CMAP’s cohorts tool can help communities apply equity lens to funding decisions

At the start of 2020, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) unveiled the newest version of its Community Cohorts tool, a robust, data-driven evaluation that helps fulfill our agency’s commitment to making our project selections and funding decisions more equitable.

The tool helps us analyze different needs in the region by grouping communities applying for our local technical assistance program into four different cohorts. Cohorts are based on the percent of a community’s population living in economically disconnected or disinvested areas, population size, median household income, and tax base per capita.

Cook County and federal coronavirus relief funding

As the pandemic continues to expose long-standing disinvestment in communities of color and low-income communities, our partners have begun using our data-driven tool to create their own equitable funding formulas.

Cook County officials recently worked with CMAP to adapt the tool to equitably allocate $51 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to suburban municipalities to address the growing disparities of communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

Cook County and CMAP ultimately developed an equitable distribution strategy that placed significant weight on suburban communities in areas that are struggling economically while accounting for other factors, such as median income, COVID-19 deaths per capita, and tax base per capita.

For CMAP, the opportunity to work with Cook County reinforced our hope that the Community Cohorts evaluation tool could be adaptable for wider use and supply communities throughout northeastern Illinois with a sound, statistical approach to allocating funds equitably.

Incorporating equity in other CMAP programs

In 2017, CMAP began a three-year effort to integrate a similar equitable approach by reforming how we distribute federal transportation dollars. CMAP, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), Chicago, and suburban municipalities ultimately established a separate funding pool, called the Surface Transportation Program (STP) Shared Fund, to implement larger-scale, regionally significant infrastructure projects that, otherwise, wouldn’t have been funded under the previous formula.

Through the new approach, CMAP scores proposed projects on the degree to which they benefit low-income and minority populations, in addition to scoring other transportation criteria like pavement condition. After applying the new scoring system, CMAP programmed 17 projects over five years with $31 million going to communities with the highest need. Three projects in Dolton, Lynwood, and North Aurora alone, totaling $18 million, likely wouldn’t have been included in the STP Shared Fund under our old evaluation.

Cars park on a residential street lined with houses.

CMAP and IDOT also have worked together to establish a policy that uses the Community Cohorts to provide communities with relief from paying matching funds for transportation grants. Normally, federal funding can cover up to 80 percent of the cost of the project, requiring communities to pay at least 20 percent. But communities categorized in the highest-need cohort are eligible to use 100 percent of federal funding on their projects. High-need communities also are able to use 100 percent of federal funds to cover preliminary engineering costs, under a similar evaluation CMAP uses.

With CMAP’s Local Technical Assistance program, communities contribute local matching funds on a sliding scale based on our Community Cohorts designations, allowing higher need communities to pay a smaller match. Since the program’s creation, CMAP has funded over 200 local planning projects, helping to build capacity, engage marginalized groups, and make critical decisions. The program also empowers local governments to solve difficult community challenges, and connects local partners to implementing agencies and capital funding for infrastructure investments.

CMAP’s development of our Community Cohorts evaluation tool serves as a blueprint for how governments and organizations can support municipalities with the greatest needs. Like Cook County and its coronavirus relief funding, communities in the region can work with CMAP to use our data and tailor our tools to ensure equitable decision-making.