Environmental Injustice, Whiteaker, WEP
"These forty million [poor] people are invisible because America is so affluent, so rich; because our expressways carry us away from the ghetto, we don't see the poor."
-- Martin Luther King, "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution," March 31, 1968
Had he lived long enough, Dr. King would probably have been a leading advocate for the "environmental justice" movement - efforts to stop toxic abuses that disproportionately impact minority communities. At the time of his assassination, he was in Memphis to support striking garbage workers who suffered dangerous working conditions (toxic exposures, faulty machinery) and were poorly paid.
This highway proposal threatens the lowest income, highest minority parts of Eugene, since dumping huge amounts of new traffic onto 6th and 7th Avenues would eventually force new highway construction through Whiteaker to connect the WEP to I-105 (Washington/Jefferson bridge).
The Whiteaker neighborhood already has Eugene's largest toxic burdens. The Eugene railyards leach serious contamination problems into the community, and transport large amounts of hazardous materials every day. 6th and 7th Avenues already divide the neighborhood with large amounts of polluting traffic, and the WEP could force construction of even more highways through Whiteaker.
Legally, a federally funded project like the WEP can only be approved by the Federal Highway Administration if it does not force additional construction to cope with problems that it generates for other roads. ODOT's 1997 traffic study estimated that with the WEP, 7th Avenue between Garfield and Chambers Streets would have 54,000 cars per day in the Year 2015. A road like 7th can handle about 10,000 cars per lane per day (this segment of 7th has four lanes), so it would be about one-third above capacity - in plain English, 7th and Chambers would be solid gridlock during rush hour.
In the 1970s, the "T-2000" plan considered a "6th/7th Freeway" and a Whiteaker Bypass along the railroad tracks. Either option would cost tens of millions that do not exist in the long range transportation budget and would have severe impacts to the Whiteaker neighborhood.
It is inappropriate that the City of Springfield's new sprawlway (to facilitate the relocation of Sacred Heart / Peace Health) is going to be called Martin Luther King Parkway considering Dr. King's objection to expressways used to promote economic injustice. The $400 million spent on hospital construction is money that could have been used to provide universal access to health care in Lane County.
"perhaps the best thing that we can all do to celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. is not just to go to the prayer breakfasts and religious services which remember this great man, but to get involved ourselves in the multitude of issues of injustice around us.
"One such issue is environmental justice or environmental racism - the dumping of toxic wastes in communities of color across this nation, and indeed, around the world."
- "Making the King Legacy Come Alive," by Bernice Powell Jackson
Bus Rider and Transit Union Alliance Fights Transit Racism in Atlanta
by Paul McLennan January 2006
Atlanta’s Transit Riders Union has played a key role in stopping a 25-cent fare increase proposed by the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority.
Fifty years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, Atlanta’s Transit Riders Union (TRU) is continuing the struggle. Formed this spring as a committee of Atlanta Jobs with Justice, TRU has already played a key role in stopping a $.25 fare increase proposed by the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA).
As TRU builds on that success, Atlanta’s transit riders, union members, and community supporters are heeding the call TRU co-chair Sheila Adams made at a December 5 community forum: “Get on board!”
The December 5 event linked TRU’s ongoing longhaul campaign to the legacy of Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott. In 1955, Montgomery’s African-American community had organized and planned a boycott for years before the actual boycott was launched. Parks was one of many community activists who became trained organizers and leaders of that struggle.
STOPPING A FARE INCREASE
As in most major cities, Atlanta’s public transit system overwhelmingly serves Atlanta’s African-American working class, who would have suffered disproportionately under the fare increase MARTA proposed this spring.
TRU’s campaign against the increase began when a coalition of community, labor, environmental, disabled, senior, and student activists and organizations brought over 100 people to protest at MARTA’s May board meeting. Twenty-six people testified and demanded that MARTA not balance its books “off the backs of the people who can least afford it.”
The board tabled the decision. The coalition came back to the June board meeting and successfully turned back the fare increase, a historic victory.
Following that campaign, TRU began working this summer with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 732, which was in the middle of a contract fight and looking for support. Local 732 represents more than 2,500 transit workers in the metro Atlanta area.
Over 400 people—mostly union members—attended a September 26 mass meeting and teach-in on issues facing transit workers and riders. At this meeting, there was electricity in the air as riders and workers energized one another to continue their mutual struggles.
The contract fight was linked to the community’s demand to restore Route 61 bus service to the Bowen Homes community, a low-income, African-American community on Atlanta’s northwest side.A few days later, 200 ATU members and community supporters turned out again at the MARTA board meeting. This time the board had to listen to testimony from dozens of workers about their issues and from the community about Route 61.
Board chairman Michael Walls heard Route 61 mentioned so many times that he assigned a staff person to meet separately with those affected. This protest jump-started contract negotiations (which had been at an impasse). At the end of October, MARTA announced route changes which included restoring service to Bowen Homes.
Forming a strategic alliance between transit riders and workers is not a new idea. When the “Unity Speaks” reform slate swept Local 732’s top offices in December 1998, their platform included a vision of working in the broader labor movement and with the community the union serves.
ATU members were part of a community, civil rights, and environmental justice delegation that traveled in February 2000 to Los Angeles to meet with that city’s Bus Riders Union and learn about their work. The trip was co-sponsored by the Environmental Justice Resource Center (EJRC) at Clark Atlanta University, which has led the way in analyzing transportation equity issues nationally.
EJRC Director Dr. Robert Bullard asserts that understanding racism is central to understanding the financial difficulties MARTA faces today.
In his book Highway Robbery: Transportation Racism and New Routes to Equity, Bullard notes that MARTA is regional in name only. In fact, MARTA is supported by a sales tax from only two counties and the city of Atlanta.
Suburban counties, including two that have seats on the MARTA board, refused to join the system, in order to deny Atlanta’s African-American majority access to their neighborhoods and the jobs which have historically followed whites out of the city.
MARTA is the largest transit system in the country that receives no operating help from the state, yet the state has four members on MARTA’s board.
MARTA represents two problems to the new Republican majority in Georgia’s state capitol. First, it is primarily an Atlanta public institution, which means that the African-American community is in control of millions of dollars in resources. Second, ATU represents the only public sector workers in the state with a collective bargaining agreement.
Fighting the decisions of a newly-created, regional “Transit Planning Board”—and a possible state takeover of MARTA and privatization—will take a strategic alliance of riders and workers. Building on its initial successes, the Transit Riders Union is preparing for much bigger fights ahead.
With the traffic and air quality problems that plague Atlanta, the need for mass transit is a no-brainer. But creating a truly regional transportation system raises the question of how it will be funded and who will control it.
According to Bullard, “Until racism is reined in, the Atlanta region will continue to have a patchwork of unlinked, uncoordinated, and ‘separate but unequal’ transit systems feeding into and feeding off of MARTA.”
Whatever the future holds, Jobs with Justice and TRU will continue to fight for MARTA to be the sole transportation provider for the Atlanta region, for transit riders to have real say over decision-making, and for the rights of union workers to be protected.