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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 67 · No. 2 > A Study in Environmental Justice

September/October 2003
Vol. 67 · No. 2

A Study in Environmental Justice

by Gary Strasburg

The New Orleans Regional Planning Commission developed a process to handle quality of life concerns on road projects.

Quality of life and environmental justice are central concerns for urban residents who are affected by road construction. In New Orleans, history has shown that if community values, neighborhood involvement, and community impact are not high on the agenda during transportation decisionmaking, serious conflict may arise.

The New Orleans Regional Planning Commission (NORPC) began a comprehensive effort to include these concerns in its highway designs, which may translate into a usable model for other State departments of transportation (DOTs) and local transportation agencies. Through a series of trial-and-error experiences, NORPC learned new methods that improve how transportation agencies plan and design road projects that affect neighborhoods.

Artwork painted on columns under I-10 in New Orleans
Inmates from the State prison were allowed to paint this artwork on the columns under I-10 in New Orleans.

"We found that the most difficult was to establish a two-way community dialogue in the situations that had decisions driven from the top down," says Jim Harvey, director of planning for the city's regional planning commission. Sometimes when decisions are made at a macroscopic level, it is difficult to see how those decisions will have an impact on the neighborhood level. "This was clearly seen when amendments were added to the State's constitution, creating major changes in the local transportation system within the New Orleans area. When local low-income residents believed that their communities would be adversely affected by a project, they immediately marched on their community leaders and legislature to stop construction. Needless to say, this increased the project timeline, costs, and congestion as the different groups sorted through the necessary changes before resuming construction."

Not a New Issue

Over the past 30 years, transportation agencies have moved forward with highway construction in New Orleans with increased awareness of both the natural and human environments. One project in particular—the Florida Street Bridge and Expressway—is especially prominent because the low-income residents in the area felt that their concerns were not taken into consideration.

The NORPC decided that the mindsets of both the transportation and the environmental communities needed to change. Rather than bringing in completed plans for the bridge and expressway, the NORPC explained to residential stakeholders how the project might work and asked questions about how residents thought it might be done better. What began as an adversarial relationship evolved into one of mutual cooperation and respect.

"It was important to step back from the project," says Harvey, "and get everyone together on the same ideas. We laid out the scenarios to see where concessions could make this into a win-win situation for everyone."

According to Darrel Saizan, a transportation consultant with Saizan and Associates, "Up until recently, New Orleans hadn't discussed how a project might affect and address the concerns of minority and low-income residents in the area."

Embedding Social Equity Into Planning

In New Orleans, a comprehensive regional plan based on smart-growth principles not only includes transportation and land-use elements, but also examines the economic development, environmental protection, social equity, and quality of life elements that shape the community and the transportation and land-use decisions. For example, the NORPC collected data about current land uses and provided that information to the parishes. This offered a broader picture of the situation and led to a more balanced transportation solution, including different design possibilities and multiple modes such as transit.

Title VI and Environmental Justice

A memorandum from Kenneth R. Wykle dated October 7, 1999, to Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) division offices describes Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and its general effect on transportation. The memo states, "'No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.' Title VI bars intentional discrimination as well as disparate impact discrimination (i.e., a neutral policy or practice that has a disparate impact on protected groups).

"The [President's, Department of Transportation's, Federal Highway Administration's] Environmental Justice (EJ) Orders further amplify Title VI by providing that '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.'

"Increasingly, concerns for compliance with provisions of Title VI and the EJ Orders have been raised by citizens and advocacy groups with regard to broad patterns of transportation investment and impact considered in metropolitan and statewide planning. While Title VI and EJ concerns have most often been raised during project development, it is important to recognize that the law also applies equally to the processes and products of planning [for all programs and activities of Federal-aid recipients, sub-recipients, and contractors]. The appropriate time for FTA [Federal Transit Administration] and FHWA to ensure compliance with Title VI in the planning process is during the planning certification reviews conducted for Transportation Management Areas (TMAs) and through the statewide planning finding rendered at approval of the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP)."

Ineffective oversight or implementation can be expected to result in complaints and suits in which entities that knew or should have known of Title VI-based issues lose control to investigators. Costs associated with such processes, in terms of time and resources, can be avoided by recognizing and properly addressing potentially discriminatory impacts upfront.

"We began looking at households," Harvey says, "that don't own or use an auto regularly." These families need some type of transportation. "We realized that low-income and minority community members might be affected by some projects even more than other residents," he says. Groups sometimes are affected inadvertently or feel they are isolated or cut off from employment, shopping, worship, or recreational facilities. Other items to consider when designing projects with communities include design features that magnify noise, air-quality, or visual impacts; the possibility of elevated facilities blocking sightlines or casting shadows in ways more negative than the surrounding or adjacent properties do; possible failure to incorporate universal design standards; or storm water runoff or collection patterns.

