The Pathway to Equitable Access: Enhancing Transportation Performance Management
Through the 2021 $1.2 trillion Federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) is investing in enhancing infrastructure for disadvantaged, underserved, and overburdened populations to ensure a more safe, reliable, and equitable transportation system. Through BIL, $13 billion is being allocated for Tribal-specific communities, and up to $130 billion is going toward upgrading rural roads, bridges, and other infrastructure. Additionally, recent funding through the 2023 Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) program finances transportation projects for rural and urban communities to advance equity and other outcomes. Together with the Biden-Harris Administration’s 2021 Justice 40 Initiative, which seeks to ensure that 40 percent of the benefits from the USDOT’s transportation initiatives go toward disadvantaged communities, Federal research and policy objectives are focused on ensuring equitable outcomes from transportation investments.
Part of these Federal funds going toward furthering equitable outcomes are being allocated in the form of discretionary grants for metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), State and local DOTs, and other local transportation agencies. To guide these organizations in investing Federal funds in expanding highways, roadways, and other infrastructure to support disadvantaged communities, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) utilizes Transportation Performance Management (TPM). TPM is a framework that provides agencies with the tools to evaluate the impacts of transportation projects using a data-driven approach and other metrics, supporting them through data improvements and project planning. The performance metrics under TPM largely include measuring travel time burdens, safety, emissions, and reliability impacts.
TPM is guided by the FHWA 2019-2022 strategic plan, which seeks to improve project decisionmaking for infrastructure and capacity enhancement through a performance-based program and data-driven approach. However, TPM as a performance evaluation system tends to be narrowly focused because it measures infrastructure-based impedance, such as travel time, safety, emissions, and reliability. This results in evaluation assessments that are focused on how individuals can physically utilize the transportation system, rather than considering people’s restrictions in accessing essential destinations via transportation. Potential restrictions can range from need-based ones (such as lack of vehicle ownership and/or low-income status) to mobility-based ones (such as disability and age) to other overburdened circumstances (such as Tribal or rural communities). Without a framework to determine which projects may most benefit disadvantaged communities, the expenditure of Federal dollars is at risk of investing in projects that may unintentionally place disproportionate burdens on disadvantaged populations.
Advancing a New Equity-Driven Transportation Planning Framework
In determining transportation investments to benefit disadvantaged populations, in accordance with USDOT equity objectives, FHWA’s TPM considers equity and the transportation restrictions that disadvantaged people face. To do this, FHWA’s TPM revises its assessment approach to involve the complex constraints of disadvantaged populations who will be directly impacted by transportation interventions.
To identify projects that will most benefit the people in need, it is first important to understand disadvantaged travelers’ needs and complex circumstances. In doing so, TPM should incorporate traveler decisionmaking and predicted behavior patterns to proactively determine which investments would be most beneficial to disadvantaged travelers. One possible Federal initiative to learn from is the USDOT’s Equitable Transportation Community (ETC) Explorer, which provides planners with an understanding of how a community is experiencing transportation disadvantage to help ensure that the benefits of investments are addressing those disadvantages. However, the ETC Explorer is focused on measuring the level of disadvantage of a geographic area rather than identifying potential projects based on the behavior and demand patterns of disadvantaged travelers. Expanding on the ETC Explorer, future development in equity-based transportation planning should consider integrating the behavior and needs of these disadvantaged travelers before determining investments.
Additionally, future iterations of TPM should not only consider equity objectives but should also consider equity in tandem with other critically important outcomes, such as safety, reliability, and the environment. Equity objectives that seek to deliver outcomes to benefit the most disadvantaged travelers may often conflict with system efficiency, cost, reliability, and safety objectives. For example, projects that provide increased accessibility for rural or Tribal populations may not necessarily be the most cost-effective investment for the transportation agency. Thus, the TPM needs to provide a framework for evaluating the tradeoffs between multiple transportation objectives to weigh critical outcomes (e.g., safety, environment) with equity. This will ensure that investing in projects that deliver equity outcomes does not compromise other critically important objectives essential for implementing transportation projects.
Recommendations for Implementing a New Equity-Based TPM
To incorporate equity into TPM, individual-level data collection efforts are needed to best understand the perspectives of disadvantaged travelers who will be directly affected by transportation investments. Through disaggregated data collection at the individual level, methods of determining needs can be more reflective of individual circumstances in order to better identify targeted interventions toward addressing needs. Individual-level data collection will need additional coordination efforts with local MPOs, State and local DOTs, and local transit agencies to collect data and survey diverse individuals.
FHWA interagency coordination can also ensure that all performance objectives (e.g., safety, reliability, environment, etc.) are being incorporated into planning processes, along with equity. Additionally, when considering a potential investment that seeks to address equity outcomes, community engagement and public feedback is critical to evaluate how interventions are achieving their intended objectives. Community feedback will ensure that these projects that seek to deliver equity outcomes are truly benefiting those in need.
Given that Federal objectives and funding are prioritizing equity objectives, now is the time to ensure that Federal spending is going toward projects that will truly benefit the most disadvantaged communities. To do so, FHWA should invest in re-modernizing TPM to prioritize an equity-based transportation planning framework.
Shriya Karam is a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA. Shriya is currently studying engineering and will graduate in 2028.
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