Traffic on Interstate 8
Traffic on Interstate 8 in Mission Valley. File photo by Chris Sone

The next time you’re stopped in gridlocked Southern California freeway traffic, take a glance at what’s around you. The chances are very good that your vehicle is idling at the edge of a working-class, low-income neighborhood populated mainly by people of color.

Think of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles (94% Latino) at the edge of the massive East L.A. interchange, or Logan Heights in San Diego (88% Latino), bordered on three sides by major freeways. Think of the warehouse-lined trucking corridors that bisect San Bernardino (79% Black or Latino). That’s the way our freeway systems developed, and there are consequences for that.

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It’s the reason that Boyle Heights has one of the most concentrated pockets of air pollution in the nation. It’s a major reason why, across the country, low-income people of color are exposed to 28% more nitrogen dioxide, a principal component of air pollution, than the population at large.

Air pollution is a huge problem in California, from the Los Angeles Basin to the San Joaquin Valley and beyond. For those in underserved communities that border freeways and house refineries and manufacturing plants, it is an urgent crisis. It’s time California waged a sustained, predictably funded campaign to clean the air.

That’s what Proposition 30 on the Nov. 8 ballot would accomplish, and that’s why I urge you to join me and my colleagues with California Nurses for Environmental Health and Justice in supporting Prop. 30.

As a retired school nurse in San Diego County, I would see the health consequences every day. Children from low-income neighborhoods suffer a higher incidence of asthma and miss school because of it. Among adults, breathing polluted air contributes to heart disease, lung cancer, pre-term pregnancies and low birth weight babies.

The two major sources of these disease-causing pollutants are vehicle emissions and wildfires — and those are exactly the problems targeted by Prop. 30.

The initiative would levy a small (1.7%) income tax surcharge on any individual’s income that exceeds $2 million a year. Only the very wealthiest Californians would be affected. But because of the vast concentration of wealth among these very few taxpayers, that small surcharge would produce big results.

Prop. 30 would generate up to $5 billion a year, with that amount estimated to grow over time. Eighty percent of that money would be spent to enable California’s transition to a clean transportation system that produces zero harmful emissions. The remaining 20 percent would be spent on wildfire suppression and prevention.

In addition, the language of Prop. 30 is crystal clear in requiring that funds be spent in the communities that have been most affected by polluted air. It specifies that at least half of the money be allocated to programs that primarily benefit people who live in low-income and disadvantaged communities.

That means there will be funding to make electric vehicles more affordable for working-class Californians and that charging stations will be built in urban neighborhoods, not just in suburban shopping centers and at pit stops along our interstate highways. There will be funding for charging stations in urban apartment complexes, making zero-emission cars a practical option for those who don’t have single-family homes with garages.

California has aggressive goals to transition to non-polluting transportation, but it is lagging behind in achieving those goals. Prop. 30, when combined with existing state incentives and the new federal incentives that will be coming on line with the Inflation Reduction Act, will provide the boost we need to clean the air and also combat climate change.

By far, the exhaust from car and truck tailpipes is the greatest contributor to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in California. Only an aggressive, sustained commitment to clean transportation can turn that around.

The health of our urban communities is what’s at stake.

Vanessa Forsythe, R.N., of Carlsbad is a member of California Nurses for Health and Environmental Justice.