MnDOT views some of the criticism as ‘grandstanding’
Minnesota has received over $502 million in economic recovery funds and has obligated 70 percent – $353 million – for transportation projects. However, many Twin Cities residents are questioning why their communities haven’t received some of this federal money for transit improvement.
Around 300 people attended a meeting held August 31 at St. Paul’s Mount Olivet Baptist Church. ISAIAH, a coalition of churches, sponsored the meeting to demand greater investment in public transit and jobs for communities of color, women, and low-income communities.
Amidst huge applause, ISAIAH’s Rev. Paul Flack stressed that federal transportation policies must invest more in these hitherto underserved communities. “We need better outcomes, not just policy,” he said.
“We need outcomes that provide transportation for everybody: for women, for low-income [persons], and for people of color. And, [we must ensure] that the infrastructure provides a fair share of jobs so that the workforce will match the demographics of the state of Minnesota,” Flack said.
Jermaine Toney of the Organizing Apprenticeship Project (OAP) and Shireen Malekafzali, a PolicyLink senior program associate, also presented copies of their preliminary report on how the stimulus dollars are being spent in Minnesota. According to the report, which is scheduled for release this fall, transportation is a big piece of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).
Minnesota has thus far spent only about the minimum on public transportation. “There wasn’t enough money put into public transit, such as buses,” noted Malekafzali. “I think that without an equitable process and without public accountability, then we can’t expect equitable outcomes.”
State transportation officials have “underinvested” in communities of color, and most highway projects are “not in [the] highest concentration of people of color,” added Toney.
A state highway project in Maple Grove that includes three miles of a new four-lane roadway, two interchanges, three overpasses, a pedestrian bridge and noise walls was given as one example of the underinvestment in communities of color referred to in the OAP-PolicyLink report.
The report also says that Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) current procedures for collecting data on transit-related contracts are inadequate.
MnDOT’s Office of Civil Rights collects information from contractors on minority and women work hours; it claims that the office only uses the information for one week, and no other analysis is used for the other 51 weeks of the year.
MnDOT Program Specialist Ashanti Bayne strongly disagreed with this assertion when we contacted him after the ISAIAH meeting. He explained that his office regularly checks on around 600 projects each year, but they typically only use hiring data from “the larger projects around the state… We do 15 in-depth reviews a year, and all of that information is entered.”
The OAP-PolicyLink report also criticized a four-to-six-week turnaround time to get racial and gender hiring information from MnDOT on federal projects. Malekafzali says this is not being transparent in a timely fashion.
However, Bayne said he is somewhat troubled by such statements made in settings like last week’s ISAIAH meeting, calling it “grandstanding.” He pointed out that his office met Toney and Malekafzali’s request, which he says came at “our staff’s busiest season,” and explained that while the eight-person civil rights office “is taking time to do data requests, that means we are not doing the work that we are supposed to be doing.”
“Once I give [OAP and PolicyLink] the information that they requested, what they do with it and how they use it sometimes is just not accurate,” Bayne said. “We give them the correct information, but I don’t see in some cases that they utilized that information either accurately or responsibly.”
Toney said that MnDOT’s current method “reinforces the racial, economic and gender disparities,” an assertion that MnDOT Civil Rights Program Director Hope Jensen strongly disagrees with.
“There are two sides to the story,” Jensen said during in a phone interview from her office last Wednesday. “There is a reality to how much data we can enter into a system [and] how quickly we can spit it out as a timely report.”
Alex Tittle of HIRE Minnesota, a group advocating for more Blacks and persons of color working on state construction projects, also spoke to the ISAIAH audience critically of MnDOT: “They have failed to make sure that the work is being done by the community [residents], and have failed for over 17 years.”
“It seems like everyone is trying to call out MnDOT,” counters Bayne, “but no one has put any responsibility or onus upon the people who actually make the hiring and employment decisions, which are the contractors.”
ISAIAH also asked those present representing several of the state’s U.S. congressional delegates to pledge support for the upcoming $600 billion Federal Transportation Bill and to meet with a delegation of ISAIAH members, including Slack, in Washington, D.C., next week.
“What we heard tonight from the community is that they want to have a bigger voice in the transportation policy decisions that are made in their neighborhood,” remarked U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar’s Deputy State Director Jake Spano. He added that Klobuchar is committed to improving the state’s transit needs: “Whether it is Ramsey County or Rock County, every community has its own needs.”
“There is enough [stimulus money] for you and me – for Blacks, Whites, Latinos, Republicans and Democrats,” said U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who asked everyone in the audience to stand, hold hands, and briefly chant a pledge along with him to work together to help solve transit issues.
Finally, Bayne said, “As a citizen, you should be concerned about where those dollars are spent, and you should find out who make those decisions and get an explanation on how those decisions are made.”
Read more excerpts from the ISAIAH transportation equity meeting on www.challman.word press.com.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-record er.com.
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