Webinar Recap: Funding State Transportation — Ensuring Equity in Transportation Investments

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Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. With unprecedented federal transportation investments of around $200 billion across nearly 300 programs through the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, it’s essential that states are well-equipped to equitably distribute this funding. State-level transportation investment policies and programs must ensure that communities work in tandem with state governmental actors to deploy this funding where it is most needed.

For this webinar, we invited a panel of experts working across research, community organizing, and state governments to share their experiences in equitable state transportation investment. Our panelists included:

In this recap article, we’ll provide highlights from our expert panel’s presentations, including best practices for collaboration between state departments of transportation (DOTs) and communities, lessons learned from community organizing in Minnesota, and a case study on incorporating equity in the Maryland DOT.

Hana Creger, The Greenlining Institute

Hana Creger, Associate Director of Climate Equity at the Greenlining Institute, works on the development and implementation of policies and programs leading to clean mobility and climate resilience investments that will benefit low-income communities of color. She was the lead author of the Mobility Equity Framework and Clean Mobility Equity: A Playbook, resources outlining best practices, lessons learned and recommendations for advancing equity while decarbonizing the transportation sector.

Setting the Stage: Current Federal Transportation Investment Trends

With recent historic federal investments in transportation and other infrastructure, billions of dollars are going directly to state DOTs. However, with no requirements or incentives for states to go beyond business as usual, research shows that these investments are following historical trends that reinforce patterns of disinvestment and harm in communities of color and overwhelmingly fund highway projects instead of public and active transit. (Historically, 80 percent of transportation funds go towards highways and roads, while 20 percent go towards active transportation and transit.) Such projects often have very little community engagement and prioritize the interests of the highway and road industry — who tend to oppose efforts to transform transportation investments into more equitable and climate-focused work.

In order to break this cycle of marginalized communities bearing the brunt of pollution and climate change impacts, state DOTs must deliver more equitable and sustainable outcomes that guide transportation investments in a way that reflects real community needs. To better understand the relationship between communities and DOTs in shaping these investments, the Greenlining Institute and Tamika L. Butler Consulting interviewed and surveyed around 50 national stakeholders with experience in state DOTs, compiling findings in Beyond Engagement: Equity Principles to Guide State Departments of Transportation and Community Collaboration, a report published in March 2024.

The Findings: Five Community Collaboration Principles for Ensuring Transportation Equity

The resulting report is aimed at helping state stakeholders better understand how to engage with each other in order to advance more equitable transportation policies and programs, with explicit recommendations for productive collaboration between  community-based organizations (CBOs) and state DOTs. The report outlines five principles for community collaboration:

1. Advance Equity Beyond Engagement

Equity is much more than just community engagement. There must be a baseline of procedural equity, such as establishing a DOT equity advisory committee and robust engagement sessions to incorporate community priorities into decision-making, that is built upon by other equity priorities. State DOTs should also help CBOs navigate the large amount of documents and processes related to program guidelines, budgets, and other updates to identify engagement priorities. Further, DOTs should operationalize administrative equity by contracting with (and compensating) CBOs and residents, which requires tackling long standing administrative agency barriers that make it difficult to ensure sustained community engagement.

2. Adapt Equity Strategies Based on the Political Context

Regardless of complex political dynamics affecting where your state DOT lands on equity and climate, it is essential to have the data to prove that action is needed, at least as a basic commitment to transparency, accountability, and oversight of public funds. State DOTs should track and report data on how current transportation investments are impacting low-income communities and communities of color. Securing this data is a critical first step to uncovering funding disparities, defining community benefits, identifying community assets, and then advocating to prioritize projects with the greatest community benefits. This can be established through a legislative mandate, like through California’s proposed AB 2086, which would require the state DOT to report on how projects are advancing the eight goals of the state transportation plan, including climate, equity, and many others.

3. Embrace and Honor the Wide Array of Community Expertise to Work Across Sectors

Transportation investments connect to so many other areas of work, and it’s critical to garner broad support from interest groups working on housing, labor, and other related issues in order to build the broad coalitions needed to face opposition from state DOTs unwilling to change the status quo. For economic-focused interest groups, public transit, road maintenance, greenway bicycle and pedestrian projects create jobs and spur local economy and business benefits; for housing advocates, walking, biking and public transit investments support affordable housing.

4. Elevate and Share Stories

Narrative change is an effective tool for transformational change, and embracing the cultures of storytelling already present in communities of color can be a powerful method of explaining why transportation equity is important. Storytelling can also combat opposition, move decision makers, and help those who lack the ability or desire to navigate the technical structures of transportation systems, especially when refuting false claims. This can especially be useful for creating targeted strategies for specific demographics, through resources like Salud America’s report on transportation inequities in Latino communities.

