By Rebecca Saldaña and Margaret Wykowski
It’s just after dawn when Naravisaya “Al” Les flips on the lights at his restaurant. There’s a rhythm to his routine— the same one he watched his father play out 15 years ago. First, he kicks off his rain-soaked shoes on the front mat and walks across to the cash register. Next, he presses his palms down on the laminate counter and sighs deeply as he looks out at the cool grey Seattle morning before starting to count his cash.
Traditionally, residents of Richmond, California have had little voice in planning their city; the process being dominated by Chevron, real estate developers, and other corporations. But in the past six years, a community-based coalition—Richmond Equitable Development Initiative (REDI)—working with a constellation of community organizations and regional experts has successfully incorporated a solid set of community priorities into the new General Plan approved by the City Council in April 2012.
Manuel Esteva is a San Franciso resident and mother of three; a child care worker, and a member of the community organization POWER. She joined POWER three years ago after hearing a presentation at her church. She was interviewed in the studio of Radio RP&E.
Clarke: Tell us why you are interested in climate change. Why does POWER connect transit and climate?
Esteva: (Tr.) The connection really started [with] the campaign for young people to be able to travel around the city without having to pay.
We started realizing that not only would this benefit youth, but we could also [help] the environment.
A lot more natural disasters are affecting people in cities, like the one that just hit New York. And this is caused by global warming. What cities like ours can do is take these small steps that, over time, can have a large impact on the climate.
San Francisco is a small city that can have a national and global impact. It’s a city that sees itself as a green city, always trying to make strides in terms of community health. We can serve as an example to other cities when we create policies that eliminate dependence on cars.
We know that cars create 20-percent of the pollution in the city. When public transit is made accessible, people use it more. So we can achieve big things when we create [these] policies.
In spite of rising gas prices, worsening traffic, and growing public concern about climate change, voters in two of the largest and most diverse counties in the state rejected transportation tax measures (Measures J and B1) that promised to meet these important transportation needs. Yet, these same voters, only four years earlier, in the case of Los Angeles County, and 12 years before, in the case of Alameda County, approved similar measures (Measures R and B) with strong support. What has changed in that time and what does this mean for transit-dependent communities and their transportation justice allies?
Alameda County’s Measure B1, promoted by Urban Habitat and many of its allies, included many important benefits for low-income bus riders. These were critical funds to improve bus service and restore cuts in service, provide seed money for a county-wide free student bus pass program, make major investments in bicycle lane and sidewalk safety, as well as provide more money for paratransit for seniors and people with disabilities. For this reason, B1 didn’t face the same grassroots opposition that Measure J did.
Like Measure J, B1 was a sales tax measure that would have continued to shift the transportation tax burden onto working families and away from corporations and wealthy individuals. (This is one of the main reasons why, after much debate, Urban Habitat ultimately decided not to endorse the final B1 measure. We were also concerned that the tax would become permanent and that it lacked protections against gentrification and the displacement of low-income renters from neighborhoods well-served by transit.)
The bid by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to extend an existing transportation sales tax until 2069 failed to meet the necessary 2/3 threshold, delivering a setback to the Mayor's gentrifying and polluting vision for transportation expansion.
Sunyoung Yang, an organizer with the LA Bus Riders Union, which opposed the measure says, “Despite a multimillion dollar corporate-funded ad blitz and misleading ballot language, substantial numbers of voters heard our message about Measure J.”
The Coalition to Defeat Measure J hailed the result not as a defeat for mass transit progress, but as a rejection of MTA's pattern of running roughshod over civil rights, environmental justice, and community concerns in favor of corporate special interests.
Yang explains: “This is not a denial of funds for the MTA. This result forces a shift in the debate on how to redistribute the ample funds from Measure R that MTA already has, with racial equality, social justice, and good transit policy for all at the core.“