(Updates with comment from CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority beginning in the eighth paragraph.)
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said he is reevaluating the equity reflected in the department’s policies—and the diversity of the department itself.
“We took a look at our own makeup as a department,” Buttigieg said at a South by Southwest event on Thursday. “It is Whiter and much more male than the country as a whole. We’ve got to change that.”
Buttigieg has emphasized equity as a major goal of his department, and criticized how previous administrations have invested in transportation. During the event, he pointed to the construction of the interstate highway system as an ongoing detriment to communities of color. Buttigieg said it was important that his department, and the projects it funds, better reflect the country.
“We’ve got to make sure that future policies are actually helping to create equity, and not working in the opposite direction,” he said.
President Joe Biden campaigned on a $2 trillion infrastructure package. Talks are heating up in Congress as Democrats look to secure votes for a multi-trillion dollar bill with a major climate focus.
As policymakers draw up infrastructure policies, Buttigieg said they need to “have equity on our minds, as we’re making what could be one of the biggest investments we’ve ever made as a country in the future of our transportation.”
He said they will have to work to make sure that, whenever there is a project that is funded with federal dollars, the workers who get those jobs “look like America,” and reflect the communities where the projects get built.
Phillip Washington, CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said at a separate event with Buttigieg that when he was growing up as a Black man on the south side of Chicago, the people building the infrastructure in his community didn’t look like him. He said programs like local hire can help change that.
“When we begin to talk about whether we have good representation in our communities, I don’t think we do,” Washington said during a Pritzker Forum on Global Cities event on Thursday. “The opportunity here to operationalize equity becomes very, very important.”
Reshaping ‘Bad’ Projects
The Transportation Department’s Office of Civil Rights was formed to enforce laws and regulations that prohibit workplace discrimination. Buttigieg said the department is now “reinvigorating” that office because “as you might imagine, it did not get a lot of resources or attention during the Trump administration.”
That means responding to complaints under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination from any program receiving federal funding. It also means getting ahead of projects so that “a bad project will be reshaped,” and good projects get to neighborhoods that are often called “transit deserts,” he said.
“We know a lot about food deserts, a neighborhood, typically communities of color, where there’s not good access to quality, healthy food. The same thing is true for transportation,” Buttigieg said.
Such changes may already be taking shape. The Federal Highway Administration sent a letter to the Texas Transportation Department this month, asking it to pause its work on a highway expansion project for Interstate 45 until officials there are able to evaluate several Title VI concerns tied to environmental justice.
Scott Goldstein, policy director at advocacy group Transportation for America, said in an interview that it is “very exciting” the department would be taking a second look at a project that large and far along in the process. He said there are highway expansion projects across the country that “really should be revisited.”
“There’s a long history of projects that are in the name of urban redevelopment and improving travel times being really harmful to the communities where these projects are built,” Goldstein said. “And that’s the argument against this project, and so we think it’s really important that the DOT is taking a second look at this.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org