#22 US Transportation System “Fuels” Inequality

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The federal government disburses four times as much money for roadways as for public transit, a long-standing imbalance that has deprived the nation’s poorest of basic mobility for decades, Basav Sen reported for the Institute for Policy Studies website, Inequality.org. Since 1990, the urban roadway system has grown by nearly 70 percent. At the same time, public transportation systems have accumulated an estimated $90–$176 billion in maintenance and repair backlogs.

According to Sen, this disparity disproportionately impacts Black and Latino communities, where personal vehicle ownership rates are much lower than in majority white communities. “Transportation policies prioritizing private vehicle use leave the poor and people of color behind,” Sen reported.

The bias favoring automobiles in transportation policy is a result of corporate lobbying influence. “For the oil and gas industry in particular,” Sen reported, “highway-centric transportation is a gift that keeps on giving.” Political contributions by the oil and gas industry totaled $140 million in the 2020 election cycle alone, with hundreds of millions more since 2012.

In an August 2021 article for Vox, Gabby Birenbaum argued that, although the recent bipartisan infrastructure bill provided substantial funding for transit, the boost in federal funding was not enough to undo nearly fifty years of deferred maintenance. Full investment could “unlock a new era for transit,” Birenbaum wrote, including increased public transportation services, expansion to new areas, and clean energy fleets. “But such an investment would need to be several times what has been allocated,” she noted.

As Lawrence Carter pointed out in a June 2021 article for Unearthed, the outsize influence of the oil industry on US politics not only produces negative socioeconomic impacts, it also damages the environment. A senior lobbyist for Exxon told one of Unearthed’s undercover reporters the company “had been working to weaken key aspects of President Joe Biden’s flagship initiative on climate change, the American Jobs Plan.” As Unearthed revealed, ExxonMobil targeted a number of moderate senators, seeking to influence them to “scale back the plan’s ambition by scrapping the tax hikes that would pay for it.”

Although some commercial news outlets such as Bloomberg have discussed how lack of funding for public transportation adversely affects the economy, the extent of the problem is significantly underreported by the establishment press. Independent outlet Common Dreams covered Sen’s Inequality.org report, and the magazine Popular Science mentioned Sen’s work in a story about “unsustainable cities,” but none of the nation’s most prominent news media appears to have reported his findings. Absent widespread public awareness of these issues, the political influence of the oil industry will continue to shape transportation policy in ways that worsen existing inequalities.

Basav Sen, “How the U.S. Transportation System Fuels Inequality,” Inequality (Institute for Policy Studies), January 27, 2022.

Gabby Birenbaum, “The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill Provides Historic Funding for Transit. It’s Not Enough,” Vox, August 23, 2021.

Lawrence Carter, “Inside Exxon’s Playbook: How America’s Biggest Oil Company Continues to Oppose Action on Climate Change,” Unearthed, June 30, 2021.

Student Researcher: Zach McNanna (North Central College)

Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)