September 8, 2021 - From the September, 2021 issue

LA Metro CEO Stephanie Wiggins on Infrastructure Equity

With the $550 billion federal infrastructure package still pending, LA County Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell last month hosted and moderated a virtual roundtable on infrastructure equity in LA County. TPR presents excerpts from LA Metro's new CEO Stephanie Wiggins (pictured) on incorporating equity and inclusion in Metro investments. Wiggins highlights opportunities to focus on improving essential service for LA's essential workforce. Find the full roundtable video with panelists, LA County Public Works Director, Mark Pestrella, and bus rider and advocate Elizabeth Medrano online, here


Stephanie Wiggins

"It's so typical that we think about the physical aspects of infrastructure, but we don't want to forget about the people aspects of infrastructure— both the people who rely on that infrastructure and the mobility that we know is a socio economic enabler...The more access you have to quality transportation the better opportunities you have for education, jobs, and health care."—Stephanie Wiggins

Holly J. Mitchell: The last time we've seen this kind of investment from the federal government for infrastructure, it was back in 1956 under the leadership of President Eisenhower, when he signed the Federal- Aid Highway Act. So, this investment in our infrastructure has been a long time coming. That act intended to solve a worthy problem, but in its path, it created new horrific problems that disproportionately impacted so many segments of our community. Those highways in many communities erased communities of color, decimated homeownership in the African American community, created generational pollution, and it segregated and cut us off from one another. There are so many examples of that across LA County—really this entire state and country. Again, we believe that it also helped exacerbate the climate crisis that we're currently facing.

Now we have an opportunity to reverse some of that negative history. As we look at this $550 billion investment at the federal level, the question really is for our region: how can we ensure that we “build back better?” We want to learn from those early missteps, and I believe the answer to “building back better” requires us to redefine problems that we're attempting to solve through the lens of equity and inclusion. The answer will require us to think about who's at the decision making table, and who's missing—hence today's conversation on infrastructure equity.

Holly J. Mitchell: And so, Stephanie, what have you learned about the gaps in infrastructure and what were you more aware of in the last 18 months that you hadn't felt as much before the pandemic?

Stephanie Wiggins: More than a crisis that I see, it has been a real 18 months of disruption that has been an opportunity to revisit and rethink everything that we do. Since I have been in transportation for more than a couple of decades, I really think about what has been the impact on our communities, particularly underserved communities. As you've noted, our communities were suffering even before the pandemic, but the pandemic kind of shone a spotlight and elevated these disparities that were already there. 

For me, what has been foundational and a learning experience is that for a long time, particularly at Metro, equity was always part of the conversation. But the way we dealt with it was by focusing on geographic equity. We thought geographic equity was the way to address the populations that needed it the most. The learning experience came from being able to take on leadership roles at Metro, and with the leadership of our board, true equity means intentionality.

When we did transportation planning, we did not like to disaggregate the data or pull the data out: we like to look at data in groups. Yet, the pandemic has shown us it did not meet communities by geography. The virus does not discriminate [by geography]. And yet we know, black and brown communities were impacted the most by this pandemic for underlying health disparities. The pandemic really elevates the importance of transportation, the infrastructure of transportation, and providing quality transportation. While some people had the types of roles where they could work remotely, at Metro there were 500,000 people a day still needing our system. Today, 730,000 people a day still need our system.

Holly J. Mitchell:  Those were our essential workers who were still going to work every day?

Stephanie Wiggins: Yes, and so the opportunity for us to lean into equity and have it become part of Metro’s DNA, which is what I want to be known for. It means that we need to be making sure that our investments are rebalanced, directed towards essential service, and invested towards the essential workforce that needs it. We've got to look at the data differently. While we were always well intentioned, the reality is this pandemic has shown us that we weren't actually able to serve the communities that needed it the most.

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I'm proud to join this organization. A lot of work has already been done before I got here: whether it's our Office of Equity and Race, or actually being more intentional with our data, focused on the customer experience, and lifting up our bus riders. I think it's so typical that we think about the physical aspects of infrastructure, but we don't want to forget about the people aspects of infrastructure— both the people who rely on that infrastructure and the mobility we know that it's a socio-economic enabler. The more access you have to quality transportation the better opportunities you have for education, jobs, and health care.

