Semitrucks ride along Interstate 880 highway in East Oakland
Semitrucks ride along Interstate 880 in East Oakland Credit: Amir Aziz

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About 700 people tuned in to a virtual town hall Thursday evening to discuss the decades-old ban of heavy trucks on Interstate 580 through Oakland, and the impacts it has had on flatlands neighborhoods. 

Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley, who hosted the event, credited students from Oakland’s Life Academy of Health and Bioscience for calling attention to the 70–year-old ban and the disparate impacts it has had on people living near I-880, where trucks are allowed and air pollution levels are higher. 

Since 1951, an 8.7-mile stretch from Grand Avenue to the San Leandro border has been off limits to truckers. The ban first applied to MacArthur Boulevard and later I-580, forcing all truck traffic onto I-880. 

It was extended indefinitely in 1967 and over the years has faced challenges from the trucking industry. But in 2000, the state legislature added it to the California vehicle code, prohibiting vehicles that weigh more than 9,000 pounds from the stretch of freeway. 

On Thursday, Miley asked representatives from Caltrans and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the local pollution control agency, to give presentations about the ban’s history and discuss plans to study whether any changes should be made. Repealing the ban would require an act of the state legislature, he said. 

“I am not advocating for or against any change to the ban. What I am doing is I am bringing this issue to the attention of the public,” Miley said. 

Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley is joined by environmental activist Ms. Margaret Gordon, Mayor Libby Schaaf, and San Leandro Mayor Pauline Cutter-Russo at a town hall meeting Dec. 17, 2021. Credit: Zoom screenshot

In the 1990s, the Oakland City Council reviewed the restriction, which was kept in place after strong opposition from Oakland residents along the I-580 corridor, which is also roughly the line separating the more affluent Oakland hills from lower-income communities “below” the freeway in the flatlands. Miley, who was the District 6 council at the time, said equity issues were not something the council considered. 

“What’s different now than what was the case in the 1990s when I supported the ban is we are now looking at these issues through the lens of equity,” he said. “That wasn’t even a consideration of the issues of equity at that time. Now the issues are more prominent.”

However, Miley said any solution should not “move one problem from one community to another.” 

Since earlier this year, Life Academy students have been calling attention to environmental racism and pollution that disproportionately affects Black and brown neighborhoods in East Oakland, including how pollutants from freeways can increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular diseases, and exacerbate asthma among people who live nearby. Four Life Academy students spoke Thursday evening. Angel, who lives near I-880, told the audience he was worried about “the pollution happening in this world.” 

“This is unfair because why do we have to get this smoke, it’s like saying we don’t matter,” Angel said. 

Belinda, a 7th grader, said pollutants from diesel fuel emission have resulted in higher rates of childhood asthma in East Oakland neighborhoods. “This is really serious,” she said. 

“Just because other people have more money doesn’t mean they are more important,” added another student, Michelle. 

With the ban in place, most trucks traveling west on I-580 from points east of Castro Valley must use Highway 238 and pass through unincorporated parts of Hayward and San Leandro to reach I-880. Many truckers are headed to and from the Port of Oakland. California Highway Patrol in instances of emergencies on I-880, also called the Nimitz Freeway, have opened the I-580 MacArthur Freeway to heavy trucks. 

After the ban was extended indefinitely in 1967, Caltrans reviewed it annually for a few years but ended the practice in 1972, Caltrans District 4 Director Dina El-Tawansy said at the town hall. A renewed effort to study the truck prohibition is gaining momentum and fits the vision of Caltrans’ 2020 strategic management plan, which includes a focus on equity issues. 

It is the only freeway in California with such a restriction, and one of fewer than a dozen nationwide. 

“The department acknowledges that communities of color and underserved communities have experienced fewer benefits associated with our state transportation system,” El-Tawansy said. “We started taking a closer look at what our practices are and what we can do to make sure equity is on the forefront of everything we are doing.” 

Caltrans is in the process of identifying grant money to pay for a feasibility study. El-Tawansy said it would include studying how trucks use and access 880, 580 and neighboring highways, health studies on air quality, noise and social impacts, an equity assessment and community engagement. 

Dr. Phil Martien of the Bay Area Air Management Quality District said a study of air quality in East Oakland is forthcoming and would mimic one completed in West Oakland. The West Oakland Action Plan was the first of its kind in the state and followed passage of AB 617, which requires local districts and the state Air Resources Board to reduce air pollution in impacted communities. West Oakland and Richmond, North Richmond, and San Pablo are designated as impacted communities, and East Oakland has been nominated as one, according to the air district. 

Dr. Phil Martien of the Bay Area Air Management Quality District. Credit: Zoom screenshot

West Oakland is near the Port of Oakland, rail lines and surrounded by I-580, I-980, and I-880. Until its collapse in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, the double-decker Cypress Freeway ran through the middle of West Oakland. Logtime environmental activist Ms. Margaret Gordon, a founding member of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, said redlining and poor urban planning created two very unequal Oaklands. 

