The Source Civil Engineering Magazine Policy Briefing: Equity, environmental justice emerge as key goals of Biden infrastructure plan

Policy Briefing: Equity, environmental justice emerge as key goals of Biden infrastructure plan

By Jay Landers

This article is the first in a series “Equity and Infrastructure: How Infrastructure Influences Social Equity,” that will be published by Civil Engineering magazine and the Civil Engineering Source over the next several months.

In late March, the Biden administration released its American Jobs Plan, a $2 trillion proposal seeking to boost the state of infrastructure and other services across the country.  In unveiling the plan, the White House highlighted a desire to undo some of the harm that has resulted from earlier large-scale infrastructure projects, most notably the Interstate Highway System. “Too often, past transportation investments divided communities … or it left out the people most in need of affordable transportation options,” according to a summary of the American Jobs Plan released by the White House on March 31.

Against this backdrop, the Biden administration included within its wide-ranging plan a $20 billion program to “reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments and ensure new projects increase opportunity, advance racial equity and environmental justice, and promote affordable access,” according to the summary. At the same time, the White House also vowed to target “40% of the benefits of climate and clean infrastructure investments to disadvantaged communities,” the summary stated.

Although the White House and Congress have yet to iron out their differences regarding a major infrastructure package, the administration’s proposals for improving racial equity and environmental justice have caught the attention and imagination of those seeking to redress harms associated with past infrastructure projects and ensure that future projects benefit everyone.

“It’s an opportunity to join with and see people that we just often haven’t seen, for whatever reason, when we’ve done these large infrastructure projects,” says Michael McAfee, Ed.D., the president and CEO of PolicyLink, a research and action organization that is dedicated to advancing racial equity.

At the same time, recent calls for a renewed focus on environmental justice within the infrastructure sector have raised questions about how civil engineers and others involved in the provision of such services can best go about ensuring their equitable development and delivery.

At the federal level

This focus on ensuring equity in infrastructure has been present since the earliest days of the Biden administration. One week after his inauguration, President Joe Biden signed his Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. Among its provisions, the order directs federal agencies to “make achieving environmental justice part of their missions by developing programs, policies, and activities to address the disproportionately high and adverse human health, environmental, climate-related and other cumulative impacts on disadvantaged communities, as well as the accompanying economic challenges of such impacts,” according to the text of the order. “It is therefore the policy of my Administration to secure environmental justice and spur economic opportunity for disadvantaged communities that have been historically marginalized and overburdened by pollution and underinvestment in housing, transportation, water and wastewater infrastructure, and health care.”

The order also created two separate, though nearly identically named, advisory bodies — the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council and the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

The White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council is led by the chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, Brenda Mallory, and comprises the heads of multiple federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Biden directed the new interagency council to “develop a strategy to address current and historic environmental injustice” and “develop clear performance metrics to ensure accountability,” according to the order.

Meanwhile, the new White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council was incorporated within the EPA. The advisory council is charged with providing recommendations “on how to increase the Federal Government’s efforts to address current and historic environmental injustice,” the order notes.

Previous efforts

The recent actions by the White House pertaining to environmental justice are not the first such efforts by a presidential administration. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations. Essentially, the order directed federal agencies to “make achieving environmental justice part of (their) mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of (their) programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations,” according to the order.

Clinton’s executive order was useful, because it “raised the idea of environmental justice and injustice to the national level,” says Dennis Randolph, P.E., M.ASCE, a traffic engineer for the city of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Randolph, who has worked as a civil engineer in varying capacities at the local government level for 50 years, also is a member of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which advises the EPA on matters related to environmental justice.

The 1994 order has had only mixed results in terms of its influence on the civil engineering community, Randolph maintains. “Much of what has happened with broadened awareness (regarding environmental justice) has been in the matters of providing opportunities for minority and disadvantaged community members to join as contractors or professionals in our business,” Randolph says.

However, thornier questions of how to contend with the legacy of past wrongs have proved harder to address.