People boarding trolley
Visitors board a trolley for a day of sightseeing in New Orleans.

The commission wanted to incorporate environmental justice considerations into its mainstream planning process to address the needs of low-income and minority residents. The first step was to identify sections of the metropolitan area that warranted special attention.

To assist in this determination, the commission developed a software program to help depict the areas where transportation decisions might affect low-income and minority populations. The NORPC produced several additional software products to analyze whether current plans for the transportation system met the accessibility and mobility needs of the residents.

"Consideration must be given not only to the local neighborhoods," says Harvey, "but also to how a project fits into regional needs. By stepping back and looking at the big picture, we could look at both the individual community problems and problems in several different communities to determine if we might be able to address all these needs on a larger scale."

He adds, "Big infrastructure issues need to be talked about, and we need to see what all of the neighborhoods might have in common, what problems all the communities face, and what can be done on a regional level to address similar needs."

Opening a Dialogue and Overcoming Distrust

The NORPC worked diligently to inform policymakers, other local elected officials, transportation stakeholders, various community partners, and the public at large about the principles of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21). The commission helped the stakeholders understand the collective role of transportation agencies in the metropolitan planning process. All through this process, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) provided funding and guidance.

In addition, the NORPC engaged community partners in an open fluid dialogue on the transportation planning process. This dialogue improved relationships with neighborhood and business associations, environmental groups, social equity and faith-based organizations, and the public, resulting in an improved understanding of the needs and goals of the community.

Another group helped as well, the Committee for a Better New Orleans. "Our committee began working with the regional planning commission to identify transportation areas where groups could be involved," says Sandra Gunner, president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans.

Contruction workers building an trolley extension
Construction workers are completing a trolley extension in downtown New Orleans.
Construction workers laying track for the trolley system
Construction workers are laying track for the trolley system in New Orleans.

The result was the Committee for a Better New Orleans' report, A Blueprint for a Better New Orleans, which identified community organizations and people who need to be contacted about transportation. "We developed a transportation task force to establish goals and encourage input and participation from these communities," says Gunner.

"These new groups [the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission, Committee for a Better New Orleans, and local communities] working together are beginning to overcome the distrust of minority and low-income people," says Saizan.

On a side note, one of the programs that came from this new community approach to transportation is the Orleans Parish Prison program, which enables prisoners to paint their artwork on the columns that support the I-10 freeway in New Orleans. The program helps eliminate unwanted graffiti, provides a rehabilitative outlet for prisoners, and is an example of the developing trust between NORPC and minority and low-income communities.

Community Outreach Continued

The most important component of the environmental justice and Title VI [of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (42 U.S.C. 2000d-1)] activities is the community outreach program. During the planning process, particularly when environmental work on a project or corridor is beginning, the NORPC undertakes proactive community outreach designed to allow communities that are affected by the transportation changes to have early input into the planning process. The goal is to open a continuing dialogue on the issues the proposed transportation project raises for the community.

Harvey describes the process: "Come in with a short presentation on procedures, do a survey, and then follow up with a dialogue session," he says. "Be willing to listen to what their concerns are and then take the appropriate action."

The NORPC staff analyzes the input from the community and evaluates the likely impacts the transportation plan or project will have on the neighborhood, parish, and regional quality of life, and how it will affect community goals. The staff advises transportation agencies to look for commonalities rather than falling into the "us-versus-them" mentality.

NORPC next makes an effort to continue the community dialogue to find mutual, context-sensitive solutions to the issues raised. Operational analysis enables each segment of the community to help resolve the overall concerns, and the process works best when the community dialogue is initiated in the early stages of the planning process before any specific project proposals have been put forth. In this way the metropolitan planning organization is beginning to plan with the community instead of for the community.

Passengers boarding bus
Passengers board an RTA bus on Canal Street in New Orleans.
Bus picking up workers at the end of the day
The Jefferson Parish bus is picking up workers at the end of the day.

"We recently conducted a survey of best communication practices," says Gunner. "It was determined that most groups had access to cable channels and liked having their information on the government access channel. We could take a 3-hour public impact meeting and cut it down to a 30- to 60-minute presentation [to save time, yet still reap the benefits of community participation]. We also found that public notices, letters to key stakeholders, flyers to certain communities, and press releases were very effective."

Better planning and continuing community outreach can help environmental justice take care of itself.

Meetings and Other Outreach Tools

"The NORPC set up a dialogue with just the community," says Saizan, "and started meeting regularly. We met at the church in the neighborhood and had literally dozens of meetings. Federal highway, State highway, and community representatives were there . . . just fighting through all of the issues."

Although calling meetings is often necessary, the NORPC tends to avoid convening its own meetings and attempts rather to take its message to community forums that are already taking place. In this way the public can find out about plans and projects as well as communicate needs. If the NORPC must hold a separate meeting, it tries to do so in a venue familiar to the potentially affected population and in or near that community. Familiar and accessible surroundings promote both attendance and participation.

