a needed and welcome step. But more must be done to ensure future transportation decisions at all levels, and from all sources of funding, are made with an eye towards these longstanding problems.

That’s why I introduced the Fair Transportation Act of 2021, which reinstates and funds DoT’s Transportation Equity Research Program, which has been dormant for more than a decade. My bill also requires the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to review federal and state distribution of discretionary transportation funds to ensure equity in the decision-making process. And it mandates DoT to produce guidance and best practices so in the future, we won’t be reacting to an inequitable system — we will be proactively preventing it in the first place.

Federal transportation projects can help a community move out of poverty, but a lack of these investments can lock them into it. We’ve all heard phrases about neighborhoods being on the ‘right — or wrong — side of the tracks,’ but a more accurate depiction would focus on whether a community is lucky enough to have tracks at all. This is exactly why Secretary Buttigieg’s focus on equity is so important, and why the Fair Transportation Act deserves support from every single lawmaker. As the secretary said, these investments allow us to thrive — so let’s make sure all of us thrive.

Torres represents California’s 35th District and is a member of the Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee.

Tags Fair Transportation Act of 2021 Infrastructure Pete Buttigieg transportation equity

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