Transportation Spending Priorities Are a Civil Rights Issue

Rhonda works as an overnight home health aide in downtown Denver. She would like to attend Red Rocks Community College to help her qualify for a higher paying job that includes benefits. She lives three blocks from a newly constructed light rail station that could get her there in a half hour, but tickets are simply too expensive for her.

The bus is cheaper, but would require more than an hour of travel time. And, due to service cuts in response to the new rail line, it runs much less frequently and is much more crowded than the train.

Rhonda’s predicament, detailed in this report by 9to5 Colorado, is all too common among black and Hispanic populations, who are much more likely than white people to live in concentrated areas of poverty and are therefore at a severe disadvantage in getting access to jobs and basic services because of inadequate or unaffordable transportation options.

Transportation equity – or the lack thereof – is a genuine civil rights issue. Not having access to good public transportation destroys the promise of equal opportunity for millions of Americans. While Congress just passed a three-month stopgap measure to keep federal transportation programs running through the end of October, this fall they will discuss a long-term plan, and it’s imperative that the discourse revolves around solving this problem.

For decades, metropolitan areas, along with much of the job growth, expanded outwards while poor minority populations remained stuck in the urban cores of cities. More recently in some cities, revitalization has pushed the poor out of those urban cores, but that has still left low-income black and Hispanic individuals in areas that are far away from most employers.

Having a car solves this problem for many, but it’s no small expense. The high price of vehicle ownership disproportionately harms minorities, as African Americans are three times as likely, and and Hispanics two times as likely, to lack access to a car as are whites.

However, for these transit-dependent people in low-income areas, as a 2011 Brookings Institute study found, on average only about 30 percent of jobs – and only about 25 percent of low- and medium-skilled jobs – in their metropolitan area are within reach via public transportation in 90 minutes or less.

Even when adequate public transit does exist, it is often too expensive. A recent study found that 72 percent of Denver residents from low-income neighborhoods cannot afford to use the local buses, making Rhonda fortunate compared to those that live around her. (The fare on local routes is $2.25.) Even fewer lack the resources to take advantage of the newly built light rail line, where a ride can cost as much as $5 one way, which was advertised as a major project intended to provide convenient transportation to individuals from all over the city.

National policy could do a lot to solve these problems, but so far it has failed to adequately address them.

The allocation of federal funds for transportation is heavily skewed against low-income communities, as only 18 cents for every dollar spent by the Highway Trust Fund goes towards public transit. The majority of the money is spent on highway construction and repairs, which has served to encourage the sprawl that has left inner-city communities behind.

Even worse, mass transit funds have been slashed in recent years. Since 2009, many of the largest metropolitan transit systems have responded by cutting services and increasing rates, further exacerbating the struggles of those living near city centers.

Changing the allocation of funding within the Highway Trust Fund would be a significant step towards providing much-needed transportation equity.

Local governments could put increased federal funds to good use, as Minnesota’s Twin Cities did when they built an extensive – and affordable – light rail line in 2004. (Current fares are $2.25 during rush hours, $1.75 at all other times.) The project connected city centers to surrounding suburban areas, creating nearly 20,000 jobs for low-income residents and spurring economic growth in areas near rail stops.

“But lack of federal funding isn’t the only issue. It’s also about misplaced priorities at the local level,” says Zoe Williams, an activist in Colorado fighting for transit equity with the group 9to5.

Directing more funds towards public transit could be a powerful signal from the national government that we as a country should be shifting our transportation priorities towards helping marginalized, low-income individuals.

This really is a civil rights issue. Employment anti-discrimination laws only help insofar as individuals have the ability to reach those jobs in the first place.

If used correctly, federal transportation funding can help address institutionalized discrimination and give low-income residents routes out of poverty. Congress needs to take this reality into account as it prepares to think about long-term solutions for the Highway Trust Fund.

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