Who gets left out when we talk about highway spending

Detroit resident James Robertson, 56, gained instant fame early this year when the Detroit Free Press published a story about his daily commute to and from his suburban factory job, riding four buses and walking a total of 21 miles round-trip. Robertson was forced to make this commute every day after his car broke down 10 years earlier.

{mosads}After the story broke, outraged readers from across the globe donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Robertson, and even bought him a brand-new car. But perhaps the most astounding part of this story is that Robertson’s story isn’t all that exceptional.

Across the country, people living in high-poverty urban communities of color face a number of systemic barriers that deeply affect their quality of life and ability to prosper — including limited educational opportunities, a scarcity of jobs, inadequate healthcare and food deserts. One of the most basic and sometimes overlooked obstacles for low-income Americans is a lack of access to cost-efficient, effective public transportation. For low-income people who can’t afford to buy a car, access to such public transportation is critical for access to jobs, healthcare, schools, housing and grocery stores.

As lawmakers in Washington applaud new Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) for corralling the House into passing a highway spending bill, I’m reminded of the James Robertsons of the world. After years of temporary, ad-hoc federal funding for transportation projects, how would this bill, which would fund transportation projects for the next six years, impact communities like Robertson’s?

This bill, like the few other watered-down bipartisan pieces of legislation that manage to emerge from our fractured halls of Congress, falls drastically short of the type of transformational reform this country needs. Securing six years of funding is perhaps better than six months, but experts say the amount to be invested is not nearly enough to address our nation’s crumbling transportation infrastructure problem.

With infrastructure improvement, communities of concentrated poverty could also potentially gain access to something else they desperately need: jobs. Construction workers would be needed to build and improve roads, highways, bridges and transit systems; bus drivers and subway operators needed to run them.

But with funds landing primarily in the hands of the states’ Departments of Transportation, rather than local elected officials who understand the needs of their communities, the highway bill will likely do little to target the communities that need transportation infrastructure and jobs the most. While some amendments to the bill seek to provide equal funding for low-income communities, they don’t go nearly far enough.

We are in need of a rewriting of the rules of our economy that accounts for the decades of disinvestment, disenfranchisement and discrimination faced by our nation’s poorest communities of color. We need to intentionally target our nation’s highest poverty communities if we want to create substantive, lasting change.

Across the country, local groups have been taking the matter into their own hands. In St. Louis, social justice organization Gamaliel won a fight earlier this year to hire locally for local transportation projects. In May, leadership from the Washington Interfaith Network in Washington, D.C. helped secure a $90 million green jobs agreement that mandates local hiring and training for infrastructure jobs. In Seattle, OneAmerica has fought for and won a number of transportation-related changes, including lower transit rates for low-income people and expanded bus service, and continues to fight for expanded equity today.

By bringing transportation and infrastructure projects to these communities and hiring locally, we can help revive and repair communities that have been victim to chronic disinvestment. For people living in high-poverty urban communities, reinvestment in their community’s transportation infrastructure would mean safe sidewalks for their children to walk to school on, stable bridges for their daily commute, buses that would allow them to buy fresh food for their families, or an affordable light-rail system to help an aging parent get to her doctor’s appointments.

For James Robertson, ensuring local hiring practices could mean that he wouldn’t have to travel 23 miles outside of his community to find work — because there would be good jobs in his own neighborhood.

Because of charitable donations, Robertson’s life is different now. He has a car, and he has more money in the bank. And because of it, he became a target in his old neighborhood, forcing him seek police protection and ultimately move to a new apartment in the suburbs.

This story’s ending points to what’s left unresolved. Poor communities of color, plagued by decades of disinvestment and structural racism, are still in desperate need of the basics: good jobs with steady incomes and a way to get to work, school, the doctor or the grocery store.

In my vision for the future, where high-poverty communities receive the investment they need, charity wouldn’t be the only way out for the James Robertsons of the world.

Matos is director of immigrant rights and racial justice for the Center for Community Change Action, a national organization that works to build the power and capacity of low-income people. 

Tags highway spending James Robertson Paul Ryan Public transportation

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