Let’s consider how to equitably improve the local transportation system

(This opinion piece first appeared in The Fresno Bee, March 13, 2021.)

By Kevin Hall

Dr. Robert Bullard is a gentle teacher of painful lessons. Known as the father of environmental justice, he was an important if muted voice at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco a few years ago where he was honored as a “Climate Trailblazer.”

Traffic moves about on the Highway 41 and 180 interchange with downtown Fresno in the background on a warm afternoon, Monday, March 1, 2021. Fresno had minimal rainfall during the month of February. CRAIG KOHLRUSS FRESNO BEE FILE

Environmental justice is the study of people on the receiving end of society’s blunt sticks of pollution and poverty, and scientific demonstrations of those blows’ impacts on vulnerable populations. Through the data policymakers can consider the predicament low income BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color ) communities face.

For decades Bullard has published findings on our societal inequities; these result in long-term and immediate disasters, like the deadly freeze that hit him and his fellow residents of Houston last month. That tragedy was intensified by climate change’s destabilization of the polar vortex and compounded by government disregard for the state’s poorest people.

His teachings and the fatal lessons of the Texas freeze can be applied to the emerging debate over Measure C, our countywide, half-cent retail sales tax.

That September 2018 San Francisco gathering was notable for its star-studded line up of actors, billionaires and prominent politicians, but on that final afternoon I saw Bullard headed away from the main ballroom where the crowd was flocking to hear a former vice president speak.

I caught Bullard at the bottom of a long escalator. I described increased air and water pollution coming from dairy digester clusters funded by state cap-and-trade funds; hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars being poured into them; and the pollution impacts on nearby families, primarily the farm workers also employed by these major polluters.

“Money follows money,” Bullard said. “Money follows power.” He wished me luck in a friendly, knowing way. A few weeks later I stumbled across the rest of his maxim as if lying in wait for me: “Power follows white people.”

Bullard had either been too polite to complete the equation or was testing to see if I knew his work well enough to justify occupying his time one-on-one at a global summit. There I was expecting his full attention but couldn’t state the most basic conclusion of his massive body of work in environmental justice. But he knew where to point me, including at me, as great teachers do.

The coming debate over Measure C spending in Fresno County will be difficult. I find myself returning to Bullard’s words for direction. For detail, I turn to the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability’s “Guiding Principles For a Just and Equitable Transportation System in Fresno County.”

How do we best heed the voice of rural residents expressed in Leadership Counsel’s report calling on us “to recognize and commit to addressing the transportation injustices that have been abundant throughout Fresno County?”

Maybe by rethinking where the money comes from — retail sales taxes — and how we calculate the best ways to invest it. Despite the tax’s bigger bite out of low-income workers’ wages, say a farmworker in Raisin City versus a company owner living in Clovis, their communities are treated as entitled to equal shares based on population.

That’s not fair. Because it’s not equitable.

Let’s elevate the status of the workers from whose labor all tax dollars in this county are generated. That first dollar comes out of the ground in the form of food to keep us alive. That bill then circulates through the economy multiple times. And the tax revenue adds up.

Without their work, there wouldn’t be a dollar to tax. There wouldn’t be a Measure C.

Kevin Hall is a Fresno resident and graduate of Fresno State. He formerly reported on farm issues for trade publications and is an air quality and climate activist.

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