BTA: Transportation equity? Bring it on

By Rob Sadowsky, Contributing Columnist

Metro, our region’s elected government charged with helping us make the region an extraordinary place to live, work and play, recently had a bit of a kerfuffle at a recent subcommittee meeting. The Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation (a 17-member panel of elected officials and leaders of transportation agencies) was giving final approval to regional flexible funding, a program of federal money that Metro controls and allocates in two-year cycles.

Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury asked for a delay in approving $2 million for Portland Bike Sharing, asking Portland to come back and address concerns raised by the Community for Equity, a coalition of seven local nonprofits. The groups have asked that the bike sharing system include specific goals for hiring low income and other disadvantaged workers and contractors — in operating the rental system as well as building it.

These concerns are valid and attaining the goals are indeed aspiring. Our region should be looking to address transportation equity for each and every project and we need a common understanding of just what equity means.

However, questioning the equity of just the Bike Sharing project actually highlighted the fact that not enough attention is paid to equity in the other projects. The concerns raised by the Community for Equity regarding specific hiring goals sets a standard that is not maintained for all other projects. Federal transportation funding requires governments to ensure that contracts for delivery of projects address specific hiring goals for disadvantaged business enterprises (or DBEs).

But this requirement does not directly translate into living wage jobs for all workers on a project. Projects may be required to hire a percentage of contractors meeting DBE goals, but do not have any individual hiring goals. Will we require engineering and planning firms designing the Metro supported Columbia River Crossing project to attain specific goals for hiring low income and other disadvantaged workers (not just contractors)? How much of the $3.6 billion of the massive bridge project will end up in meaningful, living wage jobs?

Let’s bring that dialogue on! Let us have a consistent approach to equity when it comes to various components of transportation projects:

Projects should meet transportation equity goals for hiring of contractors and employees across the board.

Our leaders should look to supplement transportation funding with job readiness and workforce development funding so that contractors can adequately meet these needs as well as have confidence that there is a trained and readily accessible workforce for projects.

Major transportation project corridors such as the Columbia River Crossing or the Portland Milwaukie Light Rail should be connected to funding for affordable housing as a proactive measure to ensure that the benefits from improved infrastructure are shared equitably.

Geographic distribution is important!  We should be evaluating projects across the region to ensure that infrastructure improvements are benefiting underserved communities throughout the region.

Here’s hoping that this is the start of a conversation that will lead to a healthy and productive set of policies that address transportation equity in the Metro region.

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