State DOTs’ commitment to equity made clearer through federal Request for Information

By Liz Biskar, Policy Lab

Equity, diversity, and inclusion have been of growing importance among state and federal transportation agencies, and yet there isn’t a clear consensus on how that commitment translates into tangible outcomes. A new report from the Policy Lab at Claremont McKenna College, produced in partnership with SSTI, offers some clarity through an in-depth look at state DOT responses to the USDOT’s 2021 Request for Information (RFI) on transportation equity data. Over 300 public comments were submitted to the RFI, including 11 from state DOTs. The RFI was intended to help the USDOT identify its role in perpetuating or removing barriers for people of color and other underserved groups, and to solicit input on the best data sources, methods, and tools to advance equitable federal transportation programs.

This report adds to a growing body of research seeking to demystify transportation equity and document the progress state DOTs are making toward advancing equity goals. It provides a working definition of transportation equity and an overview of the major pieces of federal legislation governing transportation equity analysis, as well as identifies the common themes and best practices found in state DOT responses to the RFI. Lastly, the report leverages a rough maturity index to gauge current efforts among state agencies to advance transportation equity.

The study finds:

  • In spite of the general lack of consensus among transportation scholars and practitioners on how to define transportation equity, state DOTs agree on the baseline variables that should be the center of equity analysis—race, ethnicity, income, and limited English proficiency—in addition to the importance of community engagement at all stages of the transportation planning process.
  • Although state DOTs largely agreed that more federal resources are needed to boost their capacity to measure transportation equity, there were some divisions on whether state DOTs wanted stronger mandates from USDOT for measuring transportation equity.
  • State DOTs from California, Washington, and Minnesota, scored the highest using our maturity index–a tool typically used to measure institutional progress towards a set of equity goals–which used information obtained from RFI responses and agency websites to assess efforts to advance transportation equity. Index questions ranged from whether a state DOT had established performance metrics to assess internal progress toward equity goals to whether there is an equity commitment statement on the agency website.
  • Many innovative programs, tools, and studies were highlighted in state DOT responses to the RFI to advance equity goals. These include a recently enacted law in Washington state requiring the DOT to conduct an environmental justice assessment for any investment over $15 million; a community engagement project in Minnesota to develop a new plan for the I-94 corridor; and an Equity Index Pilot Project in California, which uses measurements of health, mobility, accessibility, and social demographics to produce a transportation equity score for underserved communities to help guide Caltrans prioritization and investment in the state.

The full report is available for download here. These efforts will also be a topic of discussion at SSTI’s upcoming Community of Practice meeting specifically for leaders of state DOTs.

Photo credit: Luke Stewart via Wikimedia Commons, unmodified, License.