Regional Perspectives: Seeking Justice in Transportation Plans

ejpngVia the Maryland Daily Record:

JOE NATHANSON

Special to The Daily Record

June 9, 2009

What would West Baltimore’s infamous “highway to nowhere” have in common with an MTA bus depot located in East Baltimore? The Route 40/Franklin-Mulberry corridor highway tore through established neighborhoods in the 1970s. The planned connection to Interstate 70 was never finished and the incomplete stub remains a blight today in the eyes of neighboring residents.

The site selection of the Kirk Avenue bus garage right up against a low-income residential area was seen as another case of not fully considering the impacts on a disadvantaged community. Both cases provided serious material for an innovative local study that has been going for a number of years.

The Baltimore Regional Environmental Justice in Transportation Project selected those examples of public action, along with several others, to serve as case studies in its research.

What is “environmental justice?” The official introduction of “Environmental Justice” as a requirement in planning for federally funded projects came in 1994. In that year, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order requiring that fair treatment be given to all groups affected by such plans or projects.

Fair treatment means that “no group of people, including a racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic group should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences” resulting from governmental policies.

Glenn Robinson has headed the local environmental justice project from his base at Morgan State University’s Institute for Urban Research. In a recent interview, he described how the project has proceeded in phases, first conducting a series of listening sessions with the communities affected by past or impending transportation planning decisions, then organizing six case studies in and around Baltimore City.

As a result of the research effort to date, a toolkit has been prepared, offering “a bottom-up approach to environmental justice.” The kit offers grassroots community groups practical guidance in responding to grievances: Define the issue; document it by keeping written records, take photographs; rank local concerns; communicate them to appropriate agencies and, when needed, enlist help in getting agencies to explain their planning decisions.

The Baltimore Metropolitan Council also was involved in the project. The council staff works with this region’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, the entity responsible for preparing the area’s long-range transportation plan.

Regina Aris, the council’s assistant director of transportation for policy, reports that participation in the project has given the planning group “the opportunity to meet with communities in the city, … all around the region, to understand their issues, frustrations” surrounding specific projects.

The Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health was another partner in the study. Dr. Michael Trush, the deputy director of the Center for Urban Environmental Health, took a particular interest in the Kirk Street bus garage.

In listening sessions with neighbors, he and his team learned about the noise, noxious fumes and other annoyances brought about by the bus depot’s proximity to the residences. The community also reported high rates of asthma and other diseases possibly linked to the bus garage operations.

As a result of investigating these conditions, the environmental justice team brought the matter to MTA officials. In earlier attempts to remedy the situation, it seemed the MTA had little will to act.

More recently, with the situation spotlighted, the MTA is committed to creating an enclosed bus facility and tree plantings as part of a program to mitigate the bad effects of the bus operations on the nearby residents.

The “highway to nowhere” is not a mere matter of history. Today the road is caught up in the discussions related to the proposed Red Line transit service, particularly as it intersects with the MARC train service to Washington in the vicinity of the West Baltimore MARC station.

Because of lingering ill will based on the 1970s actions, the local communities have only recently begun to work together and with local and state planners to incorporate the highway stub (which ends just east of the station) into plans for transit-oriented development.

As the environmental justice team Web site notes, “This connection between past and present ‘bad experiences’ argues for a case study focused on the public’s role and voice in major transportation and land use planning decisions in the Red Line/US 40 Corridor.”

This history actually requires more than a “case study.” Lessons learned since the sad story from the 1970s should be an important part of the planning and implementation of the Red Line and a key element in maintaining the promises incorporated in Mayor Sheila Dixon’s Red Line Community Compact.

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Joe Nathanson heads Urban Information Associates, Inc., a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. He writes a monthly column for The Daily Record and can be contacted at urbaninfo@comcast.net.

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