And we haven't even talked about the opportunity for good infrastructure to make sure we offer great job or career opportunities. I have tons of stories of people in the community who've been able to get a second or fair chance with Metro, because we have inclusive hiring requirements on our infrastructure projects that give people who are chronically unemployed or have had difficult times. Now, they will talk about how they are in a career for life, are able to purchase a home, send their kids to school, etc. That's also what infrastructure does. The connection with jobs is not incidental, it's about really enhancing the quality of life.

Holly J. Mitchell: What's the biggest difference you intend to leave Metro, in terms of making a more equitable infrastructure and a more equitable Los Angeles? 

Stephanie Wiggins: Fundamentally, if my leadership can be known for one thing, supervisor, I really want it to be known for leading with equity instead of responding with equity. What do I mean by that? It really is transformational for an organization of this size to lead with equity in everything that we do. How will that look differently than it did a year ago? Well, the month I started, in June, our board approved an update to our joint development policy. We can influence affordable housing on property that we own, we don't have to wait for others. The board voted to shift our focus onto affordable housing, so that we can accelerate the number of affordable units on Metro property. I’m very excited to do that and oversee that. Today, we have about 2,200 housing units, and we have more than 3,000 units in the pipeline. We want to get over 10,000 units in the next few years with this focus of prioritizing affordable housing on all of our joint development opportunities going forward.

Secondly, I talked a little bit about the workforce: we can do more in terms of our inclusive hiring. We are best in class in inclusive hiring, but we can do more. I am moved by the number of women who've been pushed out of the workforce as a result of the pandemic, and a large part of that reason is childcare issues. I'm in a position to make sure we have policies that ensure we can attract an inclusive workforce, provide childcare support, and provide telecommuting flexibility that we know helps women in particular who, more often than not, are the childcare giver. We know the differences that has made over the last 18 months.

This will be music to your ears, supervisor, I think you've said this in a different life, “your value is in your budget.” We have to take a hard look at our processes and the outcomes of the budget, and that is not an easy thing to do. It's not an easy thing to do when the nature of transportation funding and planning is not unique to Metro, but in any agency where you have the trust of the voters through them agreeing to tax themselves. Usually for accountability, there's a plan that the taxpayers identify that we need to be accountable for. And so, there has been a heavy emphasis on geography, and while I want to respect geography, we have to really look at equity, and how we invest those dollars to manifest the mobility that everyone needs and everyone wants. That will be a bit of a paradigm shift that I think the pandemic has provided the silver lining for. 

That is an opportunity with elected leadership like yourself [Holly J. Mitchell], that gives us bureaucrats, the flexibility, and freedom that says, “yes we can”: we can speak the language of black and brown, we can speak with those who have been disadvantaged, and we can actually bring forward recommendations related to that. With all due respect, before the pandemic, at least in my neck of the woods, that would have been a harder message to bring forward. I think it was always the right thing to do, but now the time is right to do that. However, it's still not going to be an easy decision to have whenever you're talking about shifting resources.
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Holly J. Mitchell: Last question, this is a good one because it's a question I asked myself often as a third generation native Angeleno, how can we make public transit the preferred option of travel for Los Angeles?

Stephanie Wiggins: I will just say that's kind of like my vision, that's my moonshot goal that by the end of my tenure Metro will be the first choice that people look to. Now, I say that is ambitious and moonshot, but what it means is that we are providing a safe, more attractive, convenient, and gets you to where you need to go when you need to get there. We all know that it is such an inviting experience when we take Metro and we want you to choose Metro—instead of looking for your car keys. It's going to be a lot of work: it takes intentionality, it takes funding, and it takes understanding the system and the needs of our riders. I think we can do better at this work, but I don't think it's impossible. I've traveled outside of the country, they do it in other countries. They do it in Washington, DC, they do it in New York, we could do it here.

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© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.