Increased Focus on Environmental Justice in Federal Transportation Policy Proposals

All federal agencies, including the USDOT, have had a mandate to incorporate environmental justice into their missions since 1994. The topic has recently received significantly more public attention in light of nationwide protests for racial justice, and a number of recent federal transportation policy proposals have given new attention to environmental justice.

The health and environmental effects of transportation-induced poor air quality are disproportionately borne by communities of color. Given transportation’s role in contributing to environmental degradation through pollution and the destruction of natural resources and built environments, a close look at the history of environmental justice issues in transportation and current policy proposals is warranted.

What is environmental justice?
The US Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as:

“the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. This goal will be achieved when everyone enjoys: the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.” 

President Clinton’s 1994 Executive Order, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, was one of the first major federal actions on environmental justice. It required each federal agency to incorporate achieving environmental justice into its mission. At both the departmental level and within each operating administration at the USDOT, the interpretation of this mandate is to 1) ensure full and fair participation by all potentially affected communities in the transportation decision-making process; 2) avoid, minimize, or mitigate disproportionately high and adverse human health and environmental effects, including social and economic effects, on minority or low-income populations; and 3) prevent the denial of, reduction in, or significant delay in the receipt of benefits by minority or low-income populations.

USDOT lists the following as adverse effects:

  • Body impairment, infirmity, illness, or death
  • Air, noise, and water pollution and soil contamination
  • Destruction or disruption of man-made or natural resources
  • Destruction or diminution of aesthetic values
  • Destruction or disruption of community cohesion or economic vitality
  • Destruction or disruption of the availability of public and private facilities and services
  • Vibration
  • Adverse employment effects
  • Displacement of persons, businesses, farms, or nonprofit organizations
  • Increased traffic congestion, isolation, exclusion or separation of minority or low-income individuals within a given community or from the broader community
  • The denial of, reduction in, or significant delay in the receipt of, benefits of DOT programs, policies, or activities

The formal way the USDOT assesses environmental justice in transportation programs, policies, and activities is through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reporting process, Title VI analyses, and the transportation planning process. The assessment entails first identifying the composition of minority and low-income populations in the affected area and the potential for adverse health and environmental effects on these populations, developing public participation strategies to ensure community participation in the decision-making process, and assessing potential project alternatives and strategies to mitigate adverse effects.

Recent policy proposals linking transportation and environmental justice

Moving Forward Act
The term “environmental justice” first appeared in major federal surface transportation legislation in TEA21, which ordered FTA, when analyzing the extension of the Los Angeles Red Line subway to North Hollywood, to “identify and address any disproportionately high and adverse effects on minority and low income populations, in accordance with the 1994 Executive Order on Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice.

After failed attempts in the TEA21 reauthorization and with SAFETEA-LU to include brief references to the topic, it appears in a number of places in the $1.5 trillion Moving Forward Act, the infrastructure bill passed by the House of Representatives in July 2020. Within the provisions of this bill specific to the USDOT, most of the language about environmental justice requires that the topic be considered or that environmental justice communities be engaged. The bill does not define “environmental justice communities”, but the USDOT environmental justice order specifically addresses minority and low-income populations.

With respect to impacts, Sections 1110 on tolling and 1309 on the Active Transportation Connectivity Grant Program in the Moving Forward Act state that the environmental justice and equity impacts of projects must be “adequately considered”.

With respect to engagement, Section 1303 on electric vehicle charging grants indicates that the Secretary shall require a description of collaborative engagement of environmental justice organizations in grant applications. Section 1620, which calls for a Climate Resilient Transportation Infrastructure Study, states that the Transportation Research Board is encouraged to consult with representatives of environmental justice groups.

Presidential Candidate Joe Biden’s Platforms
Democratic Presidential Candidate Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan references his separate environmental justice plan, which aims to deliver 40 percent of its clean energy investments, including “clean transit and transportation”, in disadvantaged communities. His infrastructure plan also sets goals for training and workforce development in “communities left behind”.

Environmental justice is also heavily embedded in Biden’s $1.7 trillion climate plan. This plan addresses environmental justice in transportation by emphasizing the climate effects of urban sprawl, as housing that is located far from job centers burdens low- and middle-income Americans through longer commutes and higher emissions.

House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis Action Plan
In June 2020, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis released a Majority Staff Report with hundreds of policy recommendations related to addressing climate change. The report is structured around 12 pillars, or calls for action, of which one is to advance environmental justice by investing in communities disproportionately exposed to pollution. Within this pillar, several policy recommendations fall under the jurisdiction of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

One set of recommendations involves strengthening enforcement of environmental laws in environmental justice communities, for example, by directing EPA to consider cumulative pollution in its implementation of environmental laws. Previously, project sponsors were required to consider the incremental and cumulative impacts of actions. This language was removed in a July 2020 change to NEPA regulations by the Trump Administration.

Another recommendation by the Select Committee is to invest in environmental justice communities and communities in economic transition by investing in cleaner technologies and resilient infrastructure and transitioning away from fossil fuel consumption.

The future of environmental justice in transportation
The plans and legislation described in this article are currently not enacted into law and thus the November elections could determine whether or not many of these policies take effect. However, the recent inclusion of environmental justice provisions in major bills and infrastructure platforms indicates a notable shift in policy priorities and perhaps insight into future transportation investments targeted toward clean, equitable transportation.

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