5. Refer to the Experiences and Lessons Learned of Others

There is never a need to reinvent the wheel — a wealth of research and resources are already available to take advantage of best practices across transportation investment, from the local to federal levels. The following resources may be useful for CBOs and state DOTs:

The Greenlining Institute is a part of a developing network of over 40 national and grassroots organizations who are collaborating on how to shift transportation spending to align with equity and climate priorities, so keep an eye out for more information soon on this work’s implications in reforming state transportation planning.

Read more about ensuring equity in state transportation investment in the Greenlining Institute’s full report — Beyond Engagement: Equity Principles to Guide State Departments of Transportation and Community Collaboration.

José Antonio Zayas Cabán, Our Streets

José is the Executive Director for Our Streets in Minnesota, where he has worked on developing reparative justice campaigns across the Twin Cities and the region. As the Executive Director, José is working to ensure Our Streets continues to emerge as a national leader in advocating for streets that prioritize racial, climate and economic justice for all.

The Role of Transportation in Historical Racial Injustices

Across the country, Black neighborhoods have time and time again been intentionally divided and destroyed, and the story is no different in the Twin Cities and across Minnesota. From the 1930s onward, this was directly related to urban planners’ desires to end racial mixing; cities intentionally selected neighborhoods of color for destruction to make way for highways. As transportation has always been part of a larger tapestry of infrastructure and capital investment decisions, this supported a larger narrative of segregationist policy, such as racial covenants preventing the sale of housing to people of color.

Mapping Prejudice, a project at the University of Minnesota, has uncovered over 36,000 racially restrictive covenants in Minnesota alone. In just 30 years (1910-1940), these restrictive clauses in property deeds changed the demographic landscape of the Twin Cities so that people of color were concentrated in four major areas — all of which are now traversed by highways. Neighborhoods of color were also categorized as slums and labeled as undesirable, subject to redlining, so additional financial services were withheld from minority communities.

Highways were introduced as solutions to help end racial mixing, incentivize White flight, and preserve the culture of respectability expected by White North Americans. For those living near highways, many promises accompanied these projects, such as increased property values and investment alongside reduced air pollution, congestion, and traffic-related deaths. In reality, highways brought disinvestment, worse air and noise pollution, increased health disparities and traffic-related deaths, and limited mobility for transit-dependent households.

In Minnesota, communities living along highways experience some of the worst air pollution and pollution-related diseases and death, as well as the hottest temperatures; Minneapolis neighborhoods that were redlined are almost 11 degrees warmer than neighborhoods with racial covenants. Minnesota also has one of the largest disparities in homeownership in the nation, with around 75 percent of White families owning their house as compared to around 30 percent of Black families.

Advocating for Equitable Transportation in Minnesota

Our Streets uses this understanding of historical and present-day disparities to rethink transportation infrastructure in a way that centers intersectional community investments and aims to prioritize these marginalized and overlooked communities with the same level of urgency that was used to cause this damage.

Electrifying cars alone is an incomplete solution for equitable transportation investments, as many electric vehicles (EVs) are costly and inaccessible for residents in historically marginalized communities, and EVs themselves create other health and climate concerns, from production throughout their lifetime.

Today, most highways in the country are coming to the end of their useful life, and we must capitalize on this rare opportunity to reimagine our infrastructure at large, with impacts on land use, housing, electrification, transportation, and climate for the next 60 years. In a 2023 study by the University of Minnesota Duluth analyzing the economic potential of rightsizing one mile of the I-35 in Minnesota, researchers  found that while the project itself would cost $50 million, the benefits would be in the billions. The potential for reparative justice here and across the country could be historic.

Next Steps: Equitable Transportation Policy in Minnesota

Minnesota passed a huge transportation bill in 2023, establishing long-needed funding increases for walking, biking, and transit infrastructure and strengthened environmental justice protections, but the key to real transformation lies in implementation. The bill doesn’t take effect until 2025 and only applies to expansion projects, and Our Streets has identified a suite of legislative goals to address the gaps that still exist.

Our Street’s advocacy is centered around a few key concepts. One main concept is coalition building, placing impacted communities as a primary voice and lead stakeholders in transportation projects, supported by a robust community engagement process and partnerships with policy experts and researchers. Our Streets recently launched the Minnesota Communities Over Highways Coalition, based on this community-centered concentric model. Community-created benchmarks are also extremely important so impacts on housing, land use, and other community issues can be leveraged during departmental and legislative processes.

