By Richard Marcantonio, Managing Attorney Public Advocates.
SB 1 (Beall) won two-thirds approval and went to the Governor’s desk late Thursday night. What does this multi-billion dollar a year bill mean for low-income Californians and communities of color?
As I and my co-authors discuss at length in a forthcoming article in the Fordham Urban Law Journal, the benefits of transportation have long been skewed away from low-income communities of color, who instead have borne the brunt of the harms associated with it.
That was very clearly the case when the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 poured tens of billions of dollars into the construction of freeways that spurred suburbanization, white flight and sprawl. Newly suburbanized middle class whites got a transportation connection to their downtown jobs, while the residents of older urban neighborhoods were displaced or left to breathe tailpipe fumes.
It continues to be a common occurrence even today, as massive investments in low-income communities of color, like BART’s failed Oakland Airport Connector through East Oakland, provide transportation options to a more affluent class of people while existing residents not only fail to benefit but are subjected to increased risk of displacement as land values and rents rise.
Transportation justice means both meeting the transportation needs of low-income residents and protecting vulnerable residents from harms to their health and communities.
Weighed against that standard, SB 1 marks a long-overdue victory for transportation justice; at the same time, it vividly demonstrates how far we still need to go.
Our landmark Darensburg lawsuit in 2005 drew the curtain back on the separate-and-unequal transit systems across the U.S. and the funding practices that create and maintain that inequality. Since then, Public Advocates has been a leading voice nationally for increasing funding for local bus service and fare reductions. We have long argued that the inadequate funding of transit operations is the biggest contributor to the service cuts and fare hikes that block low-income residents from places of employment, education, health care and recreation.
While the enormous capital needs of commuter rail systems have long been prioritized (though even those are now at risk in the Trump administration), the operating revenue that pays the salaries of drivers and mechanics who keep bus service running has steadily declined. That has remained true despite some key victories along the way. In 2009, Public Advocates helped win flexibility in President Obama’s economic stimulus for transit operating needs; and in 2014, we helped create the Low Carbon Transit Operations Program, funded with 5 percent of the cap-and-trade auction revenues in California’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund.
The adoption of SB 1 continues the trend line for growing transit operations support. Public Advocates and dozens our partners across the state were united in making it a priority to amend SB 1 to include a significant boost in transit operating support. We enjoyed strong support from some lawmakers, especially Senators Scott Weiner and Ben Allen, who early on authored an op-ed calling for “massive, transformational investments in public transportation.” As a result of our persistence, SB 1 was amended to more than double the State Transit Assistance program, adding $400 million a year to the state’s main source of funding for transit operations.
With that victory, and others mentioned in our coalition statement, low-income transit riders will share in significant benefits. The progressive nature of a modest new value-based vehicle fee is also noteworthy.
But the bill also threatens the health of countless low-income families living near trucking routes, by impairing state and regional air quality agencies like the California Air Resources Board from cleaning up old trucks. That dirty diesel provision was added to the bill at the last minute, and caused Public Advocates to stand with our environmental justice partners in opposing the bill to the end. If not reversed, the diesel rule will impose new health harms on low-income residents, and especially residents of color, who already breathe the dirtiest air.
In the wake of SB 1, where does California stand on transportation justice?
That depends on whether the transportation investments this new revenue support will provide low-income families with affordable, accessible and safe transportation options and will protect our most vulnerable residents from pollution and displacement.
The good news is that we already know how to do this in California. Our recent experience dedicating a share of cap-and-trade auction revenues to benefit disadvantaged communities (SB 535, de León, and AB 1550, Gomez) has shown the value of that model which, by meeting the needs of underserved and overburdened residents and protecting them from harm, has contributed to a healthier environment and climate, and to economic prosperity for all. (If you’d like to learn more, see what PA’s Guillermo Mayer has to say in a short video entitled “Fighting Poverty and Pollution,” narrated by Senate president pro tem Kevin de León.)
At Public Advocates, we think this model is ready to take on the road. That’s why, with our partners, the California Bike Coalition and PolicyLink, we are co-sponsoring AB 1640 (E. Garcia), which would require regional agencies to dedicate 25 percent of a major pot of transportation funds to projects that provide direct and meaningful benefits to low-income communities and transit routes.
Ensuring that underserved and overburdened residents share fairly in the benefits of transportation, and are protected from its harms, is what we mean by transportation justice. And, with our partners across the state, we are well on our way to building the community power and political will to make it happen.