Definition of “Equity” Elusive at Senate Hearing

The buzzword “equity” is all over President Biden’s American Jobs Plan, used in that context to refer to fair transportation outcomes across communities of different races and socioeconomic status. But the word also has other meanings, particularly in surface transportation funding (the word “equity” was the E-word in the title of the landmark 1998 “TEA21” surface transportation law 23 years ago, when the word was used mostly to refer to fairness in overall funding totals and to how highway money was split between states). A Senate hearing this week demonstrated how the word means different things to different Senators.

The hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works’ Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure this week on different equity concerns in American transportation infrastructure, including equity of federal funding for infrastructure to concerns of transportation access for indigenous nations, those with disabilities, and all road users, and how this inequality of mobility options has larger effects on social mobility.

Witnesses were:

  • Toks Omishakin, Director, California Department of Transportation (Caltrans)
  • Veronica Davis, Director, Transportation and Drainage Operations, City of Houston
  • Bill Panos, Director, North Dakota Department of Transportation
  • Steven Polzin Ph.D., former head of the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida

In his opening statement, chair Ben Cardin (D-MD) touched on the various types of inequalities that affect minority and low-income communities, in particular the effects of urban renewal programs of the mid-20th century and how these communities today disproportionally feel the impacts of climate change and pollution.

Ranking Member Kevin Cramer (R-ND) chose to focus on equity in the sense of distributing federal infrastructure funding, arguing that formula funding is the most equitable allocation method. This is in rebuttal to EPW chairman Tom Carper’s (D-DE) proposed S.1202, colloquially called the Reconnecting Communities Act, which use federal dollars to tear down existing highways and which, like the 116th’s H.R.2, the Moving Forward Act, would limit the highways that could be built, possibly resulting in detrimental mobility outcomes for those in rural areas.

Senators asked the majority of questions to Panos and Omishakin, with Polzin answering a few questions and Davis being absent for questioning.

Some Senators cited interesting statistics in their effort to highlight social inequity in transportation. Cardin raised the fact that minority and low-income communities live in neighborhoods that are about 5-10 degrees hotter than other parts of the city. When the Chicago Transit Authority leadership told Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) that they planned on becoming fully wheelchair accessible in 20 years, she told of how disheartened she was that handicapped accessibility would come a half-century after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Sen. Mike Kelly (D-AZ) spoke of the poor state of tribal infrastructure, as 2/3 of roads on tribal lands are unpaved, dirt, or gravel, resulting in unsafe walking conditions, increase school bus and car repairs, and increase car crashed. Omishakin brought up that California alone accounts for about 3,700 transportation deaths every year, averaging 10 fatalities a day, with nearly 3 of these being pedestrians and bikers.

The following were recurring themes from the hearing:

Equity for state funding allocation: formula funding versus discretionary grants

In general, Republican members supported a continuation of formula-based transportation funding similar to the status quo, while Democrats supported more of a mix of discretionary and formula funding, with some like Carper admitting to the necessity of formula funding while also pushing his S.1202 discretionary grant idea.

Panos argued that strong formula funding helps states decide what is best. It is a sure source of annual funding which helps states to plan for future investments, and it offers choice and flexibility that state DOTs do not have with discretionary funding. It can be used for a variety of investments such as resiliency planning, multimodal initiatives, increasing bicycle and pedestrian safety, investing in tribal infrastructure and ADA programs in addition to interstate building and maintenance.

Speaking of discretionary programs, North Dakota is one of the only states to not yet get an INFRA grant. Because of North Dakota’s population size relative to its gigantic interstate system, Panos very much prefers formula funding. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) expressed his concern that no projects in the Peace Garden State would be eligible for the grants in Carper’s Reconnecting Communities Act.

Democratic Senators argued that discretionary grants, on the other hand, allow federal policymakers to have more say in funding specific projects. Carper argued that Congress must act to correct these wrongs of mid-20th century highway planning that intentionally destroyed minority and low-income communities (hence S. 1202).

While Omishakin through CalTrans has long used federal formula funding, he has also taken advantage of competitive grant program and has been successful at attaining discretionary grants. Dr. Polzin also argued that discretionary funds are a way for local entities to have more control over infrastructure projects, like in the INFRA and TIGER grant programs.

Members stated that while lesser-populated rural states do have some pedestrian-oriented safe streets initiatives, most of their infrastructure investments will be in building and maintaining roads. Formula funding works well for this model and gives rural states a guaranteed share of the HTF. However, discretionary grants are more focused. While states like California under Omishakin have the resources (and infrastructure needs) to apply for these grants, representatives from rural states worry they will be unsuccessful in applying.

Tribal infrastructure equity

Sen.Kelly emphasized the need to invest in tribal roads due to their poor condition. This was echoed by Panos, who noted the enlarging effect of tribal infrastructure investment, where little things like adding gravel to roads, adding stop signs, and improving pedestrian paths make a big difference in access and safety outcomes.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) also spoke about infrastructure’s effects on Alaska’s Native American communities. He argued that because environmental groups from lower 48 protest building roads and increasing development in Alaska, and this hurts mobility and quality of life for Indigenous peoples. This general idea was echoed by Dr. Polzin, who believes that if these initiatives are offsetting mobility opportunities, it will have other consequences on quality of life, as mobility is often needed to bring higher quality of life and greater economic mobility.

Other notable points

Sen. Duckworth argued that another area of underinvestment is infrastructure for individuals with disabilities. Most transportation systems were built before the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and still many are not handicapped accessible today. Sen. Duckworth argues that we must act now and cannot delay making stations and platforms accessible. Similarly, Ms. Davis pointed out in her opening remarks that decades of inequitable transport planning has led to worse health outcomes, such as diabetes, obesity, and cancer, that disproportionately affect low-income and minority communities in urban areas.

Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA) argued for an investment strategy that focuses on minority & women-owned businesses in transportation, stating that we must increase the National Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) Program so these businesses can be successful in bidding in larger infrastructure projects.

Chairman Cardin also asked about specific ways to target bicyclist and pedestrian safety. Omishakin highlighted the large number of transportation deaths and advocated for a holistic approach to fix these issues. Omishakin argued we must analyze how and why too many road users are fatally injured and work to make long-standing, systemic changes that result in safer streets for all.

Racial and class equity and transportation are intertwined, as having access to transportation means access to opportunities, argued Omishakin. This also means that to move forward, we must listen to communities who are affected by transit inequities as try to change these poor outcomes. Dr. Polzin also stated that often mobility is perceived as a configurator to quality of life and economic mobility, as access to jobs, schools, healthcare depend on adequate transportation and infrastructure.

In all, this hearing showed the differing views of Senators on the Reconnecting Communities Act and the role of discretionary grants, as well as the various interpretations of equity in transportation infrastructure. While Senate Democrats support Carper’s bill to undo some of the injustices of planning in the past half century, Republicans criticize this approach as limited funding would be available to rural areas through this program. Ultimately, this comes down to the different core problems of urban and rural infrastructure, as while urban systems need to undo bad planning, rural systems seek to build more roads to connect more people.


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