“The idea that infrastructure we built resulted in injustice to people and communities, especially those with the least ability to influence or impact decisions regarding infrastructure, has been very difficult for many of us to accept,” Randolph notes.

As an example of such harms, Randolph cites aspects of the Interstate Highway System, which frequently disrupted established communities and displaced hundreds of thousands of people around the country. “Some pieces (of the system) wreaked terrible environmental injustice on poor and disadvantaged communities,” he says. 

A city separated

Before going to work for the city of Kalamazoo, Randolph held the position of director of works for the city of Grandview, Missouri. Like many urban centers throughout the United States, Grandview experienced significant dislocation at the hands of a major highway project. In the 1980s, before Randolph’s tenure in Grandview, a highway that would later become Interstate 49 was extended through the city. As part of this effort, the existing two-way service roads on either side of the highway were converted to one-way service roads.

However, the project provided no sidewalks on the bridges spanning the interstate and included few turnarounds and crossovers along the highway corridor. “It made it extremely difficult for people to travel from one side of the city to the other,” Randolph says. The changes “destroyed the cohesion in the neighborhoods,” he says. “It separated the city.”

Cut off from many of their customers, businesses began to leave the area. Lower-income individuals, particularly those without vehicles, found themselves essentially walled off from economic opportunities. “They were stuck,” Randolph says. They also had a more difficult time getting to grocery stores or other places they needed to go. At the same time, lower-income residents began experiencing health problems stemming from the pollution associated with the approximately 100,000 vehicles traveling through the nearby corridor every day. “They were showered by pollutants of all sorts,” he says.

For Randolph, Grandview’s experience highlights what can happen when an infrastructure project fails to account for its effects on those who are least able to cope with the changes it brings, changes about which they had little or no input. “It’s difficult to break out of a problem that was caused by a facility built to help someone else and (on which) no thought was given to you or to protect you,” he says.

Growing awareness

Injustices associated with past infrastructure projects began to receive greater attention from the federal government during the Obama administration, largely because of Anthony Foxx, the DOT secretary from 2013 to 2017.

“Secretary Foxx expanded the role of civil rights and equity in federal transportation applications and decision-making” within the DOT, says Daniel Armanios, Ph.D., A.M.ASCE, an associate professor in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at the Carnegie Mellon College of Engineering. As a result, the DOT’s Departmental Office of Civil Rights evaluates various infrastructure projects to ensure that they “do not harm asymmetrically or unduly those of marginalized or disadvantaged backgrounds,” he notes.

However, transportation is not the only infrastructure sector with a history of unequal outcomes. Because of the well-publicized problems involving lead in drinking water in Flint, Michigan, and other U.S. cities, water infrastructure has emerged as a major concern for those working to advance more equitable public policy.

“Flint is probably what we would consider ground zero” for environmental injustice, McAfee says.

In 2014, the cash-strapped city, in a cost-cutting move, began using the Flint River for its drinking water supply. After the corrosive water from the river leached lead from pipes within the city’s distribution system, lead levels increased in drinking water samples. More concerning, the incidence of Flint children having elevated levels of the toxic material in their blood also increased, generating local and national outrage regarding the situation in the majority Black city. “It was a public policy decision to be cheap on caring for that infrastructure,” McAfee says.

Problems stemming from past infrastructure projects illustrate a failure on the part of civil engineers and others to take the time to understand how such projects will affect communities and learn from their members as to what they would like to see in terms of infrastructure, Randolph says. “As applied scientists, it is our role to listen to people, identify problems, and then use our knowledge of technology to solve these problems in a way that does not harm people,” he says. “This is what we have not always done and one reason the idea of environmental justice has been gaining traction.”

Correcting the damages

If the Biden administration succeeds in its bid to create a new federal program for reconnecting neighborhoods, advancing racial equity and environmental justice, and promoting affordable access, what might such an effort entail?

