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Environmental Justice Emerging Trends and Best Practices Guidebook



Purpose of Document

In the face of economic challenges, aging infrastructure, technological advances, and increasing environmental concerns, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) remains committed to educating staff at Federal transportation agencies, State Departments of Transportation (State DOTs), Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), and transit agencies, as well as the public, about the importance of environmental justice (EJ) in decision-making. The FHWA and the FTA are preparing new training products and materials. This document, Environmental Justice in Transportation: Emerging Trends and Best Practices, was prepared by the FHWA, in cooperation with the FTA, and focus on timely and relevant transportation issues. This case study document helps promote a deeper understanding of the responsibilities, opportunities, and benefits derived from addressing EJ in transportation planning and implementation.

This introduction summarizes the importance and role of EJ in transportation, followed by four topic papers that can be read individually or used together as part of a training program on EJ for transportation practitioners. The four topic chapters focus on foundational issues (transit and affordability, as it affects communities' access to opportunities-and public involvement) or emerging trends (livability, road pricing) and highlight noteworthy case studies and best practices that promote EJ in transportation decision-making. The United States Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) guidance document directs the FHWA and the FTA to:

The topics in this document were selected for their relevance and emerging significance in transportation planning, based on a review of trends and current issues. The topic chapters demonstrate how EJ principles are being applied to meet mutually beneficial goals as defined by both practitioners and the communities served by the projects. Each chapter includes case study examples that are relevant to transportation practitioners and other stakeholders interested in promoting EJ.

This document addresses the following topics:

The following table lists the case studies presented in each topic chapter, and indicates the EJ principles exemplified by each case study. This table can help readers identify specific examples that pertain to transportation trends and concepts.

Summary of Case Studies: Organized by Topic Area and Geography
Topic Area and Case Studies Geography EJ Principles
West Central East Urban Suburban Rural EJP 1 EJP 2 EJP
1. Transit and Affordability
Bay Area Housing and Transportation Affordability (San Francisco, CA) X     X X X X   X
Fairmount/Indigo Line (Boston, MA)     X X     X X X
Austin's First Affordable Housing TOD (Austin, TX)   X   X     X   X
2. Public Involvement
Buford Highway (Atlanta, GA)     X X     X X  
EJ Tool Kit, including the Accessibility map (Baltimore, MD)     X X     X X  
Innovative Uses of Digital Video, Social Media and Tools X X X X X X   X  
3. Livability
Atlanta Beltline (Atlanta, GA)     X X X   X X X
Urban Transitway (Stamford, CT)     X X     X   X
TriMet Yellow Line Extension (Portland, OR) X     X X   X X X
Green Impact Zone (Kansas City, MO)   X   X     X X X
4. Road Pricing Mechanisms
New York City Congestion Pricing (New York City, NY)     X X X   X X X
Minneapolis(St. Paul I-394 HOT lanes (Minneapolis, MN)   X   X X   X X X
I-15 HOT lanes (San Diego, CA) X     X X   X    
Proposed HOV to HOT lane conversions
(Atlanta, GA; Dallas, TX; Los Angeles, CA)
X X X X X   X X X
Distance-based pricing experiment (Portland, OR) X     X   X X    
Principle 1: Avoid, minimize, or mitigate disproportionately high and adverse human health and environmental effects, including social and economic effects, on minority populations and low-income populations.
Principle 2: Ensure the full and fair participation by all potentially affected communities in the transportation decision-making process.
Principle 3: Prevent the denial of, reduction in or significant delay in the receipt of benefits by minority and low-income populations.

What Is Environmental Justice?

Effective and equitable transportation decision-making depends on understanding and properly addressing the unique needs of different socio-economic groups. The FHWA and the FTA remain committed to nondiscrimination and ensuring that every transportation project nationwide considers the human environment.

The Environmental Justice (EJ) Orders provide 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."

Environmental justice is grounded in the practice of making sure that both benefits and burdens of transportation investments are shared as equitably as possible among all affected communities. Historically, low-income and minority communities have borne many negative effects of transportation projects and have gained few direct benefits. As a result, efforts to promote EJ in transportation focus on engaging these communities in transportation planning and investment decisions. With an awareness and active promotion of the principles of EJ in transportation decision-making, practitioners can better mitigate disproportionately high and adverse human health and environmental effects, including social and economic effects, on minority populations and low-income populations.

Some practitioners have used the terms "social justice" or "equity" to refer to inclusive planning approaches that reach out to traditionally underrepresented populations, as well as the mainstream public. This broader approach to public involvement is also fundamental to the principles established by the DOT-HUD-EPA, Sustainable Communities Partnership and U.S. DOT's Livability Initiative.[1] Specifically, efforts that aim to increase transportation choices, promote affordable housing, and support and value existing communities are directly aligned with the livability principles and should be leveraged in policy and community efforts to achieve greater success in meeting the goals of both initiatives.

