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Each year, billions of dollars are spent on roads, bridges, highways, public transit, and other transportation projects. To low-income, minority, and other disadvantaged populations, the location and construction of transportation facilities are critical. Unfortunately, transportation planning has rarely been used as a vehicle for community development that meets the needs of low income residents.
Where does the money come from?
The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), enacted by Congress in 1998, sets aside more than $200 billion for transportation projects (approximately $35 billion per year). The majority of this money is passed on to the states through the U.S. Department of Transportation. While this is a significant amount of money, federal funds account for only about 15 percent of all money spent on transportation projects. Most money spent on transportation projects comes from state and local governments.
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Two major and interconnected themes have emerged in the last several years with respect to transportation planning and community development: welfare reform and smart growth.
When Congress enacted the 1996 welfare reform law, states were given broad authority to develop their own work-based welfare systems. Millions of low-income families with limited skills were pushed into work activities and jobs in order to remain eligible for benefits. Lack of reliable and convenient transportation has remained a significant obstacle to families trying to pull themselves off welfare and out of poverty.
To address these gaps in existing service – both in urban and rural areas –- Congress created a new welfare-to-work transportation program in TEA-21 called Job Access and Reverse Commute. This competitive grant program provides up to $150 million each year to local projects that help low-income families access job opportunities and related services that would otherwise be out of reach.
In urban, central city communities, the Job Access planning process has brought community members face to face with the consequences of sprawl. While roads themselves can be powerful contributors to economic development, divorced from more comprehensive land-use policies, unfettered road construction into rural and suburban areas on the edges of cities can drain jobs and businesses from central cities.
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