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Transit Allies Fight for Share of Sales Tax

By Marcy Rein

Community meeting on proposed transportation sales tax, at Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose, Sept. 9, 2015 © 2015 Tiburon

Santa Clara County's low-income transit users face some common challenges, whether they live in Gilroy, the Latino communities of East San Jose, or Sunnyvale. The buses they depend on cost too much, take too long, don’t run often enough or late enough, and are always at the end of the line for transit funding.The transportation sales tax proposed for the November 2016 ballot  could begin to close the funding gap, but competition for the $6 billion the tax could raise will be stiff, and low-income transit users will need to press their case in a political process that has been dominated by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which represents the region’s major employers. But a diverse new coalition, the Transportation Justice Alliance (TJA), is taking the challenge head-on.

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Bus Riders Step Up for Better Service

One of the busiest transit stops in San Jose, downtown on Santa Clara Street. ©2015 TiburonLow-income families in Santa Clara County spend more on transportation than their Bay Area neighbors. When they use transit, they are far more likely to use the bus than light rail—and bus riders face daily inconveniences and indignities that can deeply affect their lives. Two new groups in Silicon Valley have formed to give voice to bus riders and fight for better, more affordable service, and a fair share of transit funding for buses: Transit Riders United (TRU), organized by Working Partnerships USA (WPUSA) and RUTU (Renovadores Unidos de Transportes Urbanos), Riders United for Transportation Revitalization, a project of Sacred Heart Community Service.

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Bus Rider Profile: Lucila Moran

Lucila Moran, activist in RUTU (Renovadores Unidos de Transportes Urbanos/Riders United for Transportation Revitalization)“Last night I got off work at 1:30 a.m. and missed the last light rail,” says Lucila (Lucy) Moran. “A girlfriend who works nearby got a taxi with me, but it cost us $15. The bus needs to run later!”

That’s just one of many improvements this  would like to see to make the bus system work better for those who need it most.

Moran grew up in San Jose. “I can still remember the orchards, how beautiful they were. In the summers, my family all worked picking fruit—cherries, walnuts, pears, and prunes. My brother said to me, ‘If you don’t study and go to college, you’ll be doing this the rest of your life,’” she says. She paid attention, following her brother to San Jose City College, then to San Jose State, where she majored in dance.

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Who Gets to Live Near Transit?

Latino Residents Battle New Condo Development
By Dyan Ruiz and Joseph Smooke

Plaza 16 protest ©2014 Dyan Ruiz

On a blazing hot Saturday afternoon, several hundred people marched through the streets of San Francisco’s Mission District as part of a growing movement against a developer’s plans for condo buildings at one of the Bay Area’s busiest transit hubs. The proposed development of two 10-story and one five-story buildings is on the plaza at 16th and Mission streets, which has an entrance to a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station. BART is a public transit system of heavy rail and subways that connect San Francisco with cities in the East Bay, such as Oakland, and northern San Mateo County. The protest on October 4, 2014 was organized by Our Mission No Eviction and the Plaza 16 Coalition.

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Climate Transit Connection

Manuel Esteva is a San Franciso resident and mother of three; a child care worker, and a member of the community organization POWER. She joined POWER three years ago after hearing a presentation at her church. She was interviewed in the studio of Radio RP&E.

Clarke: Tell us why you are interested in climate change. Why does POWER connect transit and climate?
Esteva: (Tr.) The connection really started [with] the campaign for young people to be able to travel around the city without having to pay.
We started realizing that not only would this benefit youth, but we could also [help] the environment.

A lot more natural disasters are affecting people in cities, like the one that just hit New York. And this is caused by global warming. What cities like ours can do is take these small steps that, over time, can have a large impact on the climate.

San Francisco is a small city that can have a national and global impact. It’s a city that sees itself as a green city, always trying to make strides in terms of community health. We can serve as an example to other cities when we create policies that eliminate dependence on cars.  
We know that cars create 20-percent of the pollution in the city. When public transit is made accessible, people use it more. So we can achieve big things when we create [these] policies.

New Era for Transit Finance

In spite of rising gas prices, worsening traffic, and growing public concern about climate change, voters in two of the largest and most diverse counties in the state rejected transportation tax measures (Measures J and B1) that promised to meet these important transportation needs. Yet, these same voters, only four years earlier, in the case of Los Angeles County, and 12 years before, in the case of Alameda County, approved similar measures (Measures R and B) with strong support. What has changed in that time and what does this mean for transit-dependent communities and their transportation justice allies?

Alameda County’s Measure B1, promoted by Urban Habitat and many of its allies, included many important benefits for low-income bus riders. These were critical funds to improve bus service and restore cuts in service, provide seed money for a county-wide free student bus pass program, make major investments in bicycle lane and sidewalk safety, as well as provide more money for paratransit for seniors and people with disabilities.  For this reason, B1 didn’t face the same grassroots opposition that Measure J did.

Like Measure J, B1 was a sales tax measure that would have continued to shift the transportation tax burden onto working families and away from corporations and wealthy individuals.  (This is one of the main reasons why, after much debate, Urban Habitat ultimately decided not to endorse the final B1 measure. We were also concerned that the tax would become permanent and that it lacked protections against gentrification and the displacement of low-income renters from neighborhoods well-served by transit.)

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