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A National Transportation Equity Movement for Real Human Needs

In August 2005, the combined efforts of hundreds of community-based, grassroots advocacy and organizing groups succeeded in advancing a broad-based agenda for transportation reform in national legislation. Most media outlets viewed the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act–A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) through the lens of specific highway or transit projects, or chose to criticize the bill’s spending excess. When the dust cleared, advocates for transportation equity had more to work with than anyone could have imagined only two years ago.

The Wins
The final bill, which authorized $286 billion in federal spending on transportation projects over a six-year period, included a number of provisions driven primarily by low-income grassroots constituencies. Many of the changes reflected, word for word, the language suggested by grassroots organizations:

  • Open up more than $200 billion in federally-funded highway projects to local hiring, specifically to create job training and employment opportunities for residents of low-income and minority communities. For further information on SAFETEA-LU provisions for local hiring, see "Federal Money--Local Jobs" , by Laura Barrett.
  • Guarantee more than $700 million—over six years—for the Job Access and Reverse Commute program, a transportation welfare-to-work fund to help low-wage workers access job opportunities otherwise out of their reach.
  • Place stronger public participation requirements on States and regional transportation planning organizations to involve stakeholders, including users of public transportation, in the planning process.
  • Emphasize funding accountability with requirements, such as a published “annual list of projects”, to provide communities a handle on tracking the distribution of federal transportation dollars.
  • Set aside additional resources to study and assess the impact of transportation funding and planning decisions on low-income and transit-dependent populations.

These victories were largely due to the work of the Transportation Equity Network (TEN) (www.transportationequity.org), a national coalition of grassroots organizations and their allies committed to making the transportation decision-making process responsive to the needs of low-income and transit-dependent communities. Members of TEN include community- and institution-based organizing networks, statewide coalitions, disability rights and environmental activists, and public transportation and smart-growth advocates. Partners in the campaign involved bus rider unions from Los Angeles and Vermont, grassroots groups from Montgomery, Alabama, and Lincoln, Nebraska, and almost every state in between.

Key Factors in the Fight
One of the most important drivers for transportation legislation—at all levels of government—is money. Elected officials barter for prominent roles on key committees in Congress to ensure that they can bring projects to their communities. The dominant actors in transportation policy continue to be road builders, contractors, building trade and labor unions, developers, and representatives of industry sectors, including trucking, railways, automobile, and public transit.  Over the last two decades, however, organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, pedestrian safety and bicycle advocates, disability rights activists, and advocates for seniors have been com-peting, successfully, for the attention of policy makers. 

The most notable example of the efforts of this broad coalition of interests was the enactment of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act in 1991. The Surface Transportation Policy Project (www.transact.orgplayed a critical role in convincing policy makers to widen the constituency involved in the legislative process. The result was a bill that placed greater emphasis on coordinated regional planning and took into account a range of environmental, public transportation, and community interests.  The focus since then has been on building a coalition of interests broad enough to increase the monetary size of the bill. In the most recent reauthorization process, fiscal conservatives and ideologues within the Republican Party fought to keep the funding level for SAFETEA-LU as low as possible, but pragmatic politics carried the day, and the final bill came in at over $30 billion above what the administration had said it could accept.

Pragmatic politics also prevailed when pro-business and road-building interests attempted to use the SAFETEA-LU bill at its inception to gut the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA lays out a process to ensure that various environmental and community needs are consulted in the development of transportation projects that may impact environmental, historic, and community resources. Although Congress made some changes to the environmental review process, it failed to enact the sweeping changes first contemplated, thanks to pragmatic coalition politics.

Until a couple of years ago, low-income and environmental justice activists had not had experience working with key policy makers in Congress, particularly Republican committee chairs. Beginning in 2002, TEN developed a comprehensive agenda for renewal of the federal transportation bill, which entailed increasing resources for public transportation to address the needs of the transit-dependent, increasing public involvement in the transportation planning process, strengthening enforcement of environmental justice guidelines, and promoting economic development in low-income communities.

To push its agenda, TEN brought individuals directly affected by transportation policies to meet with their policy makers in person. A key turning point came when a high-level Republican staffer on the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over public transportation spending, agreed to weigh proposals that came before her against the interests of the grassroots leaders with whom she had begun to develop a relationship. A second major turning point came when grassroots and faith leaders in St. Louis, Missouri, extracted a commitment from a key Republican Senator on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over highways, to support local hiring on transportation projects.

What Remains to Be Done
Although victorious in some aspects of SAFETEA-LU, other elements of TEN’s reauthorization agenda, such as strengthening enforcement of federal civil rights and environmental justice requirements in federal legislation, never gained traction in Congress, or for that matter, among the broader coalition of national allied constituencies. This was partly because of the nature of the congressional leadership in this Congress and partly because progressive forces were focused on preventing major losses in environmental legislation and regulation. Most importantly,  many in the civil rights and environmental justice communities were concerned with reversing the impact of the 2001 Supreme Court decision limiting the scope of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

While there will be much to do in the coming years to realize the victories that TEN accomplished in the reauthorization of the federal transportation bill, it is not too early to begin imagining what might be possible when the next reauthorization cycle comes in 2009.

Transportation is an issue that intersects a wide range of progressive causes—environmental protection, disability rights, civil rights, government accountability and transparency, sustainable economic development, smart growth, and rural access to services. The extent to which transportation planning and projects impact low-income and transit-dependent communities must be a key factor in all discussions, and work needs to be done to bring the various constituencies together under a common vision of environmental justice. With limited resources, grassroots groups were able to accomplish much with the enactment of SAFETEA-LU. Foundations and other financial supporters should give greater priority to transportation equity and put more resources into supporting organization and leadership development among affected communities. Finally, in national conversations about policies on poverty and the environment, transportation equity should be considered on a par with affordable housing and air quality. 

Rich Stolz has worked at the Center for Community Change since 1997.  He served as the staff coordinator of the Transportation Equity Network, a national coalition of grassroots organizations and allies that worked to influence mammoth federal transportation legislation in 1998 and 2005. Additional details on these reforms and other positive provisions of the bill can be found at www.communitychange.org/issues/transportation.

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Moving the Movement for Transportation Justice      ?õ¬?       Vol. 12 No. 1      ?õ¬?       Spring 2007       ?õ¬?       Credits 
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