Urban Wire Strengthening the Capacity of Local Leaders to Advance Equity in Infrastructure
Judah Axelrod, Chitra Balakrishnan, John Sankofa
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A vacant warehouse is shown in Detroit

Our nation’s interstate highway system offers a memorable lesson: not all roads lead to equitable outcomes.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 authorized the creation of 41,000 miles of interstate highway to eliminate unsafe road conditions and facilitate fast, efficient cross-country travel. But the planners of the highway construction boom routed many roads directly through Black and Latinx neighborhoods—exposing them to a disproportionate share of automobile pollution and fragmenting communities.

Today, a critical opportunity has opened for planners, researchers, and communities to take an equity-centric approach when deciding how to spend the enormous influx of public works funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Approved by Congress in November 2021, the IIJA authorizes a sizable sum—between $864 billion and $1.2 trillion—in infrastructure funding for roads, bridges, public transit, broadband, environmental cleanups, and more.

In accordance with the executive order on advancing racial equity and the Justice40 Initiative, federal agencies are now requiring more data and documentation when local and state jurisdictions apply for funds, informing how proposed projects will affect people with low incomes and communities of color.

To better understand the capacities and needs of smaller, less-resourced jurisdictions, Urban Institute researchers conducted interviews with local actors who have engaged in recent IIJA applications. We focused on small jurisdictions because an investment application process that has no on-ramp for this group will likely only entrench inequities. We also concentrated on local stakeholders who are experts in transportation and the revitalization of brownfields—defunct commercial or industrial sites with contaminated soil, air, and water—two areas that offer clear windows into the infrastructural issues facing many communities of color.

Three strategies for addressing entrenched infrastructure inequities using new federal funding

Compared with their white counterparts, people of color are more likely to rely on public transportation. Pedestrians of color are more likely to be struck by drivers. These disparities in transportation and transit services exist because of historic patterns of exclusionary zoning and housing segregation.

Brownfields are more likely to sit in neighborhoods with more people of color and families living below the poverty level (PDF). Redeveloping brownfields could help keep communities safe and create opportunities to improve community cohesion and enhance local economic prosperity.

The local leaders we interviewed knew about the inequities related to transportation and brownfields—disparities readily visible in their communities. But our study identified several areas, including quantifying racial equity, measuring the impact of investment, and contending with the application cycle, where local organizations must build capacity to ensure they can compete for IIJA grant funding.

To address these challenges, we recommend the following three strategies.

  1. Increase federal investment in new data sources, capacity building, and technical support
    Applicants shared challenges with collecting and obtaining data disaggregated by race and ethnicity, conducting benefit-cost analyses, and writing grants. Some of the applicants’ calls for investment require time, staffing, and research capacity from federal agencies, whereas other requests would enable local governments to do this work themselves.

    The executive order on racial equity calls for the active commitment of all federal agencies—also known as an all-of-government approach—to help meet these challenges. Generating new sources of data disaggregated by race and ethnicity, beefing up local data systems, and opening more doors to technical assistance and grant-writing support are investments that could meaningfully build the capacity of local applicants.
  2. Make guidance clearer and simpler
    The application process is complex, rigorous, and time constrained. Applicants reported struggling with scheduling, budget and financial restrictions, data-wrangling issues, and reporting requirements. First-time applicants faced the additional challenge of developing a baseline understanding of transportation or other infrastructure needs.

    To strengthen guidance and improve transparency in the application process, federal agencies could streamline notices of funding opportunities, which announce the availability and timeline of investment funding, and offer more notice and time for applicants to meet the demands of the competitive federal grant application process. Federal agencies could also expand webinar support to include more guidance on partnering with local agencies, conducting benefit-cost analyses, and taking creative approaches to measuring racial equity.
  3. Align application processes with community needs
    Wherever possible, federal agencies should allow projects to evolve with ample time and space for meaningful community engagement. Urban’s guidebook on community engagement and racial equity suggests rethinking public meeting requirements by making meetings more flexible and compensating participants to ensure more underrepresented voices are at the table.

    To alleviate difficulties in securing contractual partnerships with community-based organizations, federal agencies could ease contractual flow-down provisions, which bind community-based organizations subcontracted by localities to stricter terms. Easing these restrictions would allow less-resourced organizations to have a seat at the table.

Our research underscores that local stakeholders play a critical role in achieving the goals of the executive order on advancing racial equity and the Justice40 Initiative. But the federal government is unlikely to deliver on its racial equity priorities if the federal funds are more easily accessed by better-resourced localities and organizations, which would only entrench preexisting advantages. Strengthening the capacities of small, less-resourced applicants in leveraging data and supporting equity-driven work could help ensure the new influx of infrastructure investments pave the road to equity.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Land use
Tags Equitable development Infrastructure Land use and zoning Racial and ethnic disparities Racial inequities in neighborhoods and community development Transportation Racial Equity Analytics Lab
Policy Centers Office of Race and Equity Research
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