Freeway oversight groups ask to share power

By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — Two members of a task force overseeing plans for the Long Beach (710) Freeway corridor from Long Beach to East Los Angeles have asked their colleagues to share the power to recommend potential mobility programs for funding with the community committee composed of residents beyond their role as advisors.

East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice Co-Executive Director Laura Cortez, along with Sylvia Betancourt from the Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma, told the audience at the first in-person meeting that the Community Leadership Committee should be empowered to agree with projects seeking funds to reduce air pollution and improve transportation in the busy corridor.

They spoke during a presentation on behalf of the Coalition for Environmental Health and Justice as part of a combined gathering between the task force and community leadership committee members at the South Gate Park Auditorium Nov. 21.

The split among task force members was drawn along lines of representatives pushing for programs that put the health of residents, local jobs and better housing against proposals that prioritize movement of goods to and from the twin ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

At a two-hour meeting, Cortez said that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s goals to bring equity and justice to the selection process should provide a way for the committee to gain more clout in a process where most task force members represent government agencies or corporate business interests.

“We need to implement community programs and remove power,” Cortez said. “We need to give power to the community. There’s more than enough money to move around.”

Michael Cano, interim executive officer for countywide planning and development for the MTA, has said that the agency put aside $1 billion to invest in infrastructural programs to combat air pollution and improve movement of people and goods once the programs are refined and sent to the board of directors for approval.

In addition, funds from the state’s Department of Transportation and federal agencies are expected to support infrastructure that permit big rigs to operate with zero emission technologies, installation of supercharging electric stations for semi trucks and cars, and remodeling entrance and exit ramps to and from the freeway from Long Beach to East L.A.

Money may also be used to build freeway noise barriers near residential areas, and for truck lanes only used by zero-emission units traveling along the 19-mile stretch from Long Beach to the Pomona (60) Freeway.

Betancourt said that asthma attacks are still high in lower-income communities near the freeway, and children hospitalizations due to respiratory illness caused by dust from excessive breaking and diesel fumes result in lost school days.

“When you look at asthma, you are looking at rates that exceed the county’s asthma rates, and all are” in communities that intersect the I-710 freeway, Betancourt said.

She added that other ailments that cause more deaths than in communities with better air quality include COVID-19 infections, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and various types of skin cancer.

Dilia Ortega, youth program coordinator with the Communities for a Better Environment and a member of the Coalition for Environmental Health and Justice, said that demands for good sustainable jobs in East L.A. should be part of discussions for projects aimed at improving the environment, traffic and movement of goods and people.

“In East L.A., we still have a lot of unemployment and low-paid employment,” Ortega said. “We still have to hold conversations on values about this investment plan moving forward.

“We really want to recognize that a lot of people live along the I-710 south corridor in a context of environmental racism. It’s very critical we continue to collaborate with indigenous communities.”

Cortez said that an equitable approach to invest in programs to clean air pollution from vehicles and better pathways for pedestrians and bus riders should include an approach to make data available for communities who do not speak or read English so they can understand it.

“Environmental racism has been central through redlining and now through greenlining,” Cortez said. “Plans need to be approved” by the community leadership committee before heading to the MTA’s Board of Directors for funding, For her part, Cudahy Mayor and task force member Elizabeth Alcantar said lack of equity in the corridor’s investment process starts with a smaller share of resources in Southeast Los Angeles compared to large cities like Long Beach, displayed in presentations pitched to qualify for funding.

“We are several steps behind and when it comes down to applying for typical systems, all it requires is a very backward process that I continue to revisit with a lot of you,” Alcantar said. “So when we talk about equity, it’s about application.”

Alcantar pushed for a rapid transition from diesel engines to zero emission trucks to protect children, adults with medical conditions and all corridor residents, a proposal that has gained traction among committee members.

“This step will vastly improve the health of our communities and the air quality of the corridor,” she said.

Long Beach Harbor Commissioner and task force member Sharon Weissman indicated that recent profits obtained by the trucking industry have been used to upgrade truck fleets with electric charging units, and insisted that the Port of Long Beach “is working to ensure a transition to zero-emission transportation vehicles.”

And task force member Chris Wilson with the Los Angeles County Business Federation, said that the Long Beach Port generates $7.3 billion in imports and exports trade for the corridor, and is strategically located supporting 48,000 direct jobs in the area that encompasses six Assembly districts.

“We support strategies that are good for movement of goods, access and people,” Wilson said.

He said that aircraft, spacecraft and related parts account for 71.8% of all Southeast communities exports, and his organization supports multi-modal mobility programs, initiatives with zero-emission technologies and investment in people and local communities.

Wilson called for safety programs to deter accidents, have less braking, improve signaling, transportation connectivity and upgrade freight rail as part of an integrated corridor system.