Testimony of Wade Henderson

Media 02.28,13

Location: House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee

Chairman Schuster, Ranking Member Rahall, and members of the Committee: I am Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony for the record on “The Federal Role in America’s Infrastructure.” The critical need for federal infrastructure investment is one of the most urgent and important issues facing our nation.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is a coalition charged by its diverse membership of more than 200 national organizations to promote and protect the civil and human rights of all persons in the United States. Founded in 1950 by A. Philip Randolph, Arnold Aronson, and Roy Wilkins, The Leadership Conference works in support of policies that further the goal of equality under law through legislative advocacy and public education.

I applaud the Committee for holding this hearing on a matter of great significance to the civil and human rights community. For The Leadership Conference, transportation policy is a key civil rights issue and one that is critical to ensuring opportunity for all. As our nation begins to recover from the recent recession, the federal government must help lead the way through sensible infrastructure investments. Making necessary repairs and updates to our network of roads, ports, bridges, and railways will improve our country’s competitiveness and enhance our shared prosperity, while creating and preserving jobs. While this Committee considers the numerous proposals which will come before it ahead of the next federal transportation bill, we strongly urge focused attention on: continued investments in public transportation; the capacity of infrastructure investment to create and sustain much needed jobs; and the importance of maintaining  public participation in transportation decision making.

Investing in Public Transportation

As we work to strengthen the networks which transport essential resources and goods, it is critical to remember the important role infrastructure investments play in transporting and employing everyday Americans. Smart and equitable transportation systems connect us to jobs, schools, housing, health care services, and nutritious food options. Millions of low-income and working-class people, people of color, and people with disabilities live in communities where quality transportation options are unaffordable, unreliable, or nonexistent. The choices we make with respect to federal transportation policy—what we build, where we build, who builds it, what energy powers it—have an enormous impact on our economy, our climate, our health, and on our ability as a society to achieve the American Dream.

Transportation investments to date have produced an inhospitable landscape for low-income people, people with disabilities, seniors, and many people in rural areas. People of color are disproportionately disadvantaged by the current state of transportation. Nineteen percent of African Americans and 13.7 percent of Latinos lack access to automobiles, compared to only 4.6 percent of Whites.[i] Racial minorities are four times more likely than Whites to rely on public transportation for their work commute.[ii] The cost of car ownership, underinvestment in public transportation, and a paucity of pedestrian and bicycle-accessible thoroughfares have isolated urban and low-income people from jobs and services. Because many people with disabilities do not have the option to drive cars, lack of access to other modes of transportation disproportionately harms them. Similarly, seniors and people in rural areas often have limited transportation choices.

An expansion of public transportation funding is necessary to support the reliance on public transportation and the number of people living outside city work centers. Since 2009, 85percent of transit systems have either cut service or raised fares or both.[iii] Dedicating transit investments for operating purposes will help stop the fare increases and service cuts and allow for more bus and rail service on existing lines, fare reductions, and free transfers.

Preserving Public Participation

We agree with the emerging consensus that the preservation and modernization of our transportation infrastructure can only be completed through a partnership of federal, state, and local government.  However, this process must also include the input of members of the underserved communities who most rely on transportation infrastructure. Under MAP-21, the opposite approach was taken, and several regressive changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) diminished the ability of individuals to review and comment on projects before they were already underway. Finding innovative ways to make project delivery more efficient, will be an important part of accomplishing America’s infrastructure goals, but leaving communities out of the process is not the right way to do so. The negative effects of some transportation decisions—dissecting neighborhoods of low-income families and people of color, physically isolating them from needed services and businesses, and disrupting once-stable communities—are broadly felt and have lasting effects. When these individuals are ignored, transportation decisions and spending inevitably fail to benefit all populations equally. The report of The Leadership Conference Education Fund, “Where We Need to Go: A Civil Rights Roadmap for Transportation Equity,” discusses some of these effects and is the first in a series of reports examining the key roles transportation and mobility play in the struggle for civil rights and equal opportunity.

In drafting the next surface transportation reauthorization bill, we urge this Committee to study the lessons from MAP-21 and explore alternative strategies for expediting the approval and review process. Developing a more inclusive approach will not only help ward off externalities, but, will also lead to better results for all parties. Open engagement with local communities often yields common-sense solutions to problems which can streamline the overall process. This is particularly true for smaller infrastructure projects under $5 million and projects in the “operational right-of-way” which were exempted from NEPA review under the last transportation bill. Legislative categorical exclusions such as these have the effect of shielding federal decisions impacting local communities from public scrutiny and shutting the public out of the decision making process. By allowing public comment on proposed actions, their potential impacts, and possible alternatives, federal agencies can avoid costly delays and future public opposition.

Fostering Job Creation

The Leadership Conference applauds the Committee’s determination to harness the job creating potential of infrastructure investment. The construction industry has suffered the greatest downturn in 40 years and despite recent progress, lingering unemployment still afflicts towns and cities throughout the United States. Certain communities have been struck especially hard, with unemployment rates in the African-American community holding at almost double the national average and a Hispanic unemployment rate that is greater than the national average at 9.6 percent.[iv] Unemployment rates are projected to remain high for whites, Latinos, and African Americans through 2013.[v] Repairing and modernizing America’s infrastructure can help address this situation by creating hundreds of thousands of good paying jobs. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that 30,000 direct and indirect jobs are created for every $1 billion invested in highway construction.

Not only can these jobs not be shipped overseas, they can also be targeted to alleviate unemployment in areas where help is most desperately needed. This Committee should consider access and training for infrastructure jobs. By doing so, Congress can help ensure healthy and shared economic growth in the years to come.     

As this Committee plots a path forward on updating our aging infrastructure, there is ample opportunity to lay a foundation for more equitable transportation options that will serve us well into the future. We urge Congress to invest in transportation infrastructure, including public transit, in a responsible way that will build a nation where every person, whether in an urban area or rural hamlet, can participate and prosper.

There is much at stake for the civil and human rights community in developing and improving our nation’s federal infrastructure. Congress considers how best to rebuild and repair our nation’s roads, bridges, railways and ports, and where and how to prioritize investments in public transportation and pedestrian and bicycle access. As you proceed, it is vital that the needs of communities of color, low-income people, people with disabilities, seniors, and the rural poor are considered and incorporated.

Thank you for your leadership on this important issue.

[i] Brookings Institution and UC-Berkeley, “Socioeconomic Differences in Household Automobile Ownership Rates” at http://gsppi.berkeley.edu/faculty/sraphael/berubedeakenraphael.pdf. Thirty-three percent of poor African Americans and 25 percent of poor Latinos lack automobile access, compared to 12.1 percent of poor whites. PolicyLink, “The Transportation Prescription: Bold New Ideas for Healthy, Equitable Transportation Reform in America,” http://www.convergencepartnership.org/atf/cf/%7B245a9b44-6ded-4abd-a392-ae583809e350%7D/TRANSPORTATIONRX.PDF at 16.

[ii] Based on U.S. Census data. Clara Reschovsky, “Journey to Work: 2000,” Census 2000 brief. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau, 2004). http://www.census.gov/prod/2004pubs/c2kbr-33.pdf.

[iii] Amalgamated Transit Union at http://www.atu.org/action/atu-cope

[iv] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t02.htm