How an Issue Raised by Oakland Middle Schoolers May be Sparking Changes
What is the biggest difference between 580 in the Oakland hills and 880 in the flats? Outside of location, it is that heavy trucks are banned from that stretch of 580.
That was the topic at a special Town Hall meeting called by Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley this past December.
“Diverting truck traffic from the 580 onto other interstate highways like the 880 has created a legacy of air pollution, asthma and other impacts on residents in Oakland,” Alameda County Supervisor Miley said. “Our community will benefit from a thorough review of the history, the health disparities and the economic impacts of this decision from 70 years ago to see if the ban should be changed in any way.”
Miley noted that the 1951 decision “reflected an imbalance of political power and inequity.” The county will be looking to CalTrans and Bay Area Air Quality Management District to see what will serve the public’s interest.
Miley was referring to the original decision by the City of Oakland which was later written into state law in the 1990s. That ban on heavy trucks over 9,000 pounds (4.5 tons) mirrored an earlier truck ban on MacArthur Boulevard before the development of the 580 freeway.
Life Academy Students Bring Up Equity Issue
In the last year, the equity issues of the truck ban on 580 received more attention following a “Bay Curious” episode on KQED in July 2021. The question had been brought to the station by 6th graders at Oakland’s Life Academy and several of these students spoke at the beginning of the meeting. KQED staff reached out to Miley when preparing their radio show and that led to this Town Hall.
One student said that diesel fueled trucks on the 880 “cause way too many problems and deaths…it’s like saying we don’t matter because of the color of our skin.”
Another student noted, “This is really serious because a lot of people have asthma and other heart issues, which means that bad polluted air is going through their lungs…It’s not fair that people near 580 don’t have to deal with the same problems that people near 880 have to.”
Speakers at the town hall included students from Life Academy, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), the Environmental Defense Fund and the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP) with former Port of Oakland Commissioner Margaret Gordon speaking.
Several speakers at the Town Hall noted that neighborhoods along 580 are wealthier and also whiter and historically have held much more political clout than their neighborhoods along 880. Exposure to pollution from diesel trucks on 880 leads to childhood asthma and other life-shortening medical complications.
Margaret Gordon, a former Commissioner at the Port of Oakland and an activist affectionately known as “Miss Margaret” to many West Oaklanders, said “We have been inquiring about the two freeways for years. We’ve also raised issues with the Alameda County traffic department since 2014.”
She explained that back in the 1950s, “Nobody looked at equity and how air pollution has impacted one community and not the other.”
Gordon praised Life Academy’s 6th graders for catching a lot of media attention and that got Miley involved. “This is about historical inequities…and is an extension of redlining…,” Gordon said, since most of Oakland’s redlining was around 880.
Gordon said there was no proposed start date yet when Oakland Voices spoke to her just before Christmas. But she will sit down with Caltrans early in 2022.
Since the final outcome will still need to go back to the legislature, Gordon wondered who will be allies and supporters of the impacted Oakland communities in Sacramento, so her group will begin to do strategy planning and lobbying later this year.
Brian Beverage, who works with Gordon at WOEIP, advocated changing the way goods are moved to and from the Port He was concerned investments of billions of dollars might not solve the right problems. “I didn’t think I’d see it in my lifetime’.. But kids are getting asthma every day… so there is no time to wait.”
During a short presentation by Air District staff, slides showed that improvements to diesel engines have already reduced the amount of the dangerous carbon particles along 880 by about 80%. But the Air District is still advocating electric vehicles and hydrogen fuels and wants to ban diesel vehicles in the Bay Area by the mid-2030s.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf Wants a Diesel Ban
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf attended and said banning trucks would be a heavy burden on the local economy and noted smaller trucks that have contributed less to overall pollution and asthma rates. She expressed concern this could also be inequitable for small transport businesses.
Schaaf explained the greater need was to end use of diesel fuel, not trucking overall, to stop this major source of pollution and suggested that this was an opportunity to look for less polluting ways of moving goods. This idea is consistent with Air Quality District’s stated goal to end diesel fuel use by 2035 or earlier.
Community member Marilyn Reynolds was concerned about the impact of pollution on the unhoused who camp in industrial areas near 880. As a former teacher, she mentioned having taught students who needed to use asthma inhalers in her classroom. Other speakers echo similar concerns and even anger over living in high pollution areas.
Some citizens spoke about traffic issues with the extra turns and 300 foot elevation changes on 580. One person also noted that several bus routes to SF use 580 during commute hours and large trucks there may significantly increase commute times.
Other speakers noted there was a huge potential for lawsuits if truck pollution was added near parks and wildlife areas and if heavy trucks are shifted to other areas by public policy.
Still another person said the underlying issue was the lack of affordable housing, forcing low income people to live in industrial areas near 880 so the need is to address the pollution issue where they live and to help stressed families relocate.
Need for Light Rail, Other Alternatives, Advocates Say
After the 580 Town Hall, Brian Beverage shared with Oakland Voices his vision on solving both air pollution inequities and traffic reduction. “This shouldn’t be a fight between hills or flats, rich or poor. This is a failure of the freight industry to build the systems to get regional trucks off the road,” according to Beverage.
“The Port of Oakland uses a promise of fewer trucks to justify ever new rail expansion in the last 30 years. And yet, all the trucks are still clogging the freeways and polluting our neighborhoods. The way to reduce truck traffic to the valley is to build regional rail. But Union Pacific and BNSF refuse to do it,” Beverage explained.
“Another way is for the Port and regional government to invest in innovative light rail systems like CyberTran, which can carry both freight and passengers to the Inland Empire using solar-powered trains. Now we will spend billions bringing electric trucks to the market, but it won’t change the freeway traffic jams at all.”
County Supervisor Miley said he will be trying to come up with win-win approaches. Miley said his membership on the MTC and ABAG would help with solutions and potential regulations. He said his staff would release recordings and also respond to audience questions early in the new year period.
Miley added, “I want a lot of community participation.”
In the week following the event, Miley’s staffer Austin Bruckner told Oakland Voices, “We do not have a date set up for follow-up meetings. The Supervisor will be sure to share any information about meetings through the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) and should CALTRANS get approval to conduct their own study.”