“This is not what a DOT secretary sounds like,” said Adie Tomer, head of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution. “Buttegieg is focusing on broader shared goals: How do we make sure everyone in America, regardless of the neighborhood they live in, has the opportunity to get to jobs that best fit their skills and gets them the opportunity to succeed?”
Analysts say the administration is already implementing policies that will make it easier for disadvantaged communities to build: The Federal Transit Administration on Feb. 16 revoked Trump administration guidance saying communities could not count federal loans as local sources of funding.
The department also for the first time listed racial equity as a criterion for being selected for some $889 million in INFRA (Infrastructure for Rebuilding America) discretionary grants.
Buttigieg isn’t the first Transportation secretary to talk about the federal legacy that transportation policy left on Black and Brown communities. During the Obama administration, Anthony Foxx criticized the legacy of urban highways, launching an initiative aimed at examining how infrastructure can be a barrier or bridge to opportunity, jobs and education.
Still, said David Zipper, a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government: “If you were to ask me what policies specific to equity the U.S. DOT implemented under Obama, I would struggle to answer you.” He said the Trump administration didn’t appear to acknowledge racial equity at all, focusing instead on ensuring rural communities received federal dollars.
But much has changed since then. George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers in 2020 spurred a national reckoning over racism, and a handful of groups, including Transportation for America, have campaigned steadily for years for a more thoughtful transportation policy that ensures that disadvantaged communities have access to economic opportunity.
One change the federal government could make, Goldstein said, would be to change the current Highway Trust Fund formula, which provides 80 percent of funding to highways and 20 percent to transit.
The trust fund, paid for through federal gas taxes, has not been solvent for years, and the federal government has borrowed more than $140 billion from general revenue since 2008 to fully fund it, according to the Tax Policy Center.
Goldstein said the original rationale behind the 80-20 split was that motorists should reap most of the benefits because they paid the taxes. That rationale, he argues, doesn’t make as much sense now, when so much of highways and transit are paid for through general revenue.
Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Ill., a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the formula is broken, and that transit systems were crumbling even before the pandemic decimated ridership.
“We’re simply not providing them enough federal funding,” Garcia said.
Congress has allocated about $39 billion to transit during the pandemic on top of formula funding, proposing an additional $30 billion in its recent reconciliation recommendations.
Republicans, however, have resisted providing additional dollars to transit, arguing the money too often benefits urban communities at the expense of rural ones.
Garcia suggested an expansion of broadband could help convince Republicans to support an infrastructure bill, and argued it’s worth it to pursue transformational change.
“For too long, transportation policy has been on autopilot,” he said. “We’re at a moment in history where we can begin to reverse those things.”