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EXCLUSIVE: Transportation Sec. Pete Buttigieg Outlines Where Opportunities Meet For The Black Community And Biden’s $1.2 Trillion Infrastructure Law

The plan includes opening doors for minority business owners ultimately leading to strengthening the economy.

For the African American community, public transit is one of the most important municipal resources available. Most every county in the nation and most cities have at least a bus system that brings people from place to place and according to the American Public Transportation Association, people took 9.9 billion trips on buses, trains, ferries and other methods in 2019.

U.S.Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says a White House strategy is in place to make things even better for those who rely on public transportation to get to work, school, or even to buy groceries and for Black residents this could potentially be a major game changer. According to a 2016 Pew Research study, Black people in urban areas make up 34 percent of all public transit users. Buttigieg says his strategy involves making buses and trains easier for people to use, along with ensuring that there are career paths in transit for African Americans and opportunities for minority-owned businesses when it comes to building infrastructure.

During a visit in April to Transit Tech Career and Technical High School in Brooklyn, New York, Buttigieg toured the school and spoke with the several students, allowing them to show him the varied sets of skills they were learning from running electrical and mechanical systems to engineering.

The school, whose student body is majority Black and Latino, prepares its pupils for careers in transportation and transit and has a lengthy relationship with New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, deemed the largest transportation network in North America serving a daily ridership of approximately 2 million people. Buttigieg came specifically to talk to the students about the wide variety of opportunities for students interested in careers in the transportation field.

Today’s youth are savvy enough to know you can’t have a discussion about career opportunities without also speaking about improving a system for communities of color which has kept many at bay

for years. Paying special attention to situations where having better transit options could be the difference between finding more lucrative jobs and education opportunities.

Courtesy U.S. Dept. of Transportation

“This is exactly why we’re paying attention to questions of equity when we roll out the funding for transportation,” Buttigieg told BET.com exclusively. “A lot of areas have been overburdened and underserved. In the same way that there are food deserts where people can’t access fresh and affordable food, there are transit deserts where people can’t get transportation to good jobs, or to wherever they need to be.”

It’s a challenge that’s crucial to be solved because of the important role that public transportation plays in areas with large minority populations. The data from the Pew study show that lower income Black, Latino, immigrants and those who are younger than 50 are more likely to use public transportation. The reason is people in these demographics are more likely to live in major metropolitan areas, are less likely to have access to a car, and live farther away from their jobs.

“One of the things we have a chance to do is increase the reach and the reliability of public transit, and encourage cities and communities to plan and grow in ways that will be easier and more affordable to navigate whether it’s through transit or other means of getting around,” Buttigieg explained.”

Where's Our Piece of the Pie ?

Another important piece of the puzzle is giving minority businesses a genuine opportunity to contract with the government agencies in what could be one of the signature public projects of the Biden Administration. In March, the White House and the Transportation Department announced the passage of a $1.2 trillion infrastructure law with the intention of alleviating the burden from state, regional and local municipalities to complete the projects that are deemed “shovel ready” or far enough along in planning and engineering where work can begin. The bill is also said to have residual impact that will result in high paying jobs, stronger supply chains leading to a reduction of costs in goods and services for underserved communities.

Buttigieg did not indicate whether or not a percentage of those grant monies would be set aside specifically for minority procurement, but the government target for small or disadvantaged businesses (SDBs) is five percent. Current procurement stands at 9.8 percent, according to the White House.

Minority contractors are hoping that this will represent a turning point in their relationship with the federal government. Firms owned by people of color, which do less than $5 million in annual sales revenue, have for decades tried to compete with larger companies for their share of the contracts handed out. They are waiting to see if the Biden Administration’s approach will benefit them too.

“It’s a great thing that this is happening, but a lot of minority contractors are not capable of keeping up (with larger firms),” added Nayan Parikh, founder and president of Ashnu International, a New York-based general contractor. He says what is needed is more funds that will help train the smaller groups and prepare them for bigger business.

“Most of the time the minority businesses are good for the vertical work, but are not geared for the horizontal work like transit and transportation,” said Parikh, who also serves as president of the National Association of MInority Contractors New York Tri-State Chapter. “We’ve never had this kind of mega bill passed in New York State, so minority contractors don’t have this kind of experience. They need more training and resources for equipment, finance and safety.”

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Buttigieg said that is part of what his agency wants to provide.

“We need to make sure that we have more ambitious goals for minority owned businesses to get in on the contracting opportunities that come with all of these construction and transportation investments. That includes more ambitious goals within our department or the direct procurement committee.

“It means building up capacity and working with those businesses,” he continued. “And there are a number of issues that could give them fair access to these business opportunities, making sure that the opportunities are clearly communicated.”

Keeping A Watchful Eye

Those opportunities, ultimately, are aimed at improving the community, which is why Buttigieg came to visit Transit Tech. The diversity of the school represents the people who will be largely impacted by the infrastructure package. A study released in January 2022 by public transportation rider advocacy organization TransitCenter found that Black, Latino and Asian American workers made up 45 percent of the total transit workforce, but just 33.8 percent of managerial or leadership roles. More specifically, Blacks are one quarter of the total nationwide transit workforce, but less than 20 percent of managers.

How the infrastructure law will take shape in the coming months and even years can go in many directions. It all depends on how it is applied and groups like TransitCenter plan to closely monitor developments to see what happens, particularly in communities of color.

“There is huge potential to benefit communities of color, but there is potential to cause harm as well because the money in the infrastructure law is flexible and can be controlled by state governments,” said Steven Higashide, TransitCenter’s director of research. “They can fix it so that there are more affordable ways for people to get to work and school, but states could also use it to bulldoze homes and parks.”

Higashide cited the example of what happened in Houston where the Texas Department of Transportation is widening I-45, which removes existing homes, potentially displacing many Black and Latino residents. Mayor Sylvester Turner and other elected officials and community activists are currently fighting the movement.

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“At the same time you can see that federal funding has been an important component of rebuilding public transportation systems,” Higashide explained. “In many of our biggest cities the public transportation system only allows people of color to reach about half as many jobs as white residents. There are opportunities to fix it but it comes down to what they do with that funding.”

“At the same time you can see that federal funding has been an important component of rebuilding public transportation systems,” Higashide explained. “In many of our biggest cities the public transportation system only allows people of color to reach about half as many jobs as white residents. There are opportunities to fix it but it comes down to what they do with that funding.”

In the end, it comes down to how this $1.2 trillion law will impact students like the ones introduced to Buttigieg during his visit to Brooklyn. Shyianne Hunt, 18, a senior at Transit Tech who imagines a future in the transportation field, says that maybe one day, she’d like to become a policy maker. Her hope is that in the more immediate future, changes will be made to transit so that it becomes more equitable for everyone.

“I feel like that’s the main goal,” Hunt said. “To make everything affordable because it works well with everyone. And then watch it flow how you want it to.”


Madison J. Gray is the Senior Editor, News at BET.com.

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