The program would need to focus on “addressing and correcting damages caused by projects in the past and preventing environmental injustices from happening in future projects,” Randolph says. Such outcomes can be achieved “specifically by making sustainability and resilience a key focus in our work, as these ideas encompass the support and welfare of humanity and the earth,” he says.

In fact, Grandview offers an example of how previous damages can be undone. The city “spent a lot of time developing a plan” to return the service roads along the I-49 corridor to two-way operation, Randolph says.

The new arrangement is expected to help reconnect Grandview neighborhoods that were cut off from the rest of the city by the existing configuration. “We had to do some creative engineering” to convince the Missouri Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration that the proposed changes would not jeopardize safety, he notes. Developed by the city in partnership with MoDOT, the $15 million effort known as the I-49 Outer Roadway Conversion Project is expected to begin construction this year.

More immediate solutions

McAfee agrees on the need to resolve problems caused by past infrastructure projects. “We should always have a reparative mindset,” he says. However, fixing problems associated with past projects cannot be the only focus, McAfee says. “We’re not going to move all the highways and roads and bridges today,” he notes. “That’s just not going to happen.”

But other, more immediate solutions can be brought to bear on existing problems. “What we can think about are transportation patterns, where low- and middle-skilled jobs are, and where the people are,” McAfee says. In such cases, what is needed are “adequate public transportation systems to get folks to those types of jobs,” he notes. “We can do those types of things.”

Ultimately, a greater focus on all people and how to meet their needs is required.

“We need an equity-centered consciousness as we go about implementing an infrastructure strategy,” McAfee says. At its root, such an approach must ensure that “communities that have often been disconnected from opportunity” are connected to opportunity, he notes. “That is really what the leading edge of the equity movement is,” he explains. “It’s not just about roads and bridges. It is about the people and communities and being able to make sure that they can participate in the civic life of a city, that they can fully participate, prosper, and reach their potential. That’s what’s at stake.”

Community review processes

As part of major development projects occurring in minority and disadvantaged communities, developers sometimes agree to various conditions as part of a project, including workforce training goals, involvement of disadvantaged businesses, and other economic and employment opportunities for the local community. Often, such conditions go a long way toward ensuring community acceptance of a project. However, what is promised does not always come to pass, and communities in such situations often are left without recourse, Armanios notes.

To protect themselves from this possibility, local governments and communities should require that development projects occurring within their borders be subject to “community development review process and guidelines” that ensure that promised benefits materialize and align with community expectations, Armanios says.

Ideally, this process would include “clear community milestones” that are evaluated at predefined stages of a project, Armanios says. In the event that the developer fails to meet a milestone or provide a promised benefit, the community would have the option to return the project “to the developer for revision,” he says. What’s more, such arrangements should be legally enforceable, “so there are consequences for parties that do not abide by those agreements,” he says.

More broadly, “new codes and standards” need to be developed for evaluating whether infrastructure projects produce equitable outcomes, Armanios says. “What I would love to see is the DOT’s Departmental Office of Civil Rights spearhead a convening of engineers, social scientists, lawyers, and local and state government officials as well as developer and community stakeholders to start building these standards,” he says.

The importance of partnerships

To ensure that infrastructure projects maximize community benefits, civil engineers and other development professionals should partner with community foundations, McAfee says. Community foundations are well positioned to convene local citizens and organizations to provide input on proposed projects, he notes. “All the civil engineers need to do is to have the curiosity and a commitment to want to see the humanity of people who for too long have been left behind when we’ve done this type of work,” McAfee says. “That would be the leading edge of practice for civil engineers and others within municipal government.”

Because of the lasting nature of most infrastructure projects, civil engineers and others responsible for their development must strive to assess and minimize their negative aspects, Randolph says. “While changes will remove some obvious problems, they can never make up for the years of lost opportunity, exposure to toxic air and water, and the loss of community that resulted from the misguided infrastructure,” he says.

“Preventing such failures should be a key part of every civil engineering project.”

Read all the pieces in the series “Equity and Infrastructure: How Infrastructure Influences Social Equity.”

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