Transportation Equity Caucus Celebrates 5 years of Expanding Opportunity

By Julie Faust and Anita Hairston

In September 2010, the nation’s leading civil rights, disability, racial justice, faith-based, housing, and transportation organizations joined together with the common goal of advancing federal transportation policies that promote social and economy equity. Together, these groups launched the Transportation Equity Caucus, a coalition of national, state, and local organizations dedicated to ensuring that low-income people, people with disabilities, and communities of color benefit from transportation policy and investments.

This year marks five years since the launch of the Transportation Equity Caucus, which is co-chaired by The Leadership Conference Education Fund and PolicyLink. In that time, the caucus has grown from 40 to over 100 members, all of whom have signed onto the Equity Caucus’s four principles:

1. Create affordable transportation options for all people

2. Ensure fair access to quality jobs, workforce development, and contracting opportunities in the transportation industry

3. Promote healthy, safe, and inclusive communities

4. Invest equitably and focus on results

In the last five years, the caucus has helped foster a national dialogue on the link between transportation and opportunity and has affirmed access to transportation as a civil rights issue. Here’s a look back at some of the work the Equity Caucus has done to ensure all people have access to the affordable transportation options they need to thrive in today’s economy.

Making the Link between Transportation and Opportunity

Access to affordable transportation is an essential bridge to opportunity, connecting people to schools, jobs, affordable housing, health care services, and nutritious food. For people who have always had access to a car or reliable public transit, this integral link between transportation and opportunity may not be obvious. For the millions of Americans — particularly those with disabilities, low-income people, and communities of color — who live in places where quality transportation options are unaffordable, unreliable, or nonexistent, the importance of this community asset is crucial.

Since its launch, the Equity Caucus has worked to educate the public, the media, policymakers, and local and national leaders about the important role that equitable transportation investments play in addressing poverty and unemployment. As Representative Elijah Cummings noted back in 2010 when he spoke at the Caucus launch, “Mothers, schoolchildren, young adults in search for employment, and millions of others are counting on the Equity Caucus to ensure that our transportation system is reformed to ensure all people participate and prosper.” Since then, the Caucus has driven awareness, leadership, and collaboration around transportation issues.

Advocating for Transportation Equity on Capitol Hill

The Caucus’ national work has focused on education and advocacy, with the goal of injecting more equity into federal policy. For example, in 2012, the Caucus hosted an ideas forum in D.C. attended by more than 100 advocates, featuring insight from leading transit innovators, including the late Representative James Oberstar, former chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Through blogs and the media, the Caucus has leveraged opportunities to frame ongoing policy debates within the context of transportation equity. For example, in 2015, when a long-term Harvard University study found that commute times were a crucial predictor of social mobility, the Equity Caucus published an op-ed in The Hill that highlighted these findings and stressed the importance of leveraging transportation investments to connect low-income people, people of color, and people with disabilities to economic opportunity. The caucus has also published numerous blog posts illustrating how transportation systems across the country have failed the communities that need them the most, stressing the value of community participation, equitable access, and affordability.

The Caucus and its members have also contributed to and informed federal policy reforms. In 2011, the Equity Caucus sent a letter to then Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood calling for strengthened Title VI and environmental justice policies, guidance, and enforcement at USDOT. Many of the recommendations of the Caucus were adopted by the USDOT, creating stronger policy levers for embedding equity into transportation plans and investments. In 2013, after years of advocating for reforms to the New Starts and Small Starts program, the Federal Transit Administration announced new guidance that holds great promise for targeting local infrastructure investments in a manner that will expand equitable access to transit for households of all incomes, races, ethnicities, and disabilities. Most recently, the Equity Caucus’ ongoing advocacy for local hire programs helped win a first-of-its-kind local hire pilot program initiated by the Department of Transportation in March 2015 — the first step toward a comprehensive workforce inclusion agenda for transportation.

Supporting and Bringing Together Local Leaders

In addition to advocating for equitable transportation investments at the federal level, the Equity Caucus has supported the work of local organizations that are advancing transportation equity in their own communities.

In July 2011, over 40 community leaders from nine states (Alabama, California, Colorado, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, and Rhode Island) convened in Washington, D.C., for “Utilizing Transportation Investments to Expand Opportunity for All,” a two-day transportation and health equity event. The event engaged an incredibly diverse set of local leaders from public health, disability rights, civil rights, economic justice, tribal, and transportation organizations who spoke directly to senior level Administration officials and key Congressional staff about the need for equitable transportation investment as a pathway to better health, personal independence, and expanded economic opportunity.

In February 2015, the Transportation Equity Caucus awarded nearly $150,000 in equity grants to six local organizations to support projects that address the needs of low-income people, communities of color, people with disabilities, and other disadvantaged groups. In July, Equity Caucus brought all six organizations to Washington, D.C., for a two-day equity convening filled with trainings, story-sharing, strategizing, conversations with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, and Hill visits with key transportation stakeholders.

What’s Ahead

Five years after the launch of the Equity Caucus, there is still much work to be done on the road to transportation equity. Of particular importance on the federal level is ensuring that the reauthorization of our nation’s surface transportation law includes the robust, sustained investments needed to advance a transportation system that provides for all of its users. The Transportation Equity Caucus will continue its work educating policymakers on the importance of prioritizing the needs of the communities that have been historically ignored in crucial transportation decisions.

Click here to read quotes from Equity Caucus members about why transportation equity is a critical issue for America.

Anita Hairston is the associate director of PolicyLink, and Julie Faust is the communications assistant at The Leadership Conference Education Fund.