Our Streets also prioritizes partnerships with researchers, as progress can only be made if everyone has a shared understanding of the historical and present-day impacts on communities, alongside events that educate and engage communities on relevant transportation and climate history. They also canvass and door-knock every year, respecting the importance of earning trust in inspiring residents and leveraging power. The organization aims to help communities truly imagine the potential of highway-street conversions that prioritize revitalizing and reconnecting neighborhoods. Recently, Our Streets published Reimagining I-94: A Report on Reparative Highway Alternatives & Evaluation Metrics on what is possible with the 7.5-mile stretch between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. Using findings and recommendations from this report, they are asking the Minnesota DOT to consider a highway to boulevard conversion.

Deron Lovaas, Maryland Department of Transportation

Deron Lovaas, Chief of Environment & Sustainable Transportation at Maryland DOT, works on environment and sustainability at MDOT, including developing and implementing federal transportation funding programs, working alongside local governments and NGOs to advance MDOT’s programs, and analyzing and advising on issues related to MDOT’s position on state and local policy and regulations. Prior to joining MDOT, Deron worked at NRDC for over 20 years across smart growth, clean vehicles, federal and state transportation policy, urban solutions, and energy efficiency, among others.

Maryland’s New Commitments to Transportation Equity

Under Governor Wes Moore’s leadership, the Maryland DOT (MDOT) has a new, explicit mandate to address equity, and the state is poised to become a climate leader. The administration published the first State Plan in a decade, and just last week the Governor signed the most comprehensive climate Executive Order ever. MDOT has established its first-ever Environment and Sustainable Transportation program, working across climate, EV charging, active transportation and micromobility, and compliance and innovation, and the Department also recently rolled out an update to its Complete Streets program, the first update since 2012.

There are a suite of state laws MDOT is using to advance climate and equity investments in the state. The 2023 Equity in Transportation Law requires that equity be considered in the development of state transportation plans, reports, and goals, and the 2022 Climate Solutions Now Act requires reducing negative environmental impacts for overburdened and underserved communities. In addition to these, a few of the State Plan’s 10 priorities explicitly address equity and transportation. Priority #7 focuses on advancing infrastructure to better connect Marylanders to opportunities and each other, with performance metrics such as increasing transit ridership and increasing contracts with disadvantaged and minority business enterprises. Priority #9 aims to position Maryland as a leader in clean energy and the greenest state in the country with explicit environmental justice goals, and Deron has made it the mission of his team to make MDOT the greenest DOT in the country.

Embedding Equity in MDOT Planning

Maryland’s 2050 Transportation Plan, published in January 2024, also includes equity goals for the first time, prioritizing the transportation needs of underserved and overburdened communities in project selection. The state also has an annual Attainment Report which includes specific performance measures upon which to benchmark their progress, and these too include equity measures for the first time.

However, the plan with the most potential for tangible, transformative change is the multi-year Consolidated Transportation Plan (CTP), where project selection, development, and delivery happens in a document representing $20 billion in investments over six years. For the first time, MDOT is tracking how much money is going to underserved and overburdened census tracts, which make up 23 percent of Maryland census tracts but receive 31 percent of CTP resources — a promising statistic that MDOT aims to improve on.


Q: How do you calculate the benefits of an investment in a disadvantaged community?

Deron Lovaas: I could go first, because I’ll be brief, I’m hoping Hana has better news than I do. That map you saw, showing where investments are going, in terms of whether or not they’re being funneled into overburdened and underserved census tracts — that’s the first of its kind map that we’ve created. And more important is figuring out what are the benefits to those communities. And that’s what we need to tackle next. So the honest answer is, that’s next on our agenda, actually figuring out how benefits are distributed across the state.

