Transportation spending, projects bypass communities of color


PolicyLink, Organizing Apprenticeship Project (OAP), and ISAIAH, a coalition of Twin Cities and regional congregations that works on racial and economic justice issues, recently analyzed ARRA transportation investments in Minnesota and their impact on low-income communities and communities of color. The study concluded that the highest levels of transit investments are not in areas with the highest poverty or unemployment rates, nor are they in areas with the highest percentage of people of color across the state of Minnesota or within the Twin Cities. 

AARA funds only reinforced existing inequities, the study added.

Jermaine Toney, lead policy analyst of the OAP, a Minneapolis-based organization that works on racial justice and equity issues, says the stimulus money “is deep, deep public investment dollars, but it was not a shift in the transportation policy itself. The suburbs got more transportation projects up and running, but did it benefit the most disadvantaged: Blacks and people of color? No.”

Conclusion of a two-part story – Last week the MSR reported that although Minnesota has received almost $600 million in American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (AARA) transportation funds for a variety of highway, bridge and lighting projects, no Black-owned businesses in the state have received any federal transportation contracts – these funds have gone to the usual “status quo” White firms. The story’s conclusion this week looks at why stimulus dollars fail to reach communities of color and how these inequities might be addressed.

“There is no difference in the outcomes we’ve seen from the stimulus than we would from the normal status quo in the transportation department,” surmises PolicyLink Senior Policy Analyst Shireen Malekafzali. 

However, MnDOT Policy, Safety and Strategic Initiatives Division Director Bernie Arseneau points out, “We were audited by the [federal] government on the AARA projects, and it was deemed that we were in compliance with that law.” He further contends that his department is fully committed to increasing the number of Black-, people of color- and women-owned companies getting transit contracts. 

First-term Minnesota State Representative Bobby Champion, one of two Black state legislators, sits on the House Transportation Oversight Committee. “Based on what I’ve seen,” says Champion, “MnDOT has a lot of work to be done, and they need to do it in real time.” His committee “has held a record number of hearings in order to make sure that reporting [from MnDOT] is coming forward,” he adds. 

Some suggest that the Minnesota Legislature should put a hold on any remaining or future stimulus transportation dollars. Lennie Chism, a local Black businessman, is circulating a petition formally requesting that the State of Minnesota immediately terminate all federally funded transportation contracts and that the U.S. Department of Transportation open an inquiry into whether MnDOT is doing enough to involve Black contractors in transit projects that use federal stimulus dollars.

“Are [MnDOT officials] there for [Blacks], or are they there to keep us out of it? Are they for inclusion or exclusion?” asks Chism, whose goal is secure 1,000 signatures to send to MnDOT Commissioner Thomas Sorel, Minnesota elected officials, and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

“I don’t want our attention just to be on the stimulus dollars alone,” notes Champion. “But I think we also need to hold state agencies accountable when it comes to state dollars. We don’t want to lose sight of the fact that there are state-only funded projects [and] city projects that are going on, where people of color and women are not being engaged quite the way they are supposed to be.”

However, since the Minnesota Legislature is currently dealing with a $1.8 billion budget deficit, freezing transit dollars, especially AARA funds, might not be realistic, Toney believes. “It looks like a real good solution, but will it work here?”

“Realistically I don’t see that happening,” adds Neil Copeland. But if it did, it would get “a few eyes open,” he added.

Among the MnDOT-approved projects is replacing the Lowry Avenue bridge over the Mississippi River – $10 million of the $65 million project, which is located in North Minneapolis, is funded by stimulus money. And, State officials say a $1.6 million Highway 610 project is completely funded by AARA. 

Both of those projects would benefit the Black community, says Rev. Paul Slack, a leader of the local faith-based social justice organization ISAIAH whose church is located in Brooklyn Park with a large population of Blacks and African immigrants. However, he warns, “It’s not just about where the project is, but whether the companies make the investment [in the community]. We also need to do local hiring [so] the people who live in these communities get these jobs.”

The pastor, who has been involved in transportation equity issues for five years, concludes, “We need communities of color to stand up and demand from their representatives that they actually stand on the side of the people who have been left out and neglected for a long time, and demand that we have some real results.”

Slack wants change “not for one, two, three or four years, but we actually transform our communities. That’s means we have to pay attention, not just now and not just until we see a good number of African Americans hired in the transportation industry, but that we are there for the long haul.”


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