Civil rights claim in Arlington HOV suit draws fire

Arlington contends that high-occupancy toll lanes will shift congestion to local streets, with disproportionate effect on low-income minority residents.
Arlington contends that high-occupancy toll lanes will shift congestion to local streets, with disproportionate effect on low-income minority residents. (Robert A. Reeder - Post)
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By Derek Kravitz and Jennifer Buske
Friday, October 23, 2009

After 3 p.m. on any given day, the traffic along Glebe Road between interstates 395 and 95 in Arlington County is voluminous. Cars slow, stop and snake around crowded intersections. Overheated vehicles cause tempers to boil over. Amid the exhaust fumes and gridlock, one thing is clear: No one is happy driving here.

Arlington leaders say plans for three high-occupancy toll lanes on the nearby highways will make traffic worse on Glebe and other roads. But it's not just a transportation problem, they say in a federal lawsuit; it's also a civil rights issue.

The suit, filed in August, asks a judge to order a more stringent environmental study of the toll-lane project. Among the chief concerns it cites is the potential effect of air pollution on the health of low-income and minority residents clustered near the highways in areas such as Shirlington. More vehicles on offramps would mean more vehicles in residential neighborhoods, officials argue.

In the often political world of transportation projects, the suit's use of the Civil Rights Act has sparked a torrent of criticism from lawmakers and government officials who say issues of race and class have no place in highway planning.

At a Fairfax County Board of Supervisors meeting last month, Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield) said Arlington officials erred in including any mention of disparate impact between the white, mostly suburban drivers in Spotsylvania and Stafford counties who would have "unimpeded access" to the toll roads and the more diverse, bottlenecked drivers in Arlington.

"I don't think race or class warfare has any standing in this argument," Herrity said.

Arlington County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac said the suit was not intended to "create some kind of wedge issue on race or income," but rather to force state officials to reevaluate the effect of air pollution on nearby schools, day-care centers and low-income housing.

"We're not just throwing this out there to throw in the race element," MacIsaac said. "We believe this is an environmental justice issue."

What's in contention

Calvin and Loretta Mitchell, who are black, run an at-home day-care center at the end of Arlington's South Fillmore Street, which is in a predominantly black neighborhood. Most of the families who pick up their preschoolers at the Mitchells have to park on curbs across the street and walk several blocks to reach the two-story brick house.

"Cars are parked all over the place. It's terrible," said Calvin Mitchell on a late Thursday afternoon as rushed parents snatched their children from the home.

The Mitchells say traffic caused by three planned high-occupancy toll lanes on nearby highways is going to make their headaches worse. But Herrity and other officials who support the project say it will ease congestion.

Many have questioned Arlington's decision to include discrimination claims in its lawsuit.

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