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Office of Planning, Environment, & Realty (HEP)

An Overview of Transportation and Environmental Justice

"Each Federal agency shall make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations."

- Executive Order 12898, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, 1994

Safety and mobility are two of the U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT's) top priorities. Achieving environmental justice is another undeniable mission of the agency.

A 1994 Presidential Executive Order directed every Federal agency to make environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing the effects of all programs, policies, and activities on "minority populations and low-income populations." The DOT's environmental justice initiatives accomplish this goal by involving the potentially affected public in developing transportation projects that fit harmoniously within their communities without sacrificing safety or mobility.

Environmental justice is not a new concern. Today, because of the evolution of the transportation planning process, they are receiving greater emphasis. Effective transportation decision-making depends upon understanding and properly addressing the unique needs of different socioeconomic groups. This is more than a desktop exercise; it requires involving the public. The FHWA is committed to this more comprehensive, inclusive approach. These changes make sure that every transportation project nationwide considers the human environment.

What is Environmental Justice?

Photo: a man and a woman working on the streetscape plan

Environmental justice at FHWA means identifying and addressing disproportionately high and adverse effects of the agency's programs, policies, and activities on minority and low-income populations to achieve an equitable distribution of benefits and burdens. This includes the full and fair participation by all potentially affected communities in the transportation decision-making process.

Is Environmental Justice a New Requirement?

No. The recipients of Federal-aid have been required to certify and the U.S. DOT must ensure nondiscrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and many other laws, regulations, and policies. In 1997, the Department issued its DOT Order to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations to summarize and expand upon the requirements of Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice.

Environmental Justice Improves Transportation Decision Making

Environmental justice is more than a set of legal and regulatory obligations. Properly implemented, environmental justice principles and procedures improve all levels of transportation decision-making. This approach will:

Photo: a mason working on a large mosaic in a street intersection

Executive Order 12898 and the DOT and FHWA Orders on Environmental Justice address persons belonging to any of the following groups:

  1. Minority. A person who is:
    1. Black - a person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa;
    2. Hispanic or Latino: a person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race;
    3. Asian American - a person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent;
    4. American Indian and Alaskan Native - a person having origins in any of the original people of North America , South America (including Central America) and who maintains cultural identification through tribal affiliation or community recognition; or
    5. Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander: a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa or other Pacific Islands.
  2. Low-Income Population - Any readily identifiable group of low-income persons who live in geographic proximity, and, if circumstances warrant, geographically dispersed/transient persons (such as migrant workers or Native Americans) who will be similarly affected by a proposed FHWA program, policy, or activity.
  3. Minority Population. Any readily identifiable groups of minority persons who live in geographic proximity, and if circumstances warrant, geographically dispersed/transient persons (such as migrant workers or Native Americans) who will be similarly affected by a proposed FHWA program, policy, or activity

Environmental Justice Applies to All Transportation Decisions

Environmental justice should be integrated into every transportation decision - from the first thought about a transportation plan to post-construction operations and maintenance. The FHWA Order applies to all policies, programs, and other activities that are undertaken, funded, or approved by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

Transportation Partners and the Public

Federal agencies, State DOTs, Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), and transit providers advance Title VI and environmental justice by involving the public in transportation decisions. Effective public involvement programs enable transportation professionals to develop systems, services, and solutions that meet the needs of the public, including minority and low-income communities. There are many excellent examples of transportation initiatives that successfully integrate environmental justice principles. Partners and stakeholders can use these successes to champion the opportunities and responsibilities that Title VI and environmental justice present.

Photo: Tulalip Tribes community center

Federal Agencies - FHWA staff will continue to work with State DOTs, MPOs, transit providers, and other local agencies to ensure Title VI and environmental justice considerations are integral to all surface transportation activities. In addition to making sure that Federal transportation regulations and policies affirm and reinforce nondiscrimination, Federal staff will take other important actions to:

State DOTs - are at the heart of planning, design, construction, and operations and maintenance projects across all travel modes. They allocate resources from various Federal-aid programs. State DOTs successfully integrate Title VI and environmental justice into their activities when they:

MPOs - serve as the primary forum where State DOTs, transit providers, local agencies, and the public develop local transportation plans and programs that address a metropolitan area's needs. MPOs can help local public officials understand how Title VI and environmental justice requirements improve planning and decision-making. To certify compliance with Title VI and address environmental justice, MPOs need to:

Photo: Street arch in Chinatown Philadelphia

Transit Providers- offer mobility for all citizens whether they own a vehicle or not. They provide an essential service for many low-income and minority populations who have no other way to get to work, shopping, child care, medical appointments, recreation, or other destinations. Transit agencies support Title VI and environmental justice principles when they:

The Public - Transportation agencies cannot fully meet community needs without the active participation of well-informed, empowered individuals, community groups, and other nongovernmental organizations such as businesses and academic institutions. These individuals and groups advance the letter, spirit, and intent of Title VI and environmental justice in transportation when they:

Where Do I Find More Information About Environmental Justice and Transportation?

For information on resources, technical assistance, publications, and DOT contacts, explore this EJ web site:

Additional contact information:

Federal Highway Administration
Office of Human Environment
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
East Building, 7th Floor
Washington, DC 20590

Updated: 5/4/2016
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