Brief History of Environmental Justice

Efforts to promote nondiscrimination in policy and decision-making started gaining political traction in the late 19th century with the suffrage movement. The past 50 years have brought about significant legislation specifically directed at preventing discrimination and promoting equitable treatment of all people. Key legislation catalyzing this broader awareness has included the Civil Rights Act of 1964- Title VI, which prohibits discriminatory practices in programs receiving Federal funds-and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969-which requires Federal agencies to analyze the effects of proposed actions that significantly affect the quality of human and natural environment. As understanding of EJ concerns grew, community activists expressed that minority and low-income neighborhoods for decades had largely borne the brunt of the negative effects of new freeways and received far fewer benefits from them. In the 1980s, grassroots protests against the disposal of toxic wastes and siting of polluting industries gained momentum. Research studies found that predominately poor and African-American communities were being targeted for placement of disposal sites. Undesirable and noxious facilities were routinely receiving permits from regulatory agencies to locate their plants in communities with a large proportion of people of color and low-income populations. The term "environmental racism" was first coined and defined by Dr. Benjamin Chavis of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice in 1987, and environmental justice was the name given to the movement to address environmental racism.

Environmental justice soon began to include a number of social equity concerns. Executive Order 12898 ("Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations") addressed environmental justice in existing programs at the Federal level. Now, in the early 21st century, concerns about the potential effects of climate change are increasing, especially for vulnerable communities that depend on alternative transportation modes while efforts to promote sustainable development are mounting. It is, therefore, essential that the core principles of EJ continue to play a major role in transportation decision-making to improve human, economic, and environmental health in our communities.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on race, color, and national origin. The Executive Order on Environmental Justice protects minority and low-income populations. Neither addresses discrimination based on age, ability, gender, or religion. These populations are protected by other nondiscrimination statutes. Collectively, all of these populations and the populations protected under Title VI of the Civil Rights of 1964 and the Executive Order on Environmental Justice are often referred to as "traditionally underserved," "traditionally underrepresented," or "vulnerable" populations.[2]

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

Environmental Justice and Transportation Concerns

Transportation planners can derive many benefits when they reach out to people and businesses potentially affected or served by transportation projects and involve them in planning efforts; not only does public involvement meet Federal requirements and support U.S. DOT priorities, such as safety, mobility, and livability, but it also can enhance project outcomes. Transportation projects and services can promote the economic and social vitality of neighborhoods, cities, tribal communities, and regions. At the same time, communities can prosper when they have good access to employment, shopping, and services.

Although freeways, rail lines, and major arterials can improve regional travel, connectivity, access, and mobility, poorly planned facilities can decrease connectivity and divide neighborhoods by creating real or perceived barriers to community interactions and local multimodal travel. Negative community impacts from transportation projects often are most acutely felt by low-income and minority populations. These groups frequently depend on friends and neighbors to share rides to work, school, child care, elder care, community activities, and other destinations. It is important to maintain the transportation connections between friends, neighbors, and local businesses, and access to parks, schools, medical clinics, and other community facilities because they are essential components of neighborhood life and community stability.

Improvements to public transit service can provide residents with greater access to jobs, schools, health care facilities, and shopping. Improved access may, in turn, increase property values. At the same time, communities through which transportation facilities (e.g., highways, fixed guideway transit) are built may gain greater mobility access, but may also suffer from construction disruptions and loss of existing homes and businesses. When poorly planned, transportation projects can also be visually unattractive, affecting the social and economic fabric of neighborhoods.

Environmental impacts can negatively affect the health of residents and natural systems.[4] Vehicles release pollutants into the air that residents breathe. Vehicles also release pollutants on roads, which can then wash into lakes and streams, affecting water quality.[5] Noise and vibration are two other types of environmental effects, especially associated with high-speed auto, freight, train, and airplane travel. Safety is yet another concern affecting all highways, roads, rail lines, sidewalks, and bike lanes. Roads can be dangerous to travel along and cross on foot or bicycle. Improvements to intersections, rail crossings, sidewalks (including lighting), crosswalks, and bicycle lanes can improve safety and accessibility for all types of travelers.[6]

Promoting Environmental Justice through Transportation Investments

By targeting transportation funding to support reinvestment in existing communities, agencies can build more choice, convenience, cost-effectiveness, and equity into the transportation system, while rectifying adverse community effects caused by previously developed facilities. Changing demographics and evolving markets are increasing the demand for compact, walkable neighborhoods that offer a range of housing and transportation choices. Coordinating transportation and housing plans and investments can help ensure that walking, biking, and traveling by transit are safe, convenient, and realistic choices for more people. Linking those investments with improved multimodal programming, management, and operations can help make transportation systems more accessible, efficient, and equitable.

In a time of economic challenges and fiscal constraint, limited transportation funds can be more effectively focused on projects that support economic revitalization and community development, while improving transportation and housing affordability and quality of life for all residents. The same may be true for towns and villages in rural areas, which are struggling to remain economically competitive, while also preserving community character and maintaining viable mobility options. Rural communities often present unique mobility challenges, such as greater driving distance between activities and destinations, fewer public transit options, and a lack of infrastructure for walking and wheeling. When a small town is divided by a State highway that serves as a main street, roadway capacity improvements can further limit transportation choice.[7] Applying EJ and livability principles to roadway improvements, downtown redevelopment, and adjacent growth areas can help improve mobility and access to services and activities for all citizens. It can also help support long-term improvements to transit connections between communities.

Linking transportation investments to compact development and community revitalization strategies can also preserve natural and cultural resources, while reducing long-term infrastructure costs. Compact development requires less land, while shorter, narrower streets produce less stormwater runoff and cost less to build and maintain. Providing multimodal choices can reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, serving as an effective climate change mitigation strategy, while also safeguarding communities that are most vulnerable to the potential effects of climate change on aging transportation infrastructure. In the process of ensuring that people of all ages have real choices to walk and wheel in the course of daily living, and making mobility choices amenable to a range of abilities, transportation practitioners can support active living and help improve health and quality of life for all populations. Rather than simply mitigating the impacts of transportation investments, fully incorporating environmental justice in transportation decision-making can help improve a community's human, social, and environmental health.

Civil Rights and Environmental Justice Timeline

1964 Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits recipients of Federal financial assistance from discriminating based on race, color, or national origin.
1968 23 U.S.C. 140-Nondiscrimination (amended in 1991) refers to State employment assurances. Refers to race, color, creed, national original, or sex.
1969 The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) requires Federal agencies to analyze the environmental impacts of their actions. Agencies must account for impacts on populations and consult the public throughout their analyses.
1970 The Federal Highway Act of 1970 requires that adverse economic, social, and environmental impacts of federally supported highway projects be fully considered during project development and that final project decisions are made in the best overall public interest.The Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act of 1970 requires fair and equitable treatment of people displaced as a direct result of programs or projects undertaken by a Federal agency or with Federal financial assistance. Title VI Regulation 49 CFR 21, Nondiscrimination in federally assisted programs of the DOT was enacted to effectuate the provisions of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the end that no person in the United States shall, on the grounds of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be otherwise subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance from the DOT.
1973 The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by Federal agencies, in programs receiving Federal financial assistance, in Federal employment, and in the employment practices of Federal contractors.
1975 The Age Discrimination Act of 1975 prohibits age discrimination in programs receiving Federal financial assistance.
1987 The Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, gender, national origin, age, or disability throughout an entire agency if any part of the agency receives Federal financial assistance.
1990 The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) "extended many of the protections and remedies of the Civil Rights Act to persons with disabilities, and broadened the Rehabilitation Act's provisions to entities that do not receive Federal funds.
1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) "made major changes to transportation planning and policy. It created flexible funding, enhanced the role of MPOs, and strengthened the requirements for transportation planning and programming.
1992 The Office of Environmental Equity is established in the U.S. EPA. (The Office was later renamed the Office of Environmental Justice.) This office was supported by a work group on environmental equity, which produced a report on examining environmental inequalities. Along with this office, EPA implemented a new organizational infrastructure to integrate environmental justice into their policies, programs, and activities.
1993 National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. This council represents the first time that representatives of community, academia, industry, environmental, indigenous, as well as State, local, and tribal government groups, were gathered to discuss and suggest solutions to environmental justice problems.
1994 President Clinton signs Executive Order 12898, which requires Federal agencies to identify and address disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their programs, policies and activities on minority and low-income populations.
1997 The U.S. DOT's Order on Environmental Justice (DOT Order 5610.2) establishes as DOT policy the full consideration of environmental justice principles throughout transportation planning and decision-making processes, and provides guidance to the operating administrations regarding implementation of these principles.
1998 FHWA's Order on Environmental Justice further specifies how highway projects should incorporate environmental justice in complying with EO 12898. It is intended to prevent and address disproportionately high and adverse effects on minority and low-income populations.
1999 FHWA and FTA issue a memorandum, "Implementing Title VI Requirements in Metropolitan and Statewide Planning," which provides clarification for field offices on how to ensure that environmental justice is considered during current and future planning certification reviews.
2001 President Clinton signs Executive Order 13166, which requires Federal agencies to develop systems by which people with a limited ability to communicate in English can access the services of those agencies. Title VI Legal Manual, U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, issues manual intended to provide guidance on Title VI to Federal agencies and other interested entities.
2005 The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) is enacted; it places additional emphasis on environmental stewardship, the consideration of environmental issues as part of metropolitan and statewide transportation planning, and increases the importance of public participation in the planning process.
Updated: 5/4/2016
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