This year marks the 50th anniversaries of the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 (UMTA) and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  It is also the 20th anniversary of President Clinton’s Executive Order 12898, addressing federal Environmental Justice actions.

Recognizing these important milestones together is appropriate — civil rights and public transportation are familiar neighbors.  Segregation in public transportation systems was a hallmark of the Jim Crow South.  Rosa Parks’ resistance to bus segregation and the Montgomery Bus Boycott are two milestones of the Civil Rights Movement, followed by the Freedom Rides.  Today, groups such as the Transportation Equity Caucus and APTA’s Voices for Public Transit give vibrancy to the transportation equity movement.

Federal funding of public transportation binds UMTA and the Civil Rights Act. The amount of grants made available for public transportation has grown exponentially since UMTA’s original $375 million in matching funds to cities and states for large-scale private and public rail projects. President Obama’s GROW AMERICA Act transportation reauthorization proposal and companion budget proposals seek $72 billion over four years in federal support for public transportation.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act creates a broad mandate to prevent exclusion from participation, the denial of benefits, or discrimination under any “program or activity” receiving federal funds. As a result, Title VI and UMTA are natural legal tools that can support transportation equity specifically, and environmental justice broadly. In a precedent setting action last year, the FHWA issued an administrative ruling reversing a city council’s denial of a proposed expansion of a bus line that would serve primary African-American ridership under a Title VI disparate impact theory.

As with every major debate over priorities for transportation infrastructure, the biggest question involves which projects should get priority for precious state and federal dollars. Equity concerns are now beginning to make inroads into local decisions over what proposed projects should receive funding.

For example, the Metropolitan Council in Minnesota has proposed a new formula that will be used as a guidepost to assess federal transportation projects. Like many proposed transportation “scorecards,” the benchmarks include impact on traffic and safety; the new scorecard will also take into account equity – which would be a section of its own in the formula. The equity section of the formula would seek to account for the benefits of a particular project to people of color, low-income communities, people with disabilities, the elderly, and children. The Metropolitan Council’s final decision on the formula is expected in early October 2014.

The Minnesota MPO’s action may be the tip of the iceberg, as many urban areas struggle with the reality that historically underserved communities are still disproportionally burdened by transportation deficiencies.  MAP-21’s new regime of performance management should also put equity concerns into sharper focus with its emphasis on access and economic development.

The 21st Century link between transportation and civil rights is no less important than Rosa Parks’ courageous stance.  While she fought for her rightful place on the bus, today’s transportation equity goals seek even more fundamental rights, such as fair access to education, jobs, and health care.  DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx eloquently stresses “ladders of opportunity” in every speech urging greater transportation funding.  He recalls that the key to his own advancement was the Charlotte Number Six bus, his only means to get to an after-school job so that he could earn money for higher education.

The heart of the civil rights movement remains equal access to opportunity.  Congressional action to expand transportation infrastructure would lead directly to such access and would be worthy of this year’s civil rights anniversaries.