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DOT Rule Change Lets Transportation Dollars Stay in Local Communities

Longstanding policy has kept local transportation agencies from leveraging federal grants for maximum local impact. The Department of Transportation is about to change that, and advocates for jobs for at-risk populations are ecstatic about the development.

According to Laura Barrett, executive director of the Transportation Equity Project, the Stan Musial Bridge build is an example of how transportation projects can promote equity and local employment. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

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In the rest of the world, transportation infrastructure is about more than getting people from point A to point B: It’s also a tool to stimulate local employment and industry.

A longstanding federal policy has kept American transportation agencies from using their construction and procurement programs as spark plugs for local economies. Last month, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced that the Department of Transportation (DOT) would take advantage of a recent Justice Department ruling on the so-called “common grant rule” and change its own rules to permit local projects receiving federal assistance to use local preferences in hiring employees. At the same time, the department is launching a one-year “hire local” pilot program to encourage transportation agencies to set up programs that give preference in hiring to local residents, low-income workers and veterans. The pilot project will gather data to evaluate whether the programs “unduly limit competition,” the litmus test for preferences in federally assisted projects.

“Every $1 billion we invest in infrastructure not only improves connectivity between communities and opportunity; it also creates 13,000 jobs,” Foxx said in a blog post about the changes. “And when those jobs are local, the community benefit of that public investment multiplies.”

The announcement comes as welcome news to three groups of people especially: those who work with people traditionally underrepresented in the construction trades; those who help members of vulnerable populations, such as veterans and prisoners returning to the workforce, obtain gainful employment; and local elected officials.

“Many local officials work to support these programs,” said Kathleen Mulligan-Hansel, managing director of the Partnership for Working Families. “Mayors and other local elected officials realize these programs work. When you do local hire on a project, the wages stay in the community.”

Mulligan-Hansel was one of four leaders of organizations working to promote employment in construction in underrepresented communities who spoke on the impact of the changes at an April 2nd news conference. All agreed that the transportation department’s announcement was a historic move that has the potential to deliver huge benefits for minorities, women, low-income families and vulnerable populations.

“We’re really excited about this rule because one of the largest sources of funds in these communities comes from transportation projects,” said Laura Barrett, executive director of the Transportation Equity Project, a campaign sponsored by Gamaliel, a faith-based organization that seeks to empower communities to participate in the social and economic decisions that affect their lives.

Barrett offered the example of the Stan Musial Bridge, a new Mississippi River crossing between downtown St. Louis and East St. Louis, Illinois, as a case study in how transportation projects can promote equity and local employment.

“According to DOT figures, African-Americans hold only 9 percent of construction jobs and women only 11 percent,” she said. When it became clear that the bridge’s Illinois end would touch down in East St. Louis, one of the poorest cities in the nation, Barrett and other advocates for low-income communities worked to ensure that East St. Louis residents got first crack at the construction jobs. As a result, she said, “one in five workers on the Stan Musial Bridge were minorities, and women were included as well.”

“We’ve been working on these positions for 16, 17 years now, especially with L.A. Metro Rail and training facilities,” said Ernest Roberts, executive director of PV Jobs, a Los Angeles-based organization that works to return at-risk individuals to the ranks of the gainfully employed. “Unemployment and poverty are big issues in South L.A., and there’s a huge lack of opportunity at the local level for people returning from prison, substance abusers, returning veterans and welfare recipients. It’s not only an economic issue but a moral one. The federal government is spending hundreds of billions on infrastructure and there’s so little opportunity at the local level. PV Jobs has already filled 7,000 positions via local preference.”

One other obstacle the advocates said needed to be overcome is the reluctance of some in the construction trades to recognize the untapped value in this potential workforce. Some contractors and union officials worry that there won’t be enough qualified candidates in low-income communities, for instance. That’s a fallacy, said Roberts: “We have 25,000 people in our database looking for an opportunity to get into the construction trades,” he said. “And the construction trades have apprenticeship programs” that train workers in the skills they need to succeed on the job. “You don’t need to know about construction to get into an apprenticeship program. There may be work readiness issues that need to be addressed” — PV Jobs has programs to address those matters — ”but these people want jobs.”

Others wonder why construction is singled out for such attention. Roberts said that was an erroneous impression as well. “Not everyone wants to be in construction,” he said. “We have programs that focus on retail, clerical and other jobs as well.” But construction remains one of a relative handful of fields that offer the opportunity for high-paying skilled work to those without college degrees.

“There’s a process for making these kinds of programs the norm, and that involves engaging building trades leaders as allies,” said Mulligan-Hansel. “I can’t say it’s happening uniformly across the country, but the National Building Trades Department [of the AFL-CIO] has been supportive of these programs, and we show how these programs benefit them.” Astute labor leaders, she added, also understand the image problems associated with being perceived as unwilling to open up their ranks to the disadvantaged.

“Countries all over the world are doing these innovative social and economic strategies tied to transportation investments,” Madeline Janis, director of Jobs to Move America, said. “The barriers to doing them here were at the federal level.” With the DOT’s March announcements, those barriers are gone.

The public comment period for the proposed rule change has been extended until May 6th.

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Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.

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Tags: jobstransportation spending

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