“On one side of Oakland there was a different lifestyle—health and prosperity—compared to the other side,” said Gordon, a panelist at Thursday’s town hall. “Clearly there is an imbalance here based on where people are placed.”

“We need residents along 580 to be more supportive of the reductions of the emissions that have been happening to West Oakland,” she said. 

Brian Beveridge, also of West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, echoed that sentiment. “We don’t want to export our pollution,” he said. “The real opportunity here for folks who may not think they are allies, folks in the hills, is to align themselves with people in the flatlands” with a common goal to get rid of air pollution. 

There is some good news: trucks are getting much cleaner thanks to better technology, Martien said. He presented a chart showing diesel emissions in Alameda County from heavy trucks and buses have steadily declined since 2010, while vehicle miles traveled by trucks have increased. 

“We need to know what changes in truck activity patterns will be, not only on the freeways, but the local surface streets,” which Martien said will be important in determining how much pollution people are exposed to. 

A study entitled the “A Tale of Two Freeways” by the Environmental Defense Fund showed levels of black carbon are 80% higher on 880 than on 580. Levels of nitrogen dioxide were 60% higher on 880. Both pollutants cause asthma and a range of other serious diseases. 

“The differences can also be bigger in some places. For example, you will see a peak on 880 around Jingletown,” said Fern Uennatornwaranggoon, a senior air quality policy manager with the Environmental Defense Fund. Jingletown is a neighborhood west of I-880 below Fruitvale and near a portion of the freeway where traffic typically backs up. Idle engines produce more fuel emissions. 

Miley said his office received about 200 questions prior to the town hall, and more questions poured in during the town hall. Many had to deal with noise levels on I-580, which passes by several neighborhoods, Mills College, the Oakland Zoo, and hospitals. One resident who said his home backs up to 580 said he can feel vibrations from trucks violating the ban. 

“You’d have to redo the sound proofing to be below the recommended decibel level for people to heal from their conditions,” one resident said during the town hall. 

Some worried the elevation of 580, which is a few hundred feet above 880, would result in pollutants blanketing neighborhoods below. Because it is hilly and windy, truckers would have to brake more often, and thus release more fuel exhaust, one resident speculated. 

Caltrans District 4 Director Dina El-Tawansy explains the history of the I-580 truck ban. Credit: Zoom screenshot

Amelia Marshall, a Laurel District resident, said if the restriction was lifted, the only beneficiary would be the trucking industry. “I would very much like to see this plan scuttled because it’s a really bad idea,” Marshall said. “We want to preserve the legacy of Judge John Sutter who fought to keep some of our city free and clear of malign interests of trucking.” 

Others said it is time for Oakland to take action to protect residents along I-880. A homeowner who owns two properties near 580 supported lifting the restriction, calling it a “net positive for our larger Oakland community.” 

Mayor Libby Schaaf, who also sat on the panel, threw her support to the feasibility study and encouraged residents to think about how their everyday choices can affect the air we breathe. She noted that Oakland has joined a diesel-free pledge. 

“This is a moment for us to ask these hard questions and not just compare what is happening in other neighborhoods but why health impacts are happening to anybody,” Schaaf said. 

Residents of unincorporated Cherryland and Ashland asked that their neighborhoods be included in any studies because of Highway 238, which connects much of the heavy truck traffic between the Port of Oakland and the Central Valley. 

San Leandro Mayor Pauline Cutter-Russo, who also spoke at the town hall, said there is a pocket of her city which has worse air quality than parts of East Oakland because of its proximity to multiple freeways where heavy trucks are allowed. 

Others urged Oakland residents to look at the broader issue of society’s need to retire fossil fuels from the transportation system and shift toward zero emissions vehicles that run on electricity. Resident Douglas Spalding said the real “enemy here is diesel and pollution, that is what we should be investing our energies in.” 

The air district is planning to form a steering committee of East Oakland residents next year to take part in the district’s analysis of air quality, Martien said. Caltrans estimates a feasibility study could begin in 2023, once grant money becomes available. It would take a year to complete, and the public would have an opportunity to comment on its findings.

David DeBolt reports on City Hall and policing for The Oaklandside. He spent 12 years working for daily newspapers in the Bay Area, including on the Peninsula and Solano County. He joined the Bay Area News Group in 2012 where he covered a variety of beats, most recently as a senior breaking news reporter. During his time at BANG, DeBolt covered Oakland City Hall, the Raiders stadium saga and the A’s search for a new ballpark, as well as the Oakland Police Department and police reform efforts. He was part of the East Bay Times staff honored with the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News for coverage of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire.