The Biden-Harris Administration was elected amidst a national reckoning over the long history of structural racism in the United States in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police. In response, on their first day, they issued Executive Order (EO) 13985, Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government. The first EO of its kind, it committed the Federal government to addressing decades of underinvestment in communities of color, low-income communities, and other historically underserved communities by completing racial equity assessments of all federal agencies and adopting Racial Equity Action Plans.
The Administration itself quickly followed up with Executive Order 14008, Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, which defined the Administration’s agenda for addressing climate change and established the Justice 40 Initiative to ensure that 40% of the benefits of certain federal investments related to climate change flow to disadvantaged communities. Included in the list of federal projects that would have to comply were clean transit projects, which stand to receive significant funding from the Inflation Reduction Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the American Rescue Plan.
As the agency responsible for distributing most of these transit funds, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has developed implementation mechanisms to comply with Justice 40, including incorporating components of Justice 40 into Notices of Funding Opportunities (NOFOs), guidance, and reporting requirements; providing Technical Assistance to disadvantaged communities; and conducting program evaluation and improving equitable program design.
“This investment will help confront decades of underinvestment in disadvantaged communities, and bring critical resources to communities that have been overburdened by legacy pollution and environmental hazards.”
The Justice 40 Initiative
On February 21, 2023, the DOT released a beta version of their Equitable Transportation Community Explorer tool, which defines DOT Justice 40 disadvantaged communities across several indicators grouped into five components: Climate and Disaster Risk Burden; Environmental Burden; Health Vulnerability; Social Vulnerability; and Transportation Insecurity. The tool ranks Census tracts by percentiles across each of these indicators. The five components are then ranked by percentile to develop an overall disadvantage score. The DOT tool has selected indicators which are directly relevant to the types of projects it will fund, ensuring that investments are prioritized for those communities most in need of those transportation resources.
Steer’s Equity & Inclusion Practice uses a similar approach to identifying communities experiencing the greatest levels of harm or disadvantage when defining areas of equity priority because this comparative assessment acknowledges that inequity is both relative to other communities and cumulative in its impacts. It will now be up to funding applicants to measure whether their projects bring 40% of the benefits to these disadvantaged communities.