Pete Buttigieg may not know this yet: Rail transportation funding is a racial equity issue.

February 1, 2021 - Sarah Reckhow, Kate Lowe and Andrea Benjamin

This article ran in the Washington Post on Feb. 1, 2021.


Last week, a Senate committee approved Pete Buttigieg’s nomination to head the Transportation Department. In his confirmation hearing, Buttigieg stressed that the federal government can use transportation funds to bolster both economic and racial equity. Some experts criticize the government’s track record on this, noting that in the 1950s, federally funded highway construction tore through Black neighborhoods.

Our ongoing study of federally reviewed rail projects during the Obama administration finds that federal transportation policy still fosters racial inequity, partly because it relies on transit agencies, cities and states to envision and implement projects. Urban rail projects can take many forms: Commuter rail systems connect suburbs to urban cores; heavy rail systems are separated from street intersections; light rail has its own lane but shares intersections; and streetcars commonly share lanes and contend with traffic. While ridership patterns are complex and vary by location, speedier rail service serves more affluent and more White riders than slower bus service that disproportionately serves people of color.

Here’s what policymakers should know about using federal urban rail funding to advance racial equity.

How we did our research

We reviewed the 34 urban rail projects whose sponsors submitted documents for environmental review, which is required of major projects seeking federal funding, during the Obama administration. Our study includes commuter, heavy and light rail projects, as they can bring improved transit speed and access to opportunities. We excluded streetcars because they often do not bring speed or opportunity benefits. Most major rail projects rely on federal and local funding; some also leverage state money.

We first looked at government documents to identify whether projects served communities with more White residents or more “minority” residents. Many environmental review documents group together Black, Latino, Asian, indigenous and other minoritized groups as “minority” residents, so we followed this classification. Using media and government materials such as sponsor news releases or local newspapers, we then examined how far along each project is toward completion.

Race shapes which projects go forward

Overall, 21 of the 34 Obama-era projects have broken ground or are operational, although projects are constantly in flux and some outcomes are uncertain. Project sponsors, which can include state, transit or municipal agencies, have abandoned at least six.

Overall, rail projects serving majority-White areas were built more frequently, while rail projects serving neighborhoods where the majority of residents are people of color were more often canceled. The six abandoned projects included the Red Line in Baltimore, the Durham-Orange line in North Carolina, the University Corridor in Houston, the Detroit Woodward Avenue light rail, a commuter rail connecting Milwaukee to Kenosha, Wis., and the Virginia Beach Extension in Norfolk

Four of the six abandoned projects would have served areas where people of color are the majority. In comparison, almost two-thirds of the projects that were implemented serve majority White corridors in cities including Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., and Seattle.

Federal funding falls short for rail benefits in majority Black cities

One of us previously conducted research on Detroit’s transit. The city was planning a nine-mile light rail line, which it canceled because of a financial crisis. Federal and local officials thought the project would have major transportation benefits for riders. Yet one interviewee who worked with these officials characterized the efforts as a “fool’s errand” because even with some federal funding, paying for it was impossible for Detroit.

After city leaders conceded that Detroit couldn’t afford this project, they proposed a bus rapid network that would significantly speed up several bus routes primarily ridden by Black Detroiters. Business leaders fought this and with philanthropic leaders pushed for federal funding for a three-mile streetcar. The line would not travel far enough to bring new destinations in reach; wouldn’t be faster than existing buses; and was redundant with an existing bus route. The leaders nevertheless lauded the streetcar for spurring upscale real estate development and attracting new educated and/or millennial residents, overlooking the majority Black current residents and riders.

Additionally, one of us researched the Maryland Department of Transportation’s Red Line proposal, a 14-mile light rail line that would have gone through Baltimore and nearby suburbs. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) canceled it in 2015. The federal government had allocated $900 million to the project, but it required a $1 billion tunnel under downtown Baltimore. One public official told us that the state “didn’t think Baltimore was worth spending a billion dollars on a tunnel” and that state officials often ignore the concerns of Black and predominantly low-income Baltimore residents. Even though nearly a third of Baltimoreans lack access to a car and could benefit from significant transit investments, these voices are not being heard.

New urban rail lines cost quite a bit; these Detroit and Baltimore rail projects would have connected majority Black neighborhoods to more opportunities. While many transit investments could produce benefits for residents of color with limited transportation options, these riders often lack collective political influence. Both Detroit’s and Baltimore’s experiences suggest that larger federal investments would be crucial to the success of rail projects benefiting Black residents, given limited local funding capacity tied to centuries of structural racism.

What’s next for racial equity and rail

Overall, our ongoing research — as well as our previous research on competitive federal funding — suggests that federal awards that rely on state and local funding and leadership may cement existing inequities, especially for majority-Black communities.

If the Biden administration seeks more equitable rail implementation, it might wish to change how it delivers such programs. Rail expansions often compete for New Starts grants, which heavily weight local funding and the financial status of the project’s sponsor — often a problem for low-income communities. Evaluation criteria include whether riders depend on public transit and whether affordable housing is nearby. But they do not include whether projects address racial disparities.

As a former mayor, transportation secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg may already understand that not all municipalities and transit agencies can or want to address racial inequities. Transit agencies rarely make it a priority to help low-income riders or riders of color. Other research shows that emphasizing expanding rail rather than improving bus service leads to inequities. We further show that investing in rail transit does not necessarily advance racial equity. Doing so requires paying close attention to priorities, incentives and implementation details.

Kate Lowe (@kateontransport) is an associate professor in urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Sarah Reckhow (@SReckhow) is an associate professor in political science at Michigan State University and author of “Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics” (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Andrea Benjamin (@ProfBenjamin) is an associate professor in the Clara Luper Department of African and African American Studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of “Racial Coalition Building in Local Elections: Elite Cues and Cross-Ethnic Voting” (Cambridge University Press, 2017).