The April 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

US Government Created Housing Shortages

Hate Crimes in S.F. and Boston

Urban Removal in S.F. Bayview

Stop Bulldozers of Gentrification

The Death of Two Eloquent Homeless Voices

Grandmother Is Left Homeless by Car Wreck

Building Strong Unions on U.S./ Mexico Border

Transit Justice Is Derailed

Poor People Use the Internet to Organize

Just Wage for All

Ruling Class Runs Economy into the Ground

Art & Altruism: The Paintings of Elizabeth King

Poor Leonard's Almanack: On Writers

April Poetry of the Streets


March 2006

February 2006

January 2006

November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005




Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

Transit Justice for the Poor Faces Detours and Delays

by Claudette Langley

Poor people depend on AC Transit to get to work and school, but many bus riders say that transportation justice is running late.

It was all about the words at the recent Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) meeting. The MTC Commissioners appeared litigiously gun-shy, and were particularly picky about the language in the four environmental justice principles brought before them for adoption.

While the principles seemed straightforward enough, the discussion concerning them bounced all over the room before a half-measure was finally settled on -- the first two principles (as originally worded) were adopted and the commissioners gave themselves four more months to consider the last two.

"We don't want to draw a line in the sand," said Anne W. Halsted, of the San Francisco Conservation and Development Commission, who left before the vote. "But if it takes a couple of months to come up with the right language so we won't be litigious, we should do it."

The lengthy debate seemed a bit odd given the amount of time the Minority Citizens Advisory Committee (MCAC) had been working on the principles and the number of times it had already gone before the MTC. The March 22 meeting was at least the fifth time commissioners were presented with the four environmental justice principles which were hammered out over a two-year period by the MCAC.

Working with MTC staff members, the MCAC developed a clearly worded proposal to present to the MTC for approval. But, even after a laborious and careful process, the wording apparently wasn't right for the commissioners or their legal counsel.

Asked by the Legislation Committee to review the principles and provide a legal analysis, MTC General Counsel Francis Chin instead got out his red pen and made a number of changes to the document. By the time he was finished, key words had been struck out and the principles themselves had been gutted, according to members of the MCAC and of the Transportation Justice Working Group (TJWG).

"He took the heart right out of them," said Frank Gallo, a former chairperson of the MCAC. The current MCAC chair called Chin's version "environmental jello."

Chin's revision took out the words "transparent" and "empowerment" from Principle 1 and rewrote Principles 3 and 4 in decidedly passive language that appeared to excuse the MTC from having to take any real corrective action.

Both the MCAC and Chin's versions were presented, along with Chin's recommendation that if the commissioners decided to stick with the original principles as developed by MCAC, they be "received" rather than adopted.

Gallo said, "Receiving the principles will result in them just being put on a back shelf somewhere and never being acted on."

The MCAC principles would lay the basic foundation for developing environmental justice policies and procedures, as well as guide the MTC's approach to its funding allocations, helping to ensure that transit dollars, of which the MTC distributes billions, are spread out more equitably.

Lila Hussain, an advocate from Urban Habitat and the Transportation Justice Working Group, explained that contrary to the liability concerns expressed by MTC Commissioners, the principles would provide the framework for ensuring full legal compliance with the executive and federal orders on environmental justice. She said, "It's surprising the commission couldn't express such a simple commitment."

Currently, the MTC is facing a discrimination lawsuit brought by bus riders. In December, a district court judge ruled that the class action suit filed against the agency on April 19, 2005, could go forward.

The suit, brought by people of color, asserts that MTC discriminates against poor riders by maintaining a "separate and unequal" transit system. The action points to funding for a state-of-the-art rail system, CalTrain and BART, which are used by a disproportionate number of affluent white people, versus a shrinking bus system used by low-income people. Further, the suit shows that riders of the systems serving the higher-income populations receive subsidies in some cases nearly four times that of bus passengers.

The apparition of the pending suit hung in the air as MTC Commissioners discussed the environmental justice principles. However, not all of the MTC members confused the lawsuit with the adoption of the environmental principles.

After the protracted debate, San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano, Richmond Mayor Irma L. Anderson, Contra Costa County Supervisor Mark DeSaulnier, Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, and Pamela Torliatt, Association of Bay Area Governments, broke ranks and voted to support a motion that would have adopted all four principles as originally worded.
"We are looking at social justice here," said Ammiano. "It's bigger than just the law. When it comes right down to it, we owe people more than what we're doing."

But their five votes weren't enough, and the first motion, to adopt Principles 1 and 2 and wait four months to decide on Principles 3 and 4, was unanimously passed. During the grace period, MTC has instructed staff to gather pertinent data to determine if the "inequities" addressed in Principles 3 and 4 truly do exist and if there is need for corrective action.

Stepping up to the microphone after the vote was taken, Nancy Cross, a supporter of the MCAC principles, asked the MTC Commission to go the extra mile in their search for information. "In the light of the outcome, MTC should have a special public forum to reveal inequities in the transit system," she said.

Transportation advocate Hussain went further: "If the MTC Commissioners, including their chair Jon Rubin, can't support basic equity, we need to go back to our mayors and our city councils to get some commissioners appointed who can."

This article was originally published in Urban Habitat's journal, Race Poverty and the Environment, available online at

Transportation Justice Is Derailed by MTC Inaction

by Bob Mills

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) met on March 22, 2006, to decide whether to adopt the long-awaited Environmental Justice principles proposed to reform public transit in the East Bay. These principles would help meet the needs of low-income and minority communities by assuring that the burdens of transportation decisions by the MTC don't fall heavily on them, and the benefits of transportation investments are not denied them.

Grounded in law, these principles are not optional. They are based on President Clinton's executive order on Environmental Justice, on the 1997 Dept. of Transportation Order on Environmental Justice, and on Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Over the last year, more than 100 witnesses have spoken in favor of this proposal, including the executive director of MTC, who went on record as supporting these principles.

As the MTC meeting approached, it appeared almost certain that some action would be taken to adopt the principles of ecological justice; but the proposal fell flat, dashing the expectations of advocates, low-income transit users, and activists with the Transportation Justice coalition.

In previous Street Spirit articles on public transportation issues, I elucidated what must be done to create justice for low-income people using buses and public transit. It is vital that these Environmental Justice principles be adopted, not only because it is the right thing to do and the legally required thing to do; but even more so, because it is a basic human requirement of justice and fairness.

The poor and people of color are being denied full equity in public transportation; and they are being relegated to an inferior level of public transit -- still separate and unequal after all these years. The issues brought before the MTC have a great impact on the lives of those who must use public transportation. The decision-making bodies must represent the true interests of poor people and people of color.

Once again, a vast civil rights struggle is under way to fight for these principles. In the struggle for desegregation, when the bus boycotts were at the height of national attention, the poor demanded not to be excluded. Today, the poor, the disabled, and people of color are being denied access and representation in the MTC.

Because the MTC did not adopt the four principles on March 22, they demonstrated that they prefer to continue as a racist body unconcerned about the poor and the disabled. Two years ago, I was shocked by the fact that the MTC board has nearly no one to represent the interests of people of color, and does even less to represent the physically challenged. No one on their board comes from the poorest communities.

So, is it any wonder that there should be little regard for such important matters as affordable fares for the poor? Let alone any serious concern about the environmental impact their policies of investment will have on poorer neighborhoods?

So the Minority Citizen's Advisory Committee (MCAC) worked for more than a year on a proposal to drastically change all that by restructuring the MTC so it would better represent the needs of public transit users, and seriously look at the issues of equity in setting fares.
The MCAC has four simple principles:

1. Create an open and transparent public participation process that empowers low-income communities and communities of color to participate in decision-making that affects them.

2. Collect accurate and current data essential to defining and understanding the presence and extent of inequities, if any, in transportation funding based on race and income.

3. MTC should change its discretionary investment decisions and actions to mitigate identified inequities.

4. Ensure that adverse or potentially adverse disproportionate project impacts on low-income and minority communities are addressed and mitigated by project sponsors prior to MTC project or funding approval.

The MTC turned the principles over to their legal counsel who gutted them to the point of erasing their effectiveness in addressing the issues of injustice, racism, lack of transparency, and lack of full participation in decision-making by poor people and people of color. The issue was tabled for the next meeting for further research.

It is essential for MTC to stop the "word-smithing," as one commissioner put it, and pass these essential principles without further debate and deliberate attempts to water them down. Action on these principles is long overdue.

MTC board members have heard enough testimony and commentary over the last two years to realize that it is time to put these principles to work for better and improved transportation.
It is time to stop shutting the poor and communities of color out of the decision-making process. It is time to stop delaying the day that justice finally arrives at every bus stop in the East Bay.

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