For the first time, transportation projects vying for federal dollars in the metro area will be judged partly on whether they benefit the poor and people of color. Some suburban representatives argue that their cities could lose funding because of the new funding formula.
Committees of the Metropolitan Council pushed forward the proposal for a new formula for federal transportation project funding at meetings on Wednesday.
The effort is meant to help address disparities in the metro area between whites and people of color. Studies have shown that the region has some of the widest racial disparities in the country in income, education and health.
The Metropolitan Council's Adam Duininck said the priorities reflected in the formula come out of principles of equity approved in the council's Thrive MSP 2040 plan, approved in May.
"We already are currently experiencing nationally-recognized racial disparities," Duininck said. "To us, equity can't just be about how we do the least amount of harm to communities, but it has to be about how we lift communities up."
The council's Transportation Advisory Board approved the new funding formulas on Wednesday. About $150 million in federal transportation funds are expected to be allocated through this process over the next two years.
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Planners said this policy would make the council the first governmental body in the region to explicitly tie the stated policy of "equity" to actual funding mechanisms.
"To us, equity can't just be about how we do the least amount of harm to communities, but it has to be about how we lift communities up."
"Having the conversation regionally and having counties and cities and us at the council engaged in it is one important step, and then frankly putting the money where the rhetoric is, putting the resources into the communities," Duininck said.
Projects like roads, transit or bike and pedestrian facilities are scored according to criteria like usage, safety and the impact on traffic congestion. The new formula adds a section called "equity," which now will account for about 10 percent of the score.
The equity section gives points to a project if it benefits "low-income populations, people of color, children, people with disabilities and the elderly," with a special emphasis on projects located in a racially concentrated area of poverty. An equity assessment by the council found that about 261,000 people in the metro area lived in what they call "racially concentrated areas of poverty." It also factors in whether cities have made an effort at creating and preserving affordable housing.
Under the new formula, a proposed bike path that served parts of north Minneapolis where residents are poor people of color would receive a higher score in this area of the funding formula than a similar project serving people in Edina, which has no racially concentrated areas of poverty.
Lars Negstad of Isaiah, a coalition of religious groups advocating for policies of racial and economic equity, helped push for the updated funding formula.
"This is an important measure to align our transportation funding with our values essentially and to look at ways that we can use our transportation funding to leverage better affordable housing production in the suburbs and racial equity in the region."
Many at the meeting, including the Minnesota Department of Transportation representative on the Transportation Advisory Board, cited the state's history of supporting transportation projects like the building of the interstates, which disproportionately affected communities of color like the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul.
"It's important to acknowledge that transportation investments in the past have been used to divide our communities and have actually had bad outcomes for people of color and equity in our region," Negstad said. "So we're not starting from a level playing field."
The decision to factor equity into the formula wasn't without contention though. Suburban representatives on the committees vehemently opposed adding equity to the formula at the current rates, although many joined in the final vote to approve it.
Paul Krause of Dakota County argued that even a few points in the funding formula could make a difference between whether a project is funded or not. He said suburbs would be at a disadvantage because they were whiter than the core cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
"My problem is we shouldn't even be looking at [race]," Krause said. "If there is poverty, there's poverty, I don't care what color you are."
Former Minneapolis Council Member Robert Lilligren serves on the committee and said the new formula represented an effort to spread the area's prosperity to all its residents.
"I know poverty exists in every corner of the region, and that concerns me," Lilligren said. "All things being equal in this region, race is the determining factor in disparity."
Efforts by representatives of suburban areas to table the formula until more work could be done failed in the Transportation Advisory Board meeting, as did an effort to amend the formula to make the equity portion apply to a broader geographic area.
Matt Look, who represents Anoka County, said the formula represented a disconnect between policy and reality as he sees it.
"The draft transportation policy plan appears to propose funneling public funds into mass transit in the urban core while virtually ignoring congestion on highways, which are essential to the economic health of suburban communities," Look said.
In all, the sometimes contentious process of creating new funding formulas took about 18 months.
The full Metropolitan Council is expected to consider the new funding formulas at their meeting next week. If the formulas are approved, it would mark the first time in about two decades that the agency has updated its funding formula for local governments to apply for federal transportation funds.