From Dave Van Hattum, Policy & Advocacy Program Manager

A snapshot: People of color in the Twin Cities, on average, have less than half the median household income and nearly three times the rate of unemployment as whites. This information was presented as part of a June 28th Corridors of Opportunity meeting that focused on racial disparities in the Twin Cities metro. Audience members were then asked if they felt embarrassed by the facts presented. What an unusual and provocative way to address the audience. In my opinion, yes, Twin Citians should be embarrassed–and should be moved to action (not just dialogue) as many speakers suggested.

Corridors of Opportunity is a regional partnership working to promote sustainable, vibrant, and healthy communities along the region’s emerging transitway system. $21 million in funding is provided by a competitive three-year grant from the federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency and from the Living Cities Collaborative, a consortium of philanthropic organizations. The initiative is being led by the Metropolitan Council in partnership with key city and county policymakers, foundations, and community, advocacy and business organizations. Corridor of Opportunities opens up great possibilities as well as profound responsibility for advancing equitable and sustainable regional development.

Thoughtful and challenging presentations were made by Nekima Levy-Pounds, a law professor at St. Thomas, john a. powell, the Executive Director of the Kirwan Institute for the study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University and Angela Glover-Blackwell the Chief Executive Officer of  Policy Link an organization whose mission is to advance economic and social equity. Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin joined the presenters for a roundtable discussion.

I’ve read the headlines about the Twin Cities ignominious distinction for growing racial disparities, but I must acknowledge that this session was a wakeup call. I’m privileged to work promoting more public transit, and doing this work well requires paying attention to racial and economic disparities. 

Prof. Levy-Pounds noted that one result of the current inequality “is a sense of isolation and a lack of access to mainstream society.” Ms. Glover-Blackwell defined equity as “just and fair inclusion into a society where all can prosper and succeed.”  Mr. powell stressed how infrastructure has been used for decades to separate people and that recent metro development patterns have stalled much of the civil rights progress of previous decades.

In other words, economic opportunity is substantially impacted by transportation infrastructure.  Ms. Glover-Blackwell’s correct contention that “equity is the superior regional economic growth model” needs to be fully vetted within transportation circles. Mapping the location of entry level job locations, and minority and low-income job seekers, provides a powerful illustration of the currently constrained opportunity for people of color and low-income (see.Transportation Performance Report, pg 21). For the most part, buses and trains don’t provide access to these jobs, so owning a car becomes a burdensome prerequisite. Low-income households in the Twin Cities currently spend more on transportation (i.e. non-appreciable car costs) than they do on housing (typically a wealth-building asset). 

Responding to equity concerns was described by several presenters as a critical opportunity to invest in the growing non-white population of our state that will lead to great benefits for all Minnesotans. In the transportation sector, we have a similar opportunity to fully utilize existing transportation infrastructure by emphasizing redevelopment over greenfield development, and by increasing the investment in non-automobile travel options.  

Transit for Livable Communities believes that building a robust public transit system will contribute to greater equity. More transit is a necessary, but incomplete, step toward a more equitable transportation system. Where we locate transit stops, whether we build new interchanges at the region’s edge or repair the roads we already have, and how communities retain existing residents and grow existing businesses when new development clusters around  rail stops are also key equity concerns.

Corridors of Opportunity fund projects along seven transitways that are at various stages of construction or operation: Southwest LRT, Bottineau Transitway, Gateway Corridor, Cedar Avenue BRT, Central Corridor LRT, Hiawatha LRT, and Northstar Commuter Rail. Insuring equitable outcomes will, no doubt, take hard work for the full three years of the Corridor of Opportunities initiative and beyond. At this critical juncture, we should take a cue from the movie Jerry McGuire and “follow the money.”

Five key questions to pay close attention to:

  1. Will there be funding to insure these regional transitways get built in a timely fashion without draining resources from the bus system?  There appears to be political will to find the money for a vastly overbuilt highway bridge at the far edge of the region and for a new Vikings stadium. Advancing regional equity demands setting more equitable funding priorities.
  2. Will our region adopt a strategy to incentivize future job growth in the downtowns and along these transitways?  If jobs continue to migrate to locations poorly served by transit, often in the past with the help of public subsidies, the positive outcomes of the Corridor of Opportunities program will be greatly constrained.
  3. Will powerful institutions be motivated to take on regional equity as a key outcome?  Mn/DOT controls transportation infrastructure spending in the metro that dwarfs that for the transitways. Mn/DOT should have a seat on the Corridor of Opportunities Policy Board and be held accountable, along with others, for its success. Having equity as a key outcome also requires that people of color and low-income individuals have a voice in transportation planning–and attendant development decisions–from the beginning.
  4. Can other regional and state discretionary spending be prioritized to achieve cross-silo benefits?  HUD’s funding for the Corridors of Opportunity program results from a unique federal partnership of HUD, DOT and EPA. The new transitway corridors present the opportunity, but no assurance, of synergistic transportation, housing, environmental and economic development outcomes.
  5. Will individuals and businesses seize the opportunity to be part of an alternative model of development to that of freeways and new suburbs?  While regional equity is inescapably impacted by major institutions, individual actions matter greatly. A significant component of the Corridor of Opportunities program is a community engagement strategy. Now is the time for all Twin City community members to engage their time and resources to insure its success. Community input is critical, so too is riding buses and trains “alongside the other” and supporting businesses along the transitways during construction.

Our collective answers to these and other questions will determine whether we as a metro region effectively respond to, or increase, our level of embarrassment.