To supplement meetings, the NORPC uses the print media, newsletters, and direct mail to reach those individuals who could not attend meetings and to provide feedback on meeting outcomes to those who did. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, the commission makes extensive use of electronic media and communications.

Shining Successes

NORPC acted as a broker to foster regional cooperation for the Inter-parish Transit Mobility Study, which resulted in the implementation of a 1-day pass that enables bus riders to purchase a ticket upon boarding to ride all day on either the Jefferson system or the Regional Transit Authority system (or both) for one fare. Other outcomes of the study were new bus routes and transfer points between the parishes to provide improved mobility, particularly for those who live on the west bank of the Mississippi River.

"The transit system was very fragmented," says Sharon Leader, a transportation consultant. "Most people were just interested in a clean, efficient, and timely way to get to work. We are still looking at ways to make it a [unified] transit system throughout the entire area."

Working with local transit providers, local and regional Workforce Partnerships, and the Welfare to Work consortium, NORPC developed a Job Access Transportation Plan that seeks to improve transit connectivity between job seekers and employment and training opportunities. Implemented under the plan, new bus routes (and funding for the buses needed to run those routes) improve transit access to areas that have been identified in the regional economic cluster analysis as having potential for job growth, such as the Peters Road neighborhoods. Also implemented under the plan, van-based paratransit services provide flexible mobility for job seekers to reach employment sites and training facilities.

"There are seven or eight parishes working together," says Judith Williams, policy support coordinator for the New Orleans Workforce Investment Board, "to study ways to connect those needing employment with jobs in other areas [of the city]. We are working closely with the regional planning commission to map the areas needing help with those areas that can provide it. We are also working with companies like Northrop Grumman to find ways to get workers [to the job sites]."

The NORPC also is working a light rail project with the eight parishes in the city. Three streetcar and light rail systems are in various stages of completion.

"Construction is moving forward to provide rail systems as well as streetcar transportation," says Harvey. "We continue to look for ways to provide transportation for those who are unable to provide their own."

Saizan adds, "We are also looking at a [light] rail system between downtown and the airport. This East-West connector [may follow] an already existing railroad. But the railroad cuts through a community known as Bunche Village and is perceived as cutting them off from other parts of town. We continue to have discussions and know that we can come up with a mutually agreed [upon] solution."

Other successes are the city's bicycle and pedestrian programs, which work in conjunction with transit planning to provide improved access to the transit system for bicyclists and pedestrians. The bicycle and pedestrian programs also offer viable options for completely nonmotorized transportation.

"A recent study surprised us," says Harvey. "We found a large number of people using bicycles. Because of the study, we are now taking into account more ways to accommodate those travelers as well."

Bicycle locked to parking meter
Bicycles, like this one locked to a parking meter, are more and more popular as a mode of transportation in New Orleans.

Next Steps

"We are going more and more to activity-based thinking," says Harvey, referring to activity-based modeling that centers on whether a person takes a bus, drives, walks, or is even mobile at all. This approach captures the critical decision points.

Continuing efforts related to Title VI and environmental justice issues include collaboration with the Orleans Parish Work Force Investment Board and the Regional Workforce Partnership to conduct a community audit of the region that will provide updated information on the residential location of low-income and minority job seekers in relation to the location of employment opportunities and training facilities. (Although the Environmental Justice Executive Order focused on minority and low-income communities, Title VI prohibits discrimination against anyone based on race, color, or national origin, regardless of whether those affected are considered "minorities.")

Another ongoing effort is participation with the City of New Orleans and Jefferson Parish on a U.S. Department of Commerce-funded grant to develop a multiparish renewal community and the transportation services to support it.

The NORPC also is participating in the regional Welfare to Work Consortium to continue development of strategies to be included in the region's job access transportation plan. The organization is continuing to work with local transit providers on Americans with Disabilities Act issues such as paratransit coordination and improved transit access for the mobility-impaired.

"We have learned through this process," says Harvey, "that engaging the public early in the planning process, before major project decisions have been made, leads to better project design and ultimately to greater community acceptance and easier implementation."

The goal is to revitalize the challenged community while servicing the need to move goods and people around. Improved community outreach better serves the transportation needs of all concerned.


Gary Strasburg is the public affairs specialist for FHWA's Resource Center, Atlanta. His experience includes being a public affairs officer with the U.S. Air Force Reserve Command, and he can be contacted by e-mail at gary.strasburg@fhwa.dot.gov or by phone at 404-562-3668.

For more information, please contact Jim Harvey at NORPC, 504-568-6611; Virgil Page at the FHWA Louisiana Division, 225-757-7600; or Ben Williams at the FHWA Southern Resource Center, 404-562-3671.

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