Sixty Years of the Civil Rights Act: Examining the Legacy of FHWA’s Title VI Enforcement and Its Ongoing Duty to Promote Non-Discrimination
This year marks the 60th anniversary of U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964. Title VI of the act prohibits recipients of Federal financial assistance from discriminating based on race, color, and national origin. This anniversary provides an important opportunity for us to reflect on the effects of past transportation decisions as well as an opportunity to rethink what it means to comply with Title VI requirements.
The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) acknowledge that past transportation decisions either failed to consider, or consciously disregarded, the disproportionate impacts our actions would have on minorities and low-income communities. With this acknowledgement, we are now transforming our approach to Title VI. Instead of maintaining a passive approach to Title VI by limiting our actions to complaint investigations, we are taking proactive and strategic steps to assist our recipients in building their own programs to identify possible racial disparities and remedy or avoid discriminatory practices. Recognizing potential Title VI issues early on in transportation planning is key to preventing major enforcement heartburn later, such as delaying a major project or providing financial compensation to impacted persons.
While these proactive steps are a critical piece of our Title VI approach, we are not afraid to enforce violations. FHWA’s legacy of modern Title VI enforcement began with a complaint filed in 2011, regarding bus stops in Beavercreek, OH. FHWA’s investigation found that the City of Beavercreek’s refusal to approve the construction of three bus stops created a disparate impact on minority residents who depended on transit services to access community amenities. The investigation concluded that the city failed to prove a connection between a legitimate justification (public safety) and its refusal to approve the bus stops. The case’s legacy was the subject of a 2016 documentary, Free to Ride, and is cited in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Title VI Legal Manual.
Within the last decade, the FHWA Office of Civil Rights (HCR) has come a long way in enforcing Title VI. Sometimes, the only recourse for persons who believe they have been discriminated against by a FHWA funding recipient is through FHWA’s Title VI administrative complaint process. FHWA receives and processes Title VI complaints, covering a wide range of topics including mega highway expansions, residential displacements, flooding, and access to public amenities. Through a process of resolving complaints by voluntary resolution, FHWA has worked with its State and local government funding recipients on many occasions to prevent and remedy discrimination.
Transportation decisions impact the lives of real people who are trying to safely arrive to and from school and work as well as access healthcare and other essential services. Embedding Title VI considerations into all transportation decisions is the best way to provide everyone an equal opportunity to enjoy the benefits that transportation provides.
Associate Administrator, Office of Civil Rights
Federal Highway Administration