03/29/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A preview of Obama's "scalpel"?

Local governments now have about 70 million reasons to pay attention to the way stimulus-funded infrastructure projects affect low-income people and communities of color.

In what seems to be a first, the Obama Administration this week announced its withholding $70 million from a project that would link a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train station to the Oakland Airport - all because BART did not do an "equity analysis" of how the project would hurt the communities it cut across. This landmark action results from an administrative complaint filed by transit policy experts and community advocacy groups represented by Public Advocates Inc.

If this is how the Administration uses its "scalpel" to slice into federal spending during its proposed spending freeze, we may be in for a whole new (and more equitable) way of doing business - one that truly responds to the people most impacted.

Of course, to outside observers it may seem odd that the administration invoked Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to squelch this project. But transportation is, without a doubt, a civil rights issue.

Of all the ways federal spending affects our lives, federal transportation policy has perhaps the most permanent and tangible impact - it shapes how our communities are laid out, how our economy is structured, and how we live our lives day to day.

Making sure all communities are best-served by our federal transportation policy, however, is a tricky business. Many powerful interests are aligned to continue the status quo - more new highways and relatively little investment in public transit, biking and walking. The disparate impacts of these choices, however, do not fall evenly on all people. Low-income people and communities of color regularly get the short end of the deal.

That's why the national movement for transportation equity is so important - we need to have our voices strong and united to stand up against the entrenched interests. This extraordinary decision came about only through the sustained and powerful opposition of local community groups and legal advocates. It proved ground up change is possible, but only when you work for it.

The Obama Administration's actions make clear that there is a new sheriff in town holding agencies accountable for their civil rights obligations and making sure our tax dollars are spent fairly and wisely.

Transportation, environmental and civil rights advocates now have an ally in the federal government - but we need to make our voices heard even more loudly to realize that potential..