Arlington County Board member Christian Dorsey (D) said focusing on mass transit will reduce traffic congestion, better leverage the region’s investments in public transportation and encourage “active transportation,” such as walking, that improves public health and combats climate change.
Moreover, Dorsey said, prioritizing lower-income areas and those with more racial minorities ensures that “they are no longer left out of the benefits and are no longer missing from the efforts that we have to bring vitality and prosperity to our region.”
The effort to highlight historically underserved communities marks the first regional commitment to prioritize equity in planning and investment decisions. It also supports the COG board’s broader goals of making the region more “accessible, livable, sustainable and prosperous,” COG council planners said.
Local officials will prioritize 351 census tracts designated 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. For example, local leaders could favor them when deciding where to focus new housing, plant trees or establish food-security programs.
A primary focus will be improving access to mass transit by completing the half-finished National Capital Trail Network and building more sidewalks. In addition to helping transit-dependent residents reach stations more easily and safely by walking or riding a bike, planners said improvements will reduce the need to drive, which will lower vehicle emissions that contribute to climate change.
Local governments also will focus growth — and particularly housing for a range of income levels — around the region’s 150 “high-capacity transit” stations, along with another 75 expected to be built by 2030. Those include stations for Metro, commuter rail, bus rapid transit lines, streetcar lines and the light-rail Purple Line under construction.
Areas surrounding transit stations represent 10 percent of the region’s land but are expected to absorb 55 percent of new job growth and 42 percent of new homes, planners said.
“If you want to address equity, you need to focus on these areas,” COG Executive Director Chuck Bean told the board.
Several public officials said the region is overdue in ensuring that residents of all races, ethnicities and incomes can reach jobs and afford homes.
Fairfax County Supervisor Rodney L. Lusk (D-Lee) said the new approach will help residents in the Richmond Highway corridor in his district.
“There are so many needs and so much opportunity that could come to that area,” Lusk said. “They have been, unfortunately, left out. This is a way for us to account for that and to make sure we’re giving them the same access to employment and training.”
Loudoun County Supervisor Juli Briskman (D) said she’s been considering equity both in zoning requirements and when deciding, for example, where to build sidewalks.
“Now every time, I’m asking our staff, ‘Are you looking at the equity emphasis areas from COG?’ ” Briskman said.
The resolutions are binding on COG’s regional planning but aspirational for local jurisdictions, a COG spokesman said.
The board also approved a new “Housing Affordability Planning Program” of grants for local governments and nonprofit developers to explore ways to preserve and create more affordable housing near transit stations.
The money for the $500,000 in grants, which COG will award at up to $75,000 apiece, will come from Amazon, which is building its second headquarters in Arlington.
Catherine Buell, Amazon’s head of community development, said the grants are part of the company’s more than $2 billion commitment to preserve and create affordable housing in its three major metropolitan areas — Seattle, Nashville and the D.C. region. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post).
“We share COG’s belief,” Buell said, “that providing equitable transit-oriented communities is an integral part of meeting the region’s growing housing needs.”