Transportation Reauthorization – Testimony of Wade Henderson

Location: Commmittee on Environment & Public Works

Chairman Boxer, Ranking Member Inhofe, 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 legislative issues for transportation reauthorization.

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. Smart and equitable transportation systems connect us to jobs, schools, housing, health care services—and even to grocery stores and nutritious food. But 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. For The Leadership Conference, transportation policy is a key civil rights issue and one that is critical to ensuring opportunity for all. 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.

Critical decisions about transportation policy are often made without the input of members of underserved communities who most rely on public transportation. It’s not surprising, then, that transportation decisions and spending do not benefit all populations equally. As a result, 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.  The report of our sister organization, 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. 

As this Committee develops the highway title of the next surface transportation authorization bill, there is a significant 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 in a responsible manner to build a nation where every person, whether in an urban area or rural hamlet, can participate and prosper.

Transportation policies and job access

Our transportation policy has the potential to expand economic opportunity for low-income and underrepresented workers by connecting them to highway construction jobs. Transportation spending generates jobs for workers in the construction industry and also has indirect effects on job creation by increasing the efficiency of the transportation system and improving business productivity. At a time of high unemployment and unprecedented income inequality, equity in transportation policy is one of the most pressing civil and human rights issues our nation faces.

The pending reauthorization of our federal surface transportation law is an opportunity to unleash the major job-creation potential of transportation-related projects. The next reauthorization should dedicate transportation funds to the recruitment, training, and retention of underrepresented workers[1] in the transportation sector. Incorporating a construction careers program into the surface transportation authorization will create substantial opportunities for low-income workers to move into the middle class. The next reauthorization should also strengthen and enforce contracting goals for disadvantaged business enterprises. The construction industry was hit by the recession harder than any other industry.[2] But spending money just to repair infrastructure or create new infrastructure is not enough. Our transportation policy should stimulate growth and opportunity for low-income individuals by connecting them to jobs and economic opportunity. The Leadership Conference Education Fund’s report, Getting to Work: Transportation Policy and Access to Job Opportunities examines how transportation policies can have a significant impact on employment opportunity.

Transportation and access to affordable health care

Inadequate access to transportation has also exacerbated health disparities. Isolation from health care providers has serious consequences for many disadvantaged communities. Low-income patients miss appointments—often worsening their medical problems. And low-income people and people of color disproportionately lose out on educational and work opportunities due to health problems.

The high cost of transportation forces low-income families to limit spending for other basic needs, including out-of-pocket health care expenses and nutritious food.[3] On the other hand, accessible and affordable transportation options can mean the difference between isolation and access to quality health care.

Because a very small percentage of federal funds has been used for affordable public transportation and for active transportation (i.e. walking, biking) opportunities, people without access to cars have been isolated from opportunities and services—including access to health care providers. By under-investing in walkable communities, rail and bicycle-friendly roads, our policies contribute to high concentrations of poor air quality, asthma,[4] pedestrian fatalities, and obesity in urban areas. All of these public health risks have disproportionately affected low-income people and people of color.  The report of The Leadership Conference Education Fund, The Road to Health Care Parity: Transportation and Access to Health Care, examines the key roles transportation and mobility play in access to affordable, quality health care and the health disparities created by inadequate access to transportation.

Civil rights compliance and enforcement

Effective and equitable transportation projects are essential to the well-being of our communities by providing access to employment, affordable housing, education, and health care. Our next transportation bill should ensure vigorous enforcement of existing civil rights legislation and pursue improved civil rights protections in federal statutes covering recipients of public funds.  The bill should strengthen administrative enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by providing additional funding for enhanced monitoring, technical assistance, and enforcement activities.

To illustrate the need for administrative enforcement, a 2010 investigation by the U.S. DOT Inspector General has revealed widespread failures by many state highway agencies to ensure basic civil rights compliance, including compliance with Title VI, the American with Disabilities Act, equal employment opportunity, and contractor compliance. Nineteen states were found to lack administrative systems to enforce Title VI, such as adequate civil rights staff or staff with sufficient decision-making authority.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights recommends that the surface transportation reauthorization:

  • Expand resources to strengthen enforcement of civil rights provisions to ensure that recipients of federal funds meet non-discrimination requirements. One cause of the current accountability gap is a shortage of federal workers to administer existing civil rights provisions. The bill should direct more resources toward compliance reviews, technical assistance, and investigation of Title VI complaints, including complaints related to discriminatory language barriers in transportation services.[5]
  • Maintain the Transportation Equity Research Program, which funds research projects to understand the impact of transportation planning, investment, and operations on low-income, minority, and transit-dependent populations.[6]
  • Conduct an equal opportunity assessment to collect and evaluate existing demographic data reported by DOT fund recipients that would help federal, local, and state transportation officials to avoid the lapses in civil rights safeguards in the construction and operation of federally-funded transportation projects.
  • Restore the right of private individuals and entities to pursue legal enforcement of  DOT’s Title VI anti-discrimination regulations as a means of ensuring nondiscrimination in transportation when federal enforcement fails. This will give local communities a tool to redress existing transportation disparities while ensuring inclusive treatment and equitable outcomes in future investments.

There is much at stake for the civil and human rights community in the next federal transportation bill. As 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, it’s vital that the needs of communities of color, low-income people, people with disabilities, seniors, and the rural poor are considered.

Thank you for your leadership on this important issue.

[1] Of the roughly eight million people employed in the transportation construction industry in 2008, African Americans comprised only six percent and women comprised less than three percent. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Household Data Annual Averages, Table 11: Employed Persons by Detailed Occupation, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin,” 2008.

[2]Construction Employment Rises in 20 States Between October and November, Associated General Contractors of America Dec. 17, 2010; Daniel Massey, Hard Hats Among the Hardest Hit, Crain’s New York, Feb. 28, 2011.

[3] Low- and moderate-income households spend 42 percent of their total annual income that on transportation, including those who live in rural areas, as compared to middle-income households, who spend less than 22 percent of their annual income on transportation. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Consumer expenditure Survey, 2000.

[4] Higher percentages of African Americans and Latinos compared with Whites live in areas with substandard air quality. Minority children disproportionately suffer from asthma; among Puerto Rican children, the rate is 20 percent and among African-American youngsters, the rate is 13 percent, compared with the national childhood average of 8 percent. The New York Times, “For Minority Kids, No Room to Breathe,” Aug. 29, 2007, People living within 300 meters of major highways are more likely to have leukemia and cardiovascular disease.  Bullard, R.D. Environmental Justice in the Twenty-first Century. The Quest for Environmental Justice. Sierra Club Books. San Francisco, CA (2005).

[5] Pursuant to Executive Order 13166 requires each federal agency must examine the services it provides and develop and implement a system by which Limited English Proficiency persons can meaningfully access those services.

[6] The Transportation Equity Research Program has funded at least six projects addressing research needs in a range of communities, e.g., research on the impact of transportation investments and land-use policies on the ability of inner-city Detroit residents to access jobs and essential non-work activities.