Connecting communities through equitable transit infrastructure
Four areas of focus in the earliest planning stages of transit projects can result in more equitable outcomes.
Transit agencies are leveraging unprecedented Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funding to accelerate projects nationwide. Not only are they focused on fast-tracking infrastructure implementation, but they also are taking the necessary steps to bring increased economic opportunities and accessibility to areas and populations that have been denied them in the past.
Recognizing that rapid transit projects, in particular, offer opportunities for cities to deliver transportation solutions to historically disadvantaged communities, there are four approaches that will be critical to achieving equitable transit outcomes.
Align projects with federal climate, equity and environmental justice priorities
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) authorized $108 billion in funding for public transit projects through formula and competitive grant programs. Broadly, the IIJA’s climate policy focuses on clean energy, environmental justice and good jobs. Its equity component aims to improve mobility and accessibility to communities with historically limited access to public transportation.
When federal agencies make infrastructure funding decisions, they are required to consider how proposed projects address the Act’s climate provisions and impacts on minority and/or low-income populations.
The Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Grant program (CIG), has different levels of funding, ranging from Small Starts, Core Capacity and New Starts. Competing successfully for this federal funding program requires a sophisticated understanding of the intricacies of grant eligibility and FTA selection criteria so that agencies can align expected outcomes with federal policy priorities. Achieving this deep understanding – already challenging in itself — is complicated further by requirements that the FTA routinely update its policy guidance, which hasn’t been updated since 2016. The FTA is currently considering changes to how it evaluates CIG projects.
Transit agencies will best be served by surrounding themselves with partners who have proficiency and experience with federal investment policy priorities, including environmental policy and federal funding program requirements. Whether or not funding criteria changes occur, these experts will serve as knowledgeable guides through the grant application process.
Address infrastructure and mobility equity considerations in investment decision making
The IIJA rebalanced the number of federal resources that go through competitive processes versus through a formula process. Many more federal transit and multimodal programs now fund projects based on nationwide competitive processes. As transit leaders pursue these resources, competing successfully will require that they tell a compelling story about how their proposed investments create or advance equitable solutions.
HNTB helps clients tell this story using data as one way of demonstrating how projects promote or address equity for the communities served. In the planning process, transit leaders’ stories are more compelling if they can show, for example, that they have relied on census data to identify historically disadvantaged communities and have collaborated with those communities on proposed projects. Data also can underscore how the community will benefit from the investment by validating that a project will provide economic development opportunities through local hire initiatives and detailing the number of well-paying jobs that will be created.
Engage in early public outreach to support communications with underserved communities
Project sponsors should include direct outreach to communities impacted by transit investments, including historically disadvantaged communities, as a part of early planning efforts and continuously throughout the project’s development and construction lifecycle. The only way to ensure the project addresses the needs of and benefits the community is to directly engage members of traditionally underserved communities in the planning process. The goal must be engagement and involvement in a way that achieves co-creation — collaboration with impacted communities to guide design — interest and community ownership once the project is complete.
A replicable example is Link21 in Northern California. Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) has partnered with HNTB to plan and implement a massive public engagement campaign, which is advancing equity in the megaregion with the goal of providing accessible and connected passenger rail service for all, regardless of background. Through Link21, BART is collaborating with local community-based organizations (CBOs) and joining with priority populations -census tracts in the megaregion that experience high levels of inequitable outcomes – to better understand marginalized communities’ needs and co-create a connected passenger rail network that addresses them.
As a part of the co-creation process, BART is using an innovative HNTB tool, the Public Involvement Management Application (PIMA), to increase community input into the Link21 process. PIMA tracks community feedback, key project components being addressed and the overall favorability of each component. It improves the consistency of data collection for both in-person and online public meetings. PIMA also allows BART to measure equity in its engagement process by tracking the inclusiveness of the process and participation by members of prioritized communities.
By implementing a process that includes early and continuous community engagement and the use of tools and technologies like PIMA that track input and measure engagement from historically disadvantaged communities impacted by projects, transit agencies can be at the forefront of meaningfully engaging equity communities. These approaches give marginalized populations a powerful voice in planning innovative transit services and projects that will transform the communities for years to come.
Apply a risk-based framework to understand equity challenges and opportunities
To incorporate equity considerations throughout a project’s lifecycle, transit professionals can apply a risk-based framework —a systematic process of identifying, analyzing, mitigating and monitoring project risks. An effective risk-based approach can help agencies and project teams better understand and address evolving federal, state and local expectations, meet community needs and leverage opportunities to provide broad benefits, especially to underserved and disadvantaged populations, throughout the project lifecycle.
Equity challenges can include:
- A transit station redesign to increase capacity may worsen flooding impacts for communities already vulnerable to climate change and severe storms if agencies rely on legacy studies rather than completing new evaluations.
- Underserved communities have not been engaged throughout the project, or the project has taken so long to implement that the affected populations have changed.
- A construction staging area may make it more difficult for residents with disabilities or those who do not own cars to access a nearby public transit station.
- Legacy design standards or preferences on a transit facility expansion may cause a greater number of displacements in a minority neighborhood to accommodate a larger footprint than is needed.
New transit project design can ensure that barriers created in the past are not repeated and lead to increased access overall by:
- Leveraging federal funding that may be available to help maximize benefits to underserved communities in the project area.
- Engaging community-based organizations, institutions and stakeholders, establishing greater trust and allowing needs or opportunities not previously recognized to be identified.
- Providing significant opportunities for historically underutilized businesses to grow their skills or market share, opening doors to additional work on future projects, creating local wealth, advancing generational wealth and creating marketplace capacity.
HNTB is considering equity using a risk register, a project management tool used to identify and respond to risk in all phases of an infrastructure project. The project lifecycle can be a multi-year process. Over that span, changes may occur in team members, local communities, environmental conditions or requirements, the regulatory environment and technologies, among others. Each alteration will have equity implications.
As changes occur, the risk register can provide a clear and well-documented understanding of equity-related risks to ensure that knowledge gained, and commitments made are not lost.
For example, the planning team must clearly communicate the presence of underserved communities and their stated needs to the design team, and the design team must clearly communicate specific features designed to mitigate negative impacts on those underserved communities to the construction team. With an understanding of commitments previously made to underserved communities, the construction team can consider equity before eliminating a noise wall or accelerating a timetable that includes night work, thus abandoning those commitments. Each team, in turn, should also be reviewing previously identified equity challenges and opportunities and evaluating the project from their unique perspective to identify additional equity-related risks.
With a focus on equity and economic justice, transit agencies have a significant opportunity to improve a city’s transit access and connectivity to jobs, goods, services and loved ones. To secure funding and realize that goal, equity should be a priority consideration as future transit work is planned, designed and built.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Booth, AICP
Booth has 35 years of experience as a transportation and transit project manager focused on quality delivery of FTA CIG projects. His understanding of the FTA process and the stakeholders involved has advanced transit projects for clients such as CTA, Sound Transit, and NICTD.
Buchanan has more than 20 years of FTA experience, including roles as associate administrator for transit safety and oversight, chief safety officer and associate administrator of program management and oversight. She led the national transit safety program, federal transit funding programs and federal oversight of more than $117 billion in major capital transit construction projects.
Emily Gallo, AICP
Gallo has over 15 years of experience in the transportation industry and supports teams nationwide in creating more inclusive infrastructure. She previously held several high-level positions at transportation agencies for the City of New York.