If approved, the plan would mark the first regional commitment to prioritize racial equity in planning for growth and allocating funding. In addition to guiding transportation investments, equity would be at the forefront of decisions affecting public health, housing, economic development, job growth and climate change.
The proposal grew out of a recent Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments board leadership retreat. The board will vote on the proposal during an Oct. 13 meeting.
Chuck Bean, COG’s executive director, cited a 2018 study that found life expectancies in the Washington region vary by as much as 28 years, based on where people live.
“We can’t move on equity unless we focus on these areas,” Bean said Wednesday during a briefing to the region’s Transportation Planning Board, which is part of COG. “We’re elevating this into all of our work.”
Bean said local officials need to look beyond developing around Metro stations and direct more growth around commuter rail, Maryland’s coming Purple Line, streetcar lines and bus rapid transit systems. People who live one or two miles from transit stations also need safer ways to reach them without having to drive, he said.
Under the proposal, local governments would focus development around the region’s 150 “high-capacity transit” stations, along with another 75 expected to be built by 2030. That would use the land more efficiently, planners say, because transit stations occupy just 10 percent of the region’s land.
In addition, local officials would prioritize 350 census tracts as “equity emphasis areas.” Those tracts — including 1.6 million residents, or about 30 percent of the region’s population — exceed the regional average of low-income households and have high numbers of Black, Asian or Latino residents.
Focusing on those historically underserved areas, COG planners say, would help weave racial equity into planning and investment decisions. For example, local leaders could favor them when deciding where to put new housing, plant trees or establish food security programs.
Improving public transportation options in those areas, planners say, would help more transit-dependent residents reach jobs.
D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D), the Transportation Planning Board’s chair, said the approach would address the “east-west divide” that stems from the western part of the region having more jobs and the eastern part having less expensive housing and longer commutes.
The proposal “starts to bake into all our jurisdictions’ planning and funding decisions the need to focus on equity,” Allen said after the meeting. “The equity problem is not going to fix itself. You have to act with intentionality. … We want equity to be a front-line consideration.”
The emphasis on equity wouldn’t be binding on local officials but rather would encourage them to ask how inclusive their decisions would be, Allen said.
Separately — but in line with the proposed equity-based approach — the planning board on Wednesday approved its first grants for preliminary design or engineering on local projects that would make it easier and safer to walk or bike to major transit stations.
The “transit within reach” grant winners are $74,000 to Manassas for a path at the Virginia Railway Express’s Broad Run station, $85,000 to Montgomery County for a path to the MARC Germantown commuter rail station and $85,000 to Prince George’s County for a new sidewalk, path and transit-calming measures near the Suitland Metro station.
The planning board also heard about a study underway looking at how the region might achieve its greenhouse gas reduction goals by cutting vehicle emissions. Michael Grant, of consulting firm ICF, told the board he is analyzing a “layering of strategies.”
They include combinations of increasing the number of electric vehicles, smoothing traffic flows to reduce idling, focusing development around transit stations and convincing more people to telework, walk, ride bikes or use public transportation.
COG transportation planning director Kanti Srikanth said he hopes to have the study’s findings in December so state and local officials can consider them when deciding which projects to include in an update of the region’s long-term transportation plan. The collective vehicle ozone emissions potentially produced by projects in the plan must abide by federal limits on air pollution.