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An Open Letter to Secretary Pete Buttigieg

Dear Secretary Pete:

Congratulations to you and your leadership team from the many partners involved with the Strong Prosperous and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC). We represent a diverse range of community leaders, transportation advocates, government agencies, community development and public health investors, and climate justice advocates working across the country to create more equitable, healthy, and climate resilient communities.  You are taking the helm of the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) at a time of exhilarating possibility and overwhelming crisis. The good news is that you and your team do not need to tackle either on your own.

Our 100+ member coalition has been working collaboratively on a variety of issues connected to transportation for over four years. We are testing new approaches to investment in communities and identifying barriers and ways to overcome them. We welcome the opportunity to work with you and your team to set the nation’s transportation systems on a path that is more equitable, more resilient, and more responsive to the diverse needs of our communities and economies. Equitable transit-oriented development (ETOD) is one area the six SPARCC regions are deploying new partnerships, approaches, and investment models that offer USDOT a pathway to help communities and transportation systems recover from the COVID-19 pandemic while simultaneously tackling climate, racial justice, and economic crises.

We acknowledge that typically transportation and infrastructure policy is the purview of industry insiders, many of whom are already reaching out to you with the next new technology or high price tag project to create a “21st Century Transportation System.” In contrast, our collective experience tells us that the people most affected with the inequities and lack of access in the current system are the best positioned to develop those solutions. Transportation innovations such as autonomous vehicles, electric buses or high-speed rail will do little to solve persistent, deep mobility challenges without a change in the core values that guide how USDOT works with communities. Technical expertise without lived experience is likely to leave behind, once again, the very communities it purports to help.

For too long the environmental, economic, and health burdens of our inadequate transportation system have fallen on the poor, the disabled, and on Black, Brown, Indigenous, and other people of color. USDOT, like HUD and other federal agencies, has a history of displacing, disconnecting, and disinvesting in BIPOC communities. You and your team have the opportunity to forge a different pathway for USDOT that values listening and self-reflection, asking: who will benefit from these new infrastructure and mobility policies, technological innovations, and investments, and who will be burdened?

What if the Biden-Harris Administration and USDOT, under your leadership, create a new history that centers racial equity and includes community ownership opportunities for Black, Brown, Indigenous, and all people of color in transportation? What if train and bus stations were more than stops and became hubs for equitable development like climate-resilient health clinics, affordable homes, or small businesses? Earlier this year, SPARCC partners released our policy platform: Pathways for Community Prosperity. It includes recommendations for federal and local policy makers to create this new history, with a specific focus on ETOD. More importantly, it highlights specific examples, from community land ownership models in Oakland and Memphis, to affordable homes connected to transit stations in Chicago, to soccer fields and youth programming next to MARTA stations in Atlanta, to new ways to provide transit safety on Metro in Los Angeles.

ETOD is a policy, a process, and a development form that facilitates equitable development serving the needs of existing community residents and stakeholders, especially the most vulnerable. ETOD is centered on the people who live, work, and create in communities of color and in low-income communities that are served by existing or planned high-capacity transit service, whether bus or rail. As our communities recover from the simultaneous racial justice, public health, housing, and climate crises, ETOD can be an important strategy to create a healthy, climate resilient, and equitable future for all while also generating economic value and providing public services more cost effectively.

But let us be clear, not all transit-oriented development projects and policies are equitable. We have witnessed this first hand as new TOD projects in Logan Square have gentrified this historically LatinX Chicago community with more affluent, whiter residents moving into new luxury apartments pushing up surrounding rents and home values. In Atlanta, the excitement by USDOT to help fund the Beltline project led to a spike in rents and home values in surrounding Black neighborhoods like Mechanicsville and Adair Park. In these and other instances, City leaders realize too late that affordable housing commitments must be part of any transit expansion.

USDOT, in partnership with other federal agencies including the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, provides the funding and sets the rules for states and communities. If done right, USDOT could enable ETOD to include design and planning strategies that support climate resiliency and energy efficiency, improve public health outcomes, and create community wealth-building opportunities for all.  SPARCC’s recipe for USDOT and other federal agencies who want to support ETOD includes five ingredients.

  1. Require and incentivize proactive actions required to prevent displacement;
  2. Elevate racial equity in federal infrastructure and TOD programs;
  3. Adequately fund transit, with a priority on restoring and improving local bus service;
  4. Redefine safety to be more than policing and criminal enforcement; and,
  5. Provide funding and capacity building resources to community-based organizations.

We see a few immediate opportunities:

The Capital Investment Grant Program administered by the Federal Transit Association (FTA) includes some of the only anti-displacement provisions in federal policy, but more is needed. USDOT should encourage transit agencies with real estate assets to enact ETOD policies such as those recently adopted by BART, RTD, and LA Metro that were informed through deep engagement with community partners.  Other transportation investments, including highways and intercity rail, also need to be considered in a larger community context. They need to include a racial equity assessment that considers health and climate impacts, as well as bolster a local commitment to anti-displacement strategies.

Creating an Office of Equitable Transit Oriented Communities at USDOT, as proposed by Congressman Chuy García and included in the Moving Forward Act of 2020, would be an important first step to ensure these policies and programs are coordinated across USDOT and with other federal agencies. In defining ETOD and the new office’s mission, we call upon USDOT and Congressional leaders to take a broad view that encompasses ­public health, economic development, climate resiliency, mobility justice, and housing.

USDOT should define ETOD to encompass more than affordable housing by including workforce and economic development, and access to parks, healthcare facilities, grocery stores, schools, and other community-serving needs. LA Metro’s definition of Transit Oriented Communities provides a powerful example of this approach.

ETOD should be the nexus bringing together myriad governmental actors, civic institutions, private sector partners, and community-based organizations who all must work together to create, implement, nurture, and own the vision. In developing the City of Chicago’s new ETOD Policy, for instance, local artists, public health partners, and neighborhood organizations were funded to collaboratively deploy creative engagement strategies and to sit at the table as policies were being developed for the City to implement.

These are only a few examples of what is possible. We call on you, Secretary Pete, to be our ally and champion in this work. We invite you to come and see our work in Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Memphis or the San Francisco Bay Area so that we can show you the amazing things happening in our communities and the barriers and challenges that remain to realizing equitable transportation that serves all members of our communities. Under your leadership, USDOT has a unique opportunity to adjust its focus from moving people and goods across America, to moving our BIPOC communities up and forward. SPARCC partners stand ready to help. Let’s seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity together.

Signed Sincerely,

Roberto Requejo, Program Director, Elevated Chicago, and Mariia Zimmerman, Principal, MZ Strategies, LLC (co-chairs of SPARCC’s ETOD work group)