Urban America Forward | “Infrastructure Equity”

“Historically, we’ve thought of infrastructure as a public good, but increasingly infrastructure is being financed, funded, supported and driven by private entities.” –  Benjamin Kennedy, Kresge Foundation

We need to bring jobs and invest in point A where people live.” – Emily Chatterjee, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

“Water crisis is the number one geo-political risk globally. It’s about the water that comes for the tap, the toilets that we flush, and the economy.” – Radhika Fox, U.S. Water Alliance

“In Detroit just last year, 40,000 homes had their water shut off without proper notice or the opportunity to enter into a payment plan in advance.” –  Monique Lin-Luse, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

We support DOT’s local hire pilot and support our local partners who are fighting for local hire provisions in their communities.” – Emily Chatterjee, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

Infrastructure connects people to jobs, schools, and services, but “urban renewal” infrastructure investments have often had the effect of separating and isolating rather than empowering communities. New infrastructure, such as broadband technology, could help close gaps and reduce disparities, but depending on where it is located, it too can exacerbate disparities. Infrastructure equity is a complex issue because of the multiple decision makers involved. Infrastructure is financed at the federal, state, and local levels. Although infrastructure is a primary enterprise of the public sector, anti-spending forces have held projects hostage to tight state and local budgets.

  • Transportation is the second largest expense for American households, costing more than food, clothing, and health care.[1]
  • The relationship between transportation and social mobility is stronger than that between mobility and crime, elementary-school test scores, or the percentage of two-parent families in a community.[2]
  • Millions of people in the United States lack safe drinking water because of contamination by agriculture, mining, and other activities.
  • In Flint, Michigan, the Emergency Financial Manager acquired water from the Flint River instead of the Detroit Water and Sewage Department to save money during the recession. As a result, more than 100,000 people received their water from piping that contributed to elevated blood lead levels in children.

Below are the overarching themes and the corresponding policy recommendations that emerged during the Roundtable Series. 


Overarching Themes

Access to reliable, affordable transportation is a civil rights issue. Transportation is key to connecting residents to jobs, schools, health care, and other resources.

A goal of infrastructure development must be to prevent further income segregation. There is a growing mismatch between where people live and where jobs exist, and transportation infrastructure can bridge the gap.

We must defend against the increased privatization of infrastructure. Economically distressed city governments like Detroit turn to privatization to compensate for budget shortfalls. However, residents, and low-income residents in particular, bear the brunt of privatization, with lack of notice, steep cost increases, and crippling shut-offs for failure to pay.

Infrastructure investments are an important source of quality jobs. Transportation and water infrastructure investments can be game-changers when implemented equitably. They promote the economic prospects for employees by providing good jobs with career ladders and benefits.

Policy Recommendations

Prioritize disinvested communities and include set-asides for local hire requirements in infrastructure investments. State legislation can require polluting firms to reduce emissions and promote local hire requirements as a means of implementing energy alternatives.

Require surface transportation planning to measure and advance economic mobility. The U.S. Department of Transportation, metropolitan planning organizations, and state transportation departments should measure and promote economic mobility and connectivity in their planning processes.

Craft a federal low-income assistance program for waste water services, much like the Low Income Housing Energy Assistance Program, to pair investment in water with affordability.

Craft state legislation to articulate a human right to water and require income-based repayment plans. Where capital is driving decisions and cities are confronting aging infrastructure, the cost burden is placed on the rate payer. Michigan is contemplating comprehensive legislation to provide greater legal protections for individuals and creating a human right to water.

Models and Tactics

Cap and trade. In California, the new carbon-focused cap and trade program is generating $1–2 billion per year, and 25 percent of that goes to environmental justice communities and 25 percent to affordable housing and transit. Transportation programs in California also prioritize disinvested communities.

Water projects. The majority of water projects are financed locally; therefore, federal legislation is not required to secure procurement and contracting opportunities in individual municipalities.

Mapping is an important tool to illustrate infrastructure inequities to a policymaker or litigator. 


[1] Smart Growth America, “National Complete Streets Coalition: Transportation Costs,” citing Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/complete-streets/complete-streets-fundamentals/factsheets/transportation-costs.

[2] R. Chetty and N. Hendren, “The Impacts of Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility: Childhood Exposure Effects and County-Level Estimates.” Executive summary. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, Equality of Opportunity Project, April 2015), http://www.equality-of-opportunity.org/images/nbhds_exec_summary.pdf.