Hana Creger: Yeah, it’s a really important point, right? Because, sure, it could be that 50 percent of dollars are going to impacted communities. But what if it’s that 50 percent of highway expansions are in those communities? So it’s important to kind of piece that out. But even once you start tracking benefits, it’s a super complicated business, and it can be very subjective. You could technically say that highway expansions are increasing economic access to the community, even though they’re also polluting that community. I’m dropping a link into the chat of another report that we published recently. This is the short version, believe it or not, and there’s actually a longer version coming in a few months. So California has been doing cap and trade for quite some time now, and there’s a requirement to direct 35 percent of those benefits to disadvantaged communities. They’re actually hitting closer to 70 percent, and there’s a very robust methodology around defining and tracking benefits, but it still has a lot of room for improvement. So Greenlining, in collaboration with the University of Southern California, did an equity evaluation of 10 years worth of these climate investments, digging really deeply into: what does the benefit actually look like? There’s a lot of interesting findings here. We don’t just want to be talking about the outcomes around, we increased this many jobs, reduced this many greenhouse gas emissions. A lot of it is like the procedural equity benefits of, how did we involve the community in the process of even identifying what project they wanted? And there are a lot of programs in there that are very focused on this community decision making, community power aspect. And one of the key findings was, there’s a need to make sure that the community feels the impact. If you’re just reducing emissions by having this new electric car sharing program, but no one knows about it, no one’s using it, that’s not a benefit. And so that was one of the things that was definitely highlighted in the report. Another gap is just that there is such a lack of complete data. Sure, the state agencies are required to report on this, but when you actually look at the spreadsheets, it’s scary, nothing is consistent. Our staff had to spend years digging through the data and trying to make sense of it. So again, it’s one thing to define the benefits, get those right, but then tracking those in a coherent way is a whole other challenge. So I’ll refer folks to that report, which does have some transportation specific programs in it, a lot of lessons learned. And then again, there’s a larger more in depth report with more case studies coming soon.

Q: How does the Duluth Minnesota study serve as a comparative model for assessing the viability of removing highways that divide historically Black communities?

José Antonio Zayas Cabán: Well, the model itself is meant to analyze the potential for that piece of land. So generally speaking, when we’re talking about economic impacts and benefits, what’s studied as the potential for that area are examples from other corridors in the surrounding community that might behave the same way. In terms of repairing communities, I would say it’s just a piece of the puzzle, and especially for addressing Black American communities that were divided by highways. I think that connects to the previous question, which is that there also needs to be an assessment of what the needs actually are. To add to the answers that were provided, one of the things that we have identified that always lacks, in DOT and governmental processes, is what I would describe as meaningful community engagement. Because when we’re describing disadvantaged communities, one of the greatest disadvantages is that they don’t have the time or resources to get involved. So you have to bring involvement to their door, and we’re constantly battling the Minnesota Department of Transportation to come in and be with communities, and be in communities, and do it in a meaningful way. So that’s the other part of it, is understanding what the needs actually are. So to give you an example, in North Minneapolis, which was the example that I cited at the beginning, even something like land use opportunity for what’s often called “affordable housing”. Affordable housing is so much more expensive than what people can afford in that neighborhood because they’re so cost burdened, so we’re advocating for public land to stay public. It’s sort of a nuanced approach to that one particular corridor, because the entry level point is so different, so I think it’s just a piece of the puzzle. The reason why we model those land-use potentials is because DOTs do not. Oftentimes they only model highway expansion or highway reconstruction, they don’t model highway removal. And in the case of Minnesota, they’re modeling highway removal, but they’re not including land-use potential. So we’ve gone out of our way to work with independent contractors to basically let people know, hey, it’s not just changing the roadway, there’s all this available land, and here’s what could happen with it, to just start the conversation. But then from there, we have to go into the community and figure out what those needs are. And then what we do is build community benchmarks based on that engagement, bring it back to DOTs and legislators.

Q: Are there any other state or local examples of equitable transportation investments that you’d want to highlight?

DL: What Colorado has been up to recently has attracted our attention, specifically this last legislative session. They’ve moved policies to remove barriers and incentivize more affordable housing development around transit stops. Housing is a crisis here in Maryland, as it is across the country, so that’s the kind of thing we’re very interested in. It’s a policy using transportation dollars to advance affordable housing.

HC: I’d also just double click on Colorado, with a very impressive legislative session. And just like with everything, I’m really interested to see what implementation looks like. I think time and time again, across states, like we see this amazing legislation signed, and the implementation and accountability falls short. So I would love to see what that looks like moving forward as well.

JAZC: I don’t know if I could choose one. There’s a good harbor removal effort in Detroit. There’s another one in Philadelphia around I-95. And Syracuse is already moving with replacing a highway. So definitely, when we’re talking about rethinking highways, don’t think that this is a pipe dream. It’s happening across the country.


To prioritize equity in transportation investments, particularly in low-income communities of color, community-based organizations and state departments of transportation need to collaborate meaningfully and effectively. We are not only creating a new system of transportation, but also addressing historical injustices through the repurposing of highways toward community revitalization and reconnection. As always, transparency, accountability, and oversight of public funds are necessary to ensure that projects deliver the greatest community benefits, as measured by community-identified metrics. Using best practices and lessons learned from across the country, we can move forward with strength to meet this historic moment of federal, state, and local transportation investment.

*  The views and opinions expressed by our guest speakers during the webinar and summarized in this article are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Climate XChange.