Commentary, Environment, public health

Duke University is killing regional light rail, while air pollution from cars kills people.

Archival photo of the Personal Rapid Transit, a tram line at Duke Medical Center, from Duke Today. The PRT operated from 1979 to 2009.

The irony is not lost on me, or many people, that the heart of the Duke Medical Center district — a congested stretch of Erwin Road, between Fulton and Trent streets — is hazardous to public health.

Put aside for the moment, the imminent physical peril that threatens bicyclists on those thoroughfares or pedestrians attempting to cross the streets, even if the walk sign assures them it’s safe to do so. The longer-term damage stems from the thousands of cars that pass by, that stack up 10 deep at the stoplights, that circle the dizzying mazes inside parking garages in search of a free space, that idle at valet parking or patient drop-off.

Air pollution from those thousands of tailpipes contribute to some of the very diseases and disorders that Duke doctors, nurses and researchers are trying to cure: asthma, heart disease, cancer, reduced lung function and premature death. MIT researchers estimated that in 2005 air pollution-related mortality shortened the average victim’s lifespan by 12 years.

There is a partial solution to this air pollution problem, or there was. Go Triangle’s 18-mile light rail line connecting NC Central University to downtown Durham, Duke University, Duke Medical Center, Chapel Hill and UNC Hospitals was supposed to dislodge people from their polluting cars and move them en masse to major education and employment centers with a lighter carbon footprint.

Now, though, Duke University, which for years supported the light-rail project, has suddenly refused to sign a cooperative agreement with GoTriangle that would allow the line to be built. Duke had planned to donate land for the rail line — in fact, the project aligns with university’s own climate change goals — but now university president Vincent Price is backing out.

In a letter to GoTriangle, Price cites as reasons construction vibrations and traffic disruptions, electrical frequency interference and possible power outages. (This is some weak sauce. Hospitals in major cities, like Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, connect to rail lines and subways.)

Here’s another example of why this rationale is disingenuous. Duke University and its Medical Center operated a rail line for 30 years. The cars rode on a “cushion of air” and were “propelled forward with the help of magnets.”
From a 2017 article in Duke Today:

For almost three decades, Personal Rapid Transit whisked patients, staff and visitors between the expanding hospital’s facilities at Duke South, Duke North and Parking Garage No. 2. It was taken out of service in 2009 and most of it was demolished to make way for the Duke Cancer Center and Duke Medicine Pavilion.

Surely the rail line’s demolition, in tandem with the construction and expansion of the Medical Center caused vibrations. Did new utility lines have to be run? Why yes.  And what of the magnