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Recap: Embedding Equity in Project Delivery

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Anne Aylward, Director of the U.S. DOT’s Volpe Center, recently welcomed Stephanie Wiggins, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) at Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro), and Emmanuella Myrthil, Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer at Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), to a conversation focused on “Embedding Equity in Project Delivery.” This was the fourth event in the U.S. DOT Project Delivery Center of Excellence's thought leadership series on Delivering the Benefits of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

As CEO, Wiggins oversees an agency that runs the third-busiest transit system in the United States and serves as the lead transportation planning, programming, and financing agency for over 10 million residents of LA County. Wiggins is the first African American woman to lead LA Metro. Before joining Metro, Wiggins served as CEO of Metrolink, one of the country’s largest passenger rail system covering 538 route-miles throughout Southern California.

Emmanuella R. Myrthil is the chief equity and inclusion officer at SEPTA, one of the largest transit systems in the U.S., serving five counties in the Greater Philadelphia area and connecting to transit systems in Delaware and New Jersey. Myrthil is working to build and cultivate a culture within SEPTA that promotes inclusion, diversity, equity, and access for employees, customers, vendors, contractors, and diverse communities. Prior to joining SEPTA, Myrthil was the division diversity director for the Southeast Division at HNTB, a national infrastructure engineering and design firm, and also worked at the Georgia Department of Transportation.

This post provides a recap of the conversation. You can watch the full event video here



Prioritizing Equity in Project Design and Planning

The concept of equity is not new, but it has assumed heightened importance in our current times. Myrthil defines equity as the fair treatment and full participation of all individuals, including historically underestimated populations. Specifically, in the realm of project design, she noted it is critical to embed equity in every facet of our work and this begins with defining explicit equity goals. Myrthil emphasized that equity goals should not be an afterthought, but rather embedded in the strategic foundation laid at the very beginning of a project.

"We need to be very strategic about clearly articulating what our equity goals and objectives look like from the very beginning," stated Myrthil. This involves scrutinizing and articulating what these goals and objectives entail and understanding the specific outcomes we aim to achieve.

Beyond a project's immediate objectives, Myrthil stressed the need to consider the multifaceted impacts on diverse groups of people and determine potential mitigation strategies and prevention measures. This requires having the right conversations with the right stakeholders—both internal and external. Myrthil suggested that achieving equity goals is not a solitary endeavor but a collective pursuit where every voice contributes to the holistic understanding of the project's societal impact.

Myrthil recognized empathy as a linchpin in successful infrastructure project planning and design. She noted that projects have the power to change lives; thus, the ability to approach them with empathy is vital. Myrthil recommended creating environments that encourage open dialogue and psychological safety, which allows individuals to share their perspectives freely.

Moving Beyond Simple Stakeholder Engagement and Mentoring for Creativity

At SEPTA, one of the largest transit systems in the U.S., Myrthil has embarked on a culture tour with every department, bus depot, and garage to gather feedback about how planned bus changes will impact communities and routes across modes of transportation.

Myrthil emphasized the need to move beyond simple “engagement” to active “enrollment” of stakeholders, “because it's very important that we provide the opportunity for our stakeholders, our community members to be part of the process.” This includes recognizing that employees and small businesses in the community are also stakeholders, and their input should be valued, Myrthil said.

Myrthil stressed that our approach to equity must remain dynamic, welcoming new insights and perspectives. This journey requires a commitment to transparency, accountability, and the belief that equitable projects are the foundation for flourishing, sustainable communities. Achieving greater equity necessitates a culture of continuous learning and improvement, where creativity is nurtured alongside compliance. “We don't want to just monitor for compliance. We want to mentor for creativity,” said Myrthil.

Putting Equity into Action in Transit and Infrastructure

“Transit can be an excellent driver of economic and social equity, not only because it saves people time, reduces household costs, and connects people to jobs and opportunity, but also because these public investments can help build wealth and resilience in our communities if we take intentional and thoughtful action to build and operate them that way in true partnership with the people who live in those communities,” Wiggins said.

The LA Metro CEO shared insights on how one of the largest transit agencies in the nation is actively putting equity into action in a diverse and dynamic Los Angeles County community. Wiggins emphasized the importance of equity in transit and infrastructure projects, highlighting the challenges faced by the region, as well as the agency's commitment to inclusive and intentional actions.

Wiggins noted that Metro operates in a local economy that produces a huge amount of wealth, but also has tremendous challenges as it grapples with the highest poverty rate in the state.  

LA Metro Equity Platform and Equity-Focused Communities Maps Inform Decision-making

Wiggins discussed Metro’s equity platform, which serves to inform, shape, and guide every facet of Metro’s business. The platform is built on four key pillars: define and measure; listen and learn; focus and deliver; and train and grow. Wiggins described how these driving principles are applied in practice, particularly in the evaluation of projects and initiatives through equity assessments and engagement with communities.

For example, in 2021, Metro initiated equity evaluations on all board reports and actions, using a seven-question tool that considers the impact of decisions on various groups and communities. They also developed an equity-focused communities (EFC) map to help identify areas with the greatest transportation needs.

How do these tools translate to project delivery?

“We are empowered by our board not only to plan and deliver projects that benefit our EFCs, but to develop and implement programming that maximizes our project's positive impact on the people living within the EFCs, whether through the procurement process, through community engagement, … or support programming that benefits the neighborhood businesses,” said Wiggins.

Wiggins highlighted Metro’s more than $22 billion in capital projects, each with equity investments embedded into them. She also noted that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has helped advance and maximize a number of those benefits for Metro and LA residents.

Inclusive Procurement, Workforce, and Metro Equity Information Hub

Wiggins stressed Metro's commitment to inclusive procurement, emphasizing the importance of supporting small businesses and disadvantaged workers. She highlighted the success of their Project Labor Agreement (PLA) and Construction Careers Policy (CCP) in ensuring a diverse and inclusive workforce. “The PLA and CCP have literally changed lives. We've applied it to more than 54 projects with a combined contract value of more than $10 billion. No work stoppages or lockouts have occurred since the start of the program.”

Wiggins noted the role of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and the Justice40 Initiative in helping to ensure equity in project construction. “I believe the most effective way to incorporate equity in the construction part of the project delivery process is through the procurement actions,” said Wiggins. Metro has started incorporating cultural competency evaluation criteria into new mega project procurements, such as the East San Fernando Valley Light Rail Project funded through BIL. This helps to ensure that contractors understand and respect the cultural context of the communities they serve.

Wiggins underscored Metro's dedication to equity in all aspects of its work, including project delivery, and encouraged others to explore their tools via the Metro Equity Information Hub.

Intentionality and inclusivity are essential in addressing societal challenges and building a more equitable future for all, emphasized Wiggins. “Now, we're in an era where the gap between rich and poor has never been greater, and we're headed into an era where we know climate change is going to affect the poorest the most. We got here because of intentional policy choices, many of which ignored or concealed the impact on communities at the lowest rungs of the income distribution. Intentionality got us here, and intentionality is the only thing that can help lead us toward a brighter, cleaner, and more equitable future.”


View the event recording for the full discussion.


*The views of the speakers do not represent the views of U.S. DOT.



Sponsored by the USDOT Project Delivery Center of Excellence 

Hosted by the U.S. DOT Volpe Center, the Delivering the Benefits of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law event series is sponsored by the new USDOT Project Delivery Center of Excellence

The U.S. DOT Volpe Center is committed to principles of accessibility and inclusion. If you require reasonable accommodations, please contact collateral duty Disability Program Specialist Stephanie Chase and carbon copy EEO Manager Eliot Sutler on your request.  

Sponsored by the USDOT Project Delivery Center of Excellence