“We must make the leaders in one district recognize a $50 million highway needs to be supported by the rest of the transportation system around it.” -Anthony Foxx, Secretary, U.S. Dept. of Transportation
We often forget the importance of transportation in our lives. Roads and highways bring goods to markets. Affordable, reliable public transit systems connect people to jobs, education, and health care. Transportation systems undergird social and economic life in the United States, therefore we must critically examine any federal effort to develop long-term transportation infrastructure.
Last week, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced “Beyond Traffic,” a 30-year transportation plan that will discuss the current status of the nation’s transportation infrastructure and outline shifting trends in transportation needs across the country, highlighting, especially, the need for expanded investments in the South and West amid rapid population growth.
The South, which falls behind the rest of the country in public transit access, stands to benefit the most from increased transportation investments. Considering that the South accounts for nearly half of the nation’s Black population, a third of the country’s Latino population, and a rapidly growing percentage of the nation’s Asian population, access to affordable, reliable transit is a matter of racial equity. As such, the Department of Transportation (DOT) should pay close attention to local strategies deployed in the South, particularly in communities of color, to develop racially equitable transportation systems, not just in the South but across the country.
Currently, in the South, only a little more than half( 55% )of working-age residents live in communities served by transit compared to 85% and 77% of residents in Western and Northeastern metro areas, respectively. We also know that the typical working-age person in the South can only reach 29% of high-skilled and 22% of low-skilled jobs via transit. These numbers show the threat to wellbeing in our nation’s communities, especially communities of color and low-income communities, who are increasingly transit reliant. We need a robust, connected, multi-modal transportation system for every region in our country to thrive economically, culturally and socially.
In 2014, leaders and organizers of color effectively moved voters to support a penny sales tax that will successfully expand MARTA public transit services into Clayton County, Georgia, a community that lies just south of Atlanta where Blacks, Latinos, and Asians form nearly 76% of the population. This effort offers insights into the strategies that could ensure that DOT’s “Blue Plan” provides a transformative framework for a racially equitable transportation system.
Organizing For Public Transit
In 2010, despite strong public support for the service, Clayton County commissioners voted to end C-Tran, the county’s public transit service citing budget shortfalls. The vote shocked county residents, especially its many residents of color, who relied on the service as a means to access work, school, health care, and other vital community resources. Leaders of color in the community responded almost immediately, forming the Friends of Clayton Transit Coalition which included groups like the 100 Black Men South Metro, Georgia State NAACP, the Georgia Sierra Club, the Concerned Black Citizens of Clayton County, and the Citizens for Progressive Transit. Together, the coalition successfully persuaded county legislators to increase the county’s sales tax cap to allow a tax that would generate the funds needed to support a county contract with Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) which would not only restore public transit service in the community, but also connect county residents to transit services in the wider Atlanta-region. Still, though nearly two-thirds of county voters approved a nonbinding referendum which consented to the contract later that year, county commissioners decided not to move the contract forward citing conflicting interests over transportation funding priorities.
For nearly a year, organizers’ efforts to secure public transit in Clayton County were stalled as policy makers and administrators engaged in a political game of tug-of-war over funding highways versus public transit. However, late in 2012, with help from leaders of Friends of Clayton Transit, organizers from the Atlanta-based Partnership for Southern Equity began to convene a series of community meetings to support county stakeholders – residents, business owners, community groups, state representatives and more – in finding consensus around their transportation needs.
Over the course of several months, the meetings reignited the community’s efforts to pressure the county commission to restore public transit in their county. These efforts forced the commission to conduct a transit feasibility study before a July 2014 deadline to put a contract with MARTA on a ballot referendum in the Fall 2014 general election.
As the deadline approached, organizers with Friends of Clayton Transit led community events, town halls, attended public hearings, and even used a bus tour to raise awareness for the referendum. Organizers also worked in partnership with MARTA officials to create maps to show county residents where proposed station stops would be located.
On July 5th 2014, after some initial back and forth between the commission and MARTA about funding, the Commission and MARTA agreed to a full-penny contract that would establish bus and rail lines in the county beginning in 2015. The agreement was the final step needed to setup the November 2014 referendum, which passed with an overwhelming 74% of the support.
Lessons for National Leaders
As national leaders look to create a “Blue Plan” that maps opportunities for transportation investments over the next 30 years in the country’s most transit-dependent regions, the strategies utilized by the groups affiliated with Friends of Clayton Transit coalition and other leadership of color provide insight into the assets, resources, and infrastructure needed to ensure transportation investments meet the needs of all of our communities:
- In many places, communities of color and low-income communities not only need transit, but they want it and are willing to pay for it specifically with support for both bus and rail. In Clayton County, the community identified a sales tax as a mechanism to fund public transit and in their effort supported the restoration of bus services but also the creation of rail services. “Beyond Traffic” should consider all transportation funding strategies are and ensure that communities of color and low-income communities of color are credited for their efforts to support them at local, state and federal levels.
- Leaders of color are an asset and a resource in educating and organizing communities about transportation needs and investments. As such, national leaders should both ensure they are present at planning table, but also that voices that expresses the interests of people indigenous to “growing communities” are included. The Friends of Clayton Transit Coalition was composed of leadership from organizations already established in the community. The diverse group included faith leaders, environmental justice advocates, long-standing community outreach groups, elected officials of color, and others. Their capacities enabled their success in a four-year effort that included legislative advocacy, voter registration and turnout, vigils, rallies, and other activities, all of which helped to restore transit service in Clayton County. “Beyond Traffic” should elevate that effective transportation systems are built by all of us, not just some of us and that diverse leaders on the ground, when supported with resources and provided opportunities to engage, can play a critical role in supporting the development of sustainable systems.
- Trust is imperative in building a system intended to support all of our needs. Measures to make data transparent and accessible to communities can build and sustain that trust. Though not covered deeply here, we know that Clayton County residents fought to bring MARTA to their community because they were given enough information to play a role in demonstrating where transit services were needed and where prospective service would be provided. Amidst the four year effort toward the November 2014 vote, MARTA officials also addressed issues that were undermining the public’s trust in the system. Hence, “Beyond Traffic” must emphasize the need for measuring equity outcomes around public engagement, service, safety, labor, and other equity concerns.
To get “Beyond Traffic,” our leaders must consider that while growing populations may beget new transportation trends, we can’t ignore the pressing, persistent transportation needs for the longtime residents of communities experiencing growth. The South in particular needs racially equitable and sustained transit investments. Our nation’s leaders should be looking toward communities of color and low-income communities to develop strategies to meet those needs.
In developing this blogpost, CSI spoke with a representative from the Georgia Sierra Club. The group was a member of the Friends of Clayton Transit Coalition.
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