Now that communities are receiving historic levels of federal funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), federal, state, and local leaders are looking to create more sustainable and equitable transportation systems.
Many programs and funding opportunities under the IIJA and IRA encourage using funds to improve resilience, mobility, and connectivity for vulnerable and underserved communities. These communities often lack access to reliable, safe, and affordable transportation options—and face the potential of disproportionate future impacts from climate change on roads, bridges, and transit systems.
Some of the funding opportunities and programs in the IIJA and IRA that aim to create more sustainable and equitable transportation options include:
- $89.9 billion to public transit over the next five years.
- $119.1 billion to electric vehicles through consumer rebates, and other initiatives that aim to bring down the cost and support the use of EVs.
- $27 billion to transportation and community design. 18 new programs focused broadly on examining how transportation infrastructure can be designed better for the communities it serves.
- $3 billion to equity and environmental justice initiatives, including access support for low-income and historically marginalized communities.
The IIJA and IRA have dramatically increased funds available to communities for projects and programs related to public transit and multimodal alternatives, transportation design and construction, and resilience and environmental justice.
Creating sustainable and equitable transportation solutions: Learning from examples
Equitable transportation systems—ones that understand the barriers faced by the most vulnerable members of the community in connecting to jobs, education, and resources—are necessary to reduce long-standing socioeconomic disparities experienced by underserved and underrepresented populations. New funding gives transportation departments across the U.S. the flexibility to invest in making these solutions a reality for their communities.
Here are three examples of sustainable transportation solutions with equity benefits.
Direct the benefits of investments in public transit towards underserved populations
By increasing bus and rail service frequency and coverage in underserved areas, public transportation systems can be more accommodating and inclusive. Improving the affordability of public transportation for target groups can also help to address burdens of transportation insecurity.
Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) recently received $76 million in federal funding to build a new Operating and Maintenance (O&M) facility and purchase battery electric buses and related charging equipment. This investment will help the city to increase transit service levels, reduce wait and travel times—part of the city’s plan to make 45% more jobs reachable in an hour for minority residents and 49% for low-income residents.
Use community design principles to correct historical inequities
New funding streams offer opportunities for cities to deliver transportation solutions to historically disadvantaged communities. Investment in safe and accessible travel routes can reconnect communities and increase individual’s social and economic access.
The Michigan DOT received an INFRA grant of $104M for the I–375 Community Reconnection Project in Detroit. Dismantling a highway that was built 60 years ago through a predominantly Black neighborhood will turn the area into a safer and more traversable boulevard with a bike lane and wider sidewalk.
Improve air quality and health by reducing exposure to tailpipe emissions
Electrical vehicle fleets present an opportunity to reduce the transportation sector’s end-use emissions that contribute to climate change. In fact, ICF analysis shows that the U.S. might need to increase EV adoption by 100X to meet its ambitious GHG emissions goals by 2050.
But the benefits of EVs go beyond GHG emission reductions. Increasing the number of EVs on the road can significantly improve air quality and health, particularly for disadvantaged communities. These highway-adjacent communities, disproportionately affected by tailpipe emissions, will be exposed to less air pollution as the nation transitions to zero-emission vehicles.
Although disadvantaged communities could experience greater benefits by increasing the number of electrical vehicles on the road, they often face increased barriers to EV adoption, including high upfront costs and limited access to charging stations. To help ensure that opportunities for increased EV adoption reach communities which can benefit from them the most, it is important that transportation agencies prioritize community awareness and develop incentives that consider the community’s context, culture, and needs.
Recommendations for transportation agencies on how to get started
With the recent influx of new funding sources, stakeholders have a rare opportunity to meaningfully expand how equity is prioritized in transportation projects. Here are three key considerations to ensure that today’s transportation investments increase equity and avoid exacerbating disparities:
1. Project needs. Determine your communities transportation needs in partnership with historically excluded and marginalized communities.
2. Prioritization. Create or expand the process your agency uses for prioritizing historically disadvantaged communities or Justice40 locations. Begin the process by determining where funds are currently spent that overlap with priority locations. Develop criteria and set targets based on community values that will elevate the needs of more vulnerable and underserved community members.
3. Evaluation. Officials need to build an evidence base that shows what differences these projects made in their communities. Data collection and assessment of measurable outputs from project activities with help to gauge success and analyze impact.
Building equitable transportation and addressing past injustices is intentional work. This will require thoughtful coordination and collaboration among government officials, local leaders, and communities.