Distorting Environmental Justice is an Injustice

Posted by Fix Expo Team On December - 24 - 2009

By Damien Goodmon, Coordinator of Citizens’ Campaign to Fix the Expo Rail Line & Chair of Joint Committee on Rail Transit of South L.A. Neighborhood Councils

(Image courtesy Univ. of North Texas Center for Environmental Philosophy)

(Image courtesy Univ. of North Texas Center for Environmental Philosophy)

Justifying the construction of unsafe and congestion worsening rail crossings in non-poor white communities, because they’re being built in majority-minority South LA, is one of the more incredible subtexts to emerge in the Expo Line discussion. It should be noted that these statements are NOT coming from our coalition of civil rights, neighborhood councils and community groups that has led the South LA fight for environmental justice on Expo Phase 1. Rather, the cynical chatter is coming from the public agencies, politicians and apologists who have opposed our efforts at every turn.

The objective of environmental justice laws is to raise the environmental standards, quality of life and participation in the decision-making process for minority and low-income communities, not to lower them for non-poor Caucasian communities. To realize this, one need only extend the practical application of our opponent’s misinterpretation of environmental justice: building a large polluting port in Malibu would be justified by the presence of one in Wilmington, building a landfill in Beverly Hills would be justified by the one in Sun Valley, etc. Such arguments are clearly illogical and contrary to the objectives of the environmental justice movement, which is rooted both in the cause of civil rights and environmental protection.

Recognizing that low-income and minority communities (“environmental justice communities” or “E.J. communities”) are substantially more likely to be subjected to policies, designs and projects that are harmful, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, which is the basis of every federal agency’s environmental justice policies, including the Environmental Protection Agency. E.O. 12898 begins:

“[E]ach Federal agency shall make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations in the United States…”

E.O. 12898 remains a response to centuries of economic and political disenfranchisement that is institutional, systemic, and at times racial. Fifty years of civil rights legislation and the election of an African-American president not withstanding, the problem persists.

Environmental injustice can manifest itself in many ways. On the Downtown LA to Culver City Expo Phase 1 project it is shown in the disproportionately adverse effects on the minority and/or low-income South LA communities when compared to the only non-E.J. community that the project impacts – Culver City. MTA has appropriated the resources to build a line that is totally grade separated (the train crosses no street) in Culver City, while building the project in South LA on the cheap with over a dozen street-level crossings across busy intersections and at the doorstep of large urban schools.

Despite the claims of the Expo Line Construction Authority and opponents of “grade separation” (trains crossing the street underground or elevated), the MTA Grade Crossing Policy determined that the Culver City crossings at Washington/National and Jefferson/National were supposed to be built “at-grade” (street-level).

Excerpt from the MTA Grade Crossing Policy Recommendations for Expo Phase 1 showing recommended at-grade crossings in Culver City.

Excerpt from the MTA Grade Crossing Policy Recommendations for Expo Phase 1 showing recommended at-grade crossings in Culver City.

Also untrue is that Washington/National had to be grade separated because the policy required Venice/Robertson to be grade separated. In truth, the distance between the two crossings is sufficient to cross Washington/National at-grade and transition to an elevation over Venice.

Rendering of possible design with an at-grade Washington & National crossing AND Venice & Robertson elevated crossing

Rendering of possible design with an at-grade Washington & National crossing AND Venice & Robertson elevated crossing

The grade separations and additional resources to build them were added to the project because the City of Culver City opposed street-level crossings in their boundaries, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in consultant fees and bureaucratic resources fighting MTA, engaged in intense political lobbying and used the threat of a legal challenge. Culver City was successful, and as a result the Expo Phase 1 adverse impacts are inequitably placed.

Phase 1 discrepancies

The discrepancies in impacts of the Expo Phase 1 Project

This disparity is best illustrated in the construction budget: $185 million for the one mile from La Cienega to the Culver City terminus, vs. $140 million for the 4.5 miles from Vermont to one block east of La Cienega in South LA.

$185 million/mile west of La Cienega vs. $31 million/mile in South LA

$185 million/mile west of La Cienega vs. $31 million/mile in South LA

The point is not that the Culver City crossings should be built at-grade. The adverse impacts of street-level crossings on safety, congestion, air quality, emergency service response times, and others environmental impacts would be severe. The point is that the impact of street-level crossings is also severe in South LA. Internationally renowned rail safety experts and nationally renowned vehicular accident causation experts have raised alarm bells about the hazards to pedestrians and motorists, and congestion at several of the major intersections like Crenshaw, Western and Vermont will be worsened to Level of Service F (the worst possible congestion level) with the project.

Furthermore, the process of proposing substandard designs and forcing communities to fight for what MTA calls “betterments” but most in the public consider basic necessities, will inevitably lead to projects with disparate impacts. E.J. communities are far more likely to be politically disenfranchised and/or to lack access to legal recourse, both of which are severe impediments to fighting projects or winning concessions/mitigations.

So what’s the correct course to address the environmental injustice on Expo Phase 1, which for better or worse MTA has legally segmented from Expo Phase 2? Consistent with the objective of raising standards for E.J. communities, not lowering them for non-E.J. communities, we have focused on the cause of grade separating South L.A.’s street-level crossings to eliminate the “disproportionately high and adverse human health [and] environmental effects.”

The need to address the disproportionately adverse effects of the project is why simply adding one or two grade separations to the project in South LA is not enough – there would still be another 3.5 miles of Expo Phase 1 E.J. communities that will be exposed to the hazards and adverse impacts of street-level crossings, of which Culver City has been completely spared.

MTA/Expo could have and still can tap a variety of resources to fund the grade separations, including the federal stimulus act, Proposition 1B and Measure R. But the reality is they don’t want to and neither do those who seek to misconstrue the meaning of environmental justice. MTA wants to build the Expo Line as cheaply as possible without regard to the 100-year impact to traffic, public safety, community cohesion, system capacity and public need, which all necessitate grade separation.

MTA’s reasoning is flawed and must be resisted in the streets and in the courts. Building 15 miles of inadequate and unsafe rail that will worsen already congested traffic is bad for all communities and the region, and it is not a better use of taxpayer resources than building 10 miles of good rail that will serve our 100-year transportation needs.

Citizens should place the blame for poor planning and performance right where it belongs – in MTA’s lap and not attempt to pit communities against one another by misrepresenting the meaning of environmental justice. After all only the most cynical would define “justice” as harming one non-poor white child in West LA for every minority child harmed in South LA.

As published in this week’s CityWatchLA article, with applicable renderings, documents and links.

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