The findings point to another inequity in the nation’s transportation network at a time when the Biden administration says it is trying to use money from the $1 trillion infrastructure act to build a fairer system. Federal authorities set aside funds to dismantle highways built through black communities in the 20th century, but the study shows some communities lack even the basic investments that would bring smooth, paved roads.
Federal authorities classify roads as being in good, fair or poor condition. The researchers found that in otherwise similar locations, there was a 7% chance that a road in an urban neighborhood had almost no healthy white residents. In an almost entirely white urban neighborhood, that figure was 22%.
Road deaths have increased during the pandemic. The toll fell more heavily on black residents, according to the report.
Kyle Shelton, director of the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota, said he was not surprised by the results, adding that efforts to measure inequality in the transportation system are relatively new. He called the report a “stepping stone” that should stimulate further research.
“That’s the kind of baseline study that needs to be done to say, ‘here’s where some of the problem areas are,'” he said. “The takeaway is, ‘yes, there’s probably an equity issue.'”
Shelton said the results likely reflect a long-standing tension between building roads to support fast-growing suburbs and maintaining existing streets, as well as poorer communities’ low level of access to political power.
Federal transportation funding is typically passed on to state transportation agencies, which decide where to spend the money. Urban leaders have complained that these agencies tend to favor the needs of suburban commuters, who are often wealthier and whiter than many city dwellers.
GAO researchers found that the Federal Highway Administration does not systematically track different road conditions within states or use its data to identify disparities related to race and income. The watchdog urged the agency to conduct its own analysis and develop strategies to ensure fairer investments in highways.
“Because FHWA has not generally analyzed state pavement conditions, such as at the local level, it is unaware of pavement issues that could pose risks to its strategic objectives, such as concentrations of poor road conditions in a state or differences that disproportionately affect the underserved. communities,” the researchers wrote.
The Department of Transportation, which oversees the FHWA, said it partially agrees with the recommendations, adding that it plans to review where federal highway funding is being spent.
“Using these findings, FHWA will identify potential strategies to help states mitigate investment decision-making processes that could potentially lead to inequitable outcomes,” the department wrote in a response to GAO. The agency declined to comment further.
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The Highway Administration requires state departments of transportation to set statewide goals for road conditions, but the analysis was intended to demonstrate the differing conditions within states. GAO analyzed road conditions on what’s called the National Highway System, a 220,000-mile network that includes highways and smaller roads, and accounts for more than half of the miles traveled by vehicle nationwide. country.
Researchers have studied the road system in several ways.
They divided the country into 8 mile by 8 mile squares, identifying where more than 10% of major roads are in poor condition – well above the national average of 2.4%. This analysis identified clusters of bad roads in parts of California, Louisiana, New Jersey and Michigan, among other states.
The researchers then compared road condition data — typically looking at surface roughness — while taking demographic information into account to identify racial and income disparities. In the whitest census tracts, 1.3% of roads were in poor condition, compared to 3.7% in areas with the smallest proportions of white residents.
Although the study did not examine local streets, Shelton said he would expect similar patterns to continue. He said more research was needed to paint a picture of the country’s entire road network.
“This is a new mission for many agencies, and I think what we’re seeing across the board is this challenge that we don’t have a basic understanding,” he said. he declares.
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The GAO report builds on other research that found that blacks, Latinos and Native Americans are more likely to be killed in crashes, and that streets in neighborhoods with high proportions of minority residents tend to be more dangerous. The Department of Transportation also identified longer commutes for people who do not own a car and a higher burden of transportation costs for poorer families.
This year, the ministry shared a plan to create a more equitable transportation system and included racial equity criteria in its major grant programs.
The agency in July opened applications for funding under a new Reconnecting Communities pilot program, which will provide $1 billion to communities seeking to repair damage caused by highway construction. The money can be used to study the removal of freeways or find ways to reconnect neighborhoods with bridges or plugs that span sections of freeway.