The White House’s budget proposal for the EPA effectively cuts the agency’s environmental justice program, which was charged with protecting low-income and minority communities from disproportionate exposures to pollution since it was established in 1992. While this decision has been criticized by environmental organizations and Democrats, another department charged with environmental justice may end up getting a boost under Trump just the same.
Last week, a Senate Appropriations subcommittee voted to increase funding for the Department of Transportation by $1 billion, including an extra $50 million for the agency’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant program, or TIGER, which President Trump and Congressional Republicans had vowed to scrap entirely.
Established by Obama in 2009, TIGER is a popular, competitive source of transportation and infrastructure funding for cities and states. The program’s most recent grants have targeted projects that help to enhance transportation access and options in disenfranchised communities — part of a wider DOT initiative called the “ladders of opportunity.” (At this time it is unclear whether the ladders of opportunity program will continue under the new administration.)
Robert Bullard, a longtime campaigner against environmental racism who has written about discrimination in transportation projects, said that TIGER grants are an example of how transportation planning can address health, air quality, and other environmental needs within a community. In 2016, the program allotted $20 million of its $500 million budget to improve roads, sidewalks, and bike lanes in Flint, Michigan, a project done in conjunction with replacing the city’s water transmission lines.
The TIGER grant program provided another $19 million in 2016 to reconnect Pittsburgh’s Hill District — an economically disadvantaged environmental justice community — to the city’s downtown through the construction of an overpass public park. The Hill District — historically a culturally diverse, majority African American community — was physically cut off from the downtown in the 1950s due to the construction of a federally funded highway, which caused economic decline and social isolation in the neighborhood.
Marimba Milliones, CEO and President of the Hill Community Development Corporation, explained that community members had expressed for years a desire to make the community “whole again,” but the funding required for the overpass park was only made possible through the TIGER grant. Milliones said that compared to many government-funded projects, the intent of TIGER is unique in that it supports many projects with “a social and economic benefit for those who are most vulnerable.”
Bullard said that, aside for the EPA, the DOT has historically been more vigilant than most federal agencies in incorporating environmental justice principles into its planning decisions, having issued an order in 1997 outlining its commitment to environmental justice. “It’s significant that the [TIGER] program not only be maintained, but funding increased, given the other kinds of cuts that are being proposed and programs being eliminated, such as the programs at the EPA,” Bullard said.
Nonetheless, Bullard is wary of whether environmental justice concerns will still be considered by the new DOT administration in selecting projects for TIGER and in making other DOT decisions.
“Those of us on the outside working on these issues across the country, we have to stay vigilant and [remain] watchdogs to see that funds are being spent in a way that provides equal opportunity and equal access and addresses equity issues across the board,” Bullard said. “I think it’s important that we don’t somehow, either by design or inadvertently, build on inequity. That would be a big mistake.”