By Dave Van Hattum, Advocacy Director
Editor’s Note: TLC’s Dave Van Hattum has served as one of two transit representatives on the Transportation Advisory Board since December 2011, and played a significant role in advocating for this greater emphasis on social equity. Thanks to Dave and to all who voted YES.
Walking on Saint Paul’s East Side.
On September 17, the region’s Transportation Advisory Board (TAB) took a historic vote to include social equity considerations in its scoring of project funding applications. The new equity points, among points in a number of traditional transportation criteria (usage, age of facility, etc.), do two essential things. One, they give a slight preference to projects (roads, transit, and bicycle/pedestrian) benefitting people of color, people living in poverty, and especially people in racially concentrated areas of poverty. Second, they connect transportation and housing outcomes, by aligning points with efforts by cities and counties to increase the availability of affordable housing.
The TAB, in coordination with the Metropolitan Council, allocates approximately $150 million in flexible (across mode and geography) federal transportation funds every two years through what is called the Regional Solicitation. Because transportation needs in the region far exceed funding available from a variety of sources (see www.MoveMN.org for more info), the selection of projects is very competitive. The 33-member TAB, per federal rules, is made up of a majority of local elected officials (city and county government), as well as appointed citizen, agency, and modal (transit, bike/walk, freight) representatives.
Over the past two years, the Metropolitan Council has undertaken an extensive evaluation of the Regional Solicitation. Led by a consultant team and involving the TAB, the Met. Council, and the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) to the TAB, the evaluation was designed with two primary objectives:
- Better align funding decisions with regional policy
- Simplify a complex and costly application process
TLC has long sought to direct a greater share of TAB funding to projects that provide greater access by transit, bicycling, and walking—particularly for those who can’t afford to, or choose not to, own a car. We have also advocated for road repair and retrofit projects rather than mostly building new and bigger facilities. Despite sustained advocacy and a new regional policy emphasis on social equity and sustainability as articulated by Thrive MSP, (the Met. Council’s long-range plan), changing transportation funding priorities was no easy task.
Shifting priorities to leverage improved social equity could be achieved through one of two key policy changes: One, spending an increased share of funds in areas of concentrated poverty or racially concentrated areas of poverty. Or two, keeping the same geographic distribution of funds (which has been closely attended by TAB members for decades), but shifting a greater share of total funding to transit and bike/walk options, which low-income residents and people of color disproportionately rely upon. TLC has long been a champion of both strategies. Ultimately, the historic TAB vote followed the first path. A vote next spring, when specific projects are selected, will determine the split between road, transit, and bicycle/pedestrian investments.
Substantive change is never easy. Shifting priorities at TAB required a lot of policy analysis. Trust me: project scoring is a highly detailed, technical endeavor that primarily has been led by engineers on the Technical Advisory Committee to the TAB Policy Board. Achieving a shift in priority also required working from the inside to build a supportive coalition among TAB members, while advocates externally made the case to TAB members to vote for change.
Leadership for change can be attributed to many players: A strong group of reform advocates on TAB, who I helped convene and shared technical expertise with; new and seasoned elected officials appointed to TAB, who knew their “vote for equity” would be on the right side of history; and bold agency voices, who departed from a long history of seeing transportation almost exclusively as an engineering endeavor, to instead embrace that transportation is ultimately about serving people.
Every YES vote for the new equity criteria deserves credit for this victory. Fair housing advocates also played a key role in achieving a scoring system that rewards localities doing their fair share to provide affordable housing. Equity advocates (including our allies at ISAIAH and the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability) contacted TAB members and showed up to provide critical support for this vote. Metropolitan Council staff also contributed key data, shared experiences from other metropolitan regions, and educated TAB members about the equity proposal.
Kenya McKnight speaking last year at a transportation funding rally in the State Capitol Rotunda.
Finally, Kenya McKnight, District D Citizen Representative (and one of only two people of color on the TAB), eloquently, tactfully, and persistently spoke for increasing equitable access in her North Minneapolis community and across the metro region. Despite strong opposition to change, Kenya powerfully conveyed that social equity considerations were appropriate given past disinvestment in low-income communities, and would contribute to better access to opportunity for all residents in our growing, and increasingly diverse, metropolitan region.
Thanks to all!
The ultimate test of this policy change will be seen next spring when a new slate of projects is evaluated and selected for funding. Opponents (NO votes) fear this policy change will shortchange their communities. I believe, and TLC believes, that future allocation of federal transportation dollars should reflect geographical balance, but also tangibly contribute to reducing racial and economic disparities in our region. We will be among the proponents watching closely to ensure that new scoring for social equity considerations results in more equitable distribution of these federal funds.