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February 28, 2019

The Dorchester Reporter: Pressley huddles with transit equity advocates in Fields Corner

US Rep. Ayanna Pressley hosted a transportation equity and policy agenda roundtable last Thursday in Fields Corner with local activists, touching on opportunities for federal legislation and homing in on opportunities for her to support state or municipal initiatives.

Pressley told the few dozen people who gathered at home.stead cafe on Dorchester Avenue that her Seventh Congressional District was “unequal” in many ways “and that is certainly true when it comes to inclusive infrastructure,” according to an audio recording of the event.

“There are many natural assets,” Pressley said of the district, “and that begins with its people, but there are many inequities and disparities and those did not just happen, and they existed long before Donald Trump descended an escalator in Trump Tower.”

She said the disparities are the consequences of “well intended policies with unintended consequences or discriminatory and poor policymaking.”

She asked those in attendance to identify things she can advocate for on the state and municipal level, along with federal policy. One of the ‘values-based’ caucuses she sits on is the Congressional Bike Caucus, of which she is co-chair with Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Oregon.

On the federal level, Pressley said they are working on Vision Zero legislation and restoring the bike commuter tax that was eliminated with the most recent tax bill.

“We think you deserve that benefit because you are expending calories and not carbon,” Pressley said. Employers would pay something like $20 a month “as a benefit to those who use their bike to commute to work,” she said, “and that could go toward maintenance or other things.”

A third priority Pressley noted is to “redefine transit programming,” which does not currently include bike sharing.

Transit budget decisions are made on the state level, Pressley told attendees, so federal investments are mostly dedicated to highways and skip local multimodal infrastructure. Adjusting the distribution for Highway Trust Fund money to include state infrastructure is another goal, Pressley said.

“A lot of people here are concerned about the pace of change on our streets, about the fact that people keep getting injured or killed,” said Rebecca Wolfson, executive director of the Boston Cyclist Union. She asked that Pressley take leadership on creating a truck safety ordinance on the federal level, as well as advocate for funding to make local improvements to streets.

Others described the perils of biking to work and school, the lack of bike lanes and dealing with annoyed drivers who do not like sharing the roadway with cyclists.

Jon Ramos said Boston’s Vision Zero and bike safety plans are “way behind schedule.” He attributed some of it to funding an “obstruction in the city.” As an example, Ramos said he was frustrated with the South Bay Harbor Trail “which was more than 10 years in the making before it even started to break ground…. That trail would connect Roxbury to Boston’s Seaport District, which is the bustling wealthy district and it could be a great connector for jobs.”

“How can we speed up projects like that?” he asked. Pressley said she was hopeful that activist leadership and coalition building is leading to pitches like the Green New Deal topping the progressive agenda federally, which should include equitable infrastructure.

Several people said it has felt like there has been a “plateauing” on bike policy in recent years. They called for even incremental improvements like new painted bike lanes to at least define a space for bicyclists to pedal along. They described the former mayoral administration as more focused on public health, and decried the current mayor and governor and unconvincing advocates who are “self-described car guys.”

Pressley asked how the advocates communicated about dangerous corners or intersections or stretches where they “forecasted for days for month for years that someone is going to get killed right there, and that is what happened.

“Do you feel there has been any adjustment in real-time feedback that you’re able to go to someone and say this has been dangerous for a long time, we need to see an investment there?”

Attendees described well known danger zones, biking between Boston and Cambridge or around the city, and said they eventually sometimes lucked into an official who was receptive. But again, they said the process was “frustrating.”

Tamika Francis, an advocate around the intersection of public health and cycling, asked how to activate voices from disenfranchised communities and communicate their concerns.

“Active transit or food tend to be on the lower end” of public officials’ priority lists, she noted.

There has been some progress, Pressley said, in pushing back against the marginalization of communities asked too often to “weaponize your lived experiences, your trauma, your pain, your loss, your hurt,” but the burden often falls on those who are more able to and have the resources to advocate.

Other asks included policy around community benefits from developments to fund infrastructure, more money for the Department of Transportation to give back to programming, and bike access between green spaces such as across Morton Street. There was general agreement that bike infrastructure is better in Somerville than in Boston.

In concluding, Pressley came back to her post-campaign message, what she describes as an unprecedented mandate from the grassroots and built on hope. She plans to host a transit town hall in the next month or so, to solicit more ideas and feedback for legislation.

“The way to disrupt these inequalities is through policy making,” she said.