PennDOT works to dismantle systemic racism

By Michael Brenneis

The Pennsylvania DOT recently unveiled a report from its Dismantling Systemic Racism and Inequities Working Group that details recommendations to establish anti-racist principles at the core of the work done by the DOT. Collecting input from the community, staff, leadership, and other DOTs, the report lays out strategies to balance the PennDOT workforce, invest in disadvantaged communities, reduce disparity in contracting, engage with communities of color, and increase diversity on advisory boards and commissions. 

Many state DOTs are recognizing the harm historic policies and projects have done to vulnerable communities. Toks Omishakin, Director of Caltrans, another state DOT engaging in transportation reform, puts it this way: “Overall, minority and under-served communities experience fewer benefits and take on a greater share of negative impacts associated with our transportation systems.” SSTI addressed the need to advance transportation equity in its most recent community of practice meeting. 

PennDOT seeks to recruit, hire, and retain more workers of color by building a more inclusive workplace, improving training practices, and developing a more diverse “pipeline” of candidates by engaging with students of color at all levels. By analyzing the barriers that keep minority businesses from winning contracts with the agency, PennDOT seeks to develop strategies to provide more opportunities for Black-owned businesses to benefit from the roughly $2 billion and $500 million it spends respectively on construction and consultant contracts each year.  

The PennDOT report recommends identifying areas where access to “jobs, generational wealth, healthy foods and healthcare” have been denied to communities of color, and evaluating spending per capita to identify areas where investment could be directed in order to reduce these disparities. As in other states, those with the capacity to access funding through grants tend to be better served. Spending equity may be achieved in part by increasing the access communities of color have to the planning and funding process. 

Expanding engagement with diverse populations can help PennDOT better serve disadvantaged communities. The report suggests finding ways to increase public involvement, collaborate with other agencies, and enhance multilingual practices. Increasing the diversity of the roughly 200 individuals who serve on advisory boards and commissions could give additional voice to anti-racist perspectives. 

Several initiatives have been established by an executive-led group. These include making PennDOT’s grants process more equitable, piloting an employer partnership to “help eliminate transportation barriers in low-income, transit-dependent communities,” continuing a training program that funds contractors to hire “socioeconomically underserved people of color and women,” the provision of state photo IDs to individuals experiencing homelessness, and developing a revenue source more sustainable than the gas tax. 

This report represents a good faith effort to find strategies to confront systemic racism in systems under the purview of PennDOT. The next step, for which many are advocating, is to turn such recommendations into actionable policy. 

Photo source: Joe A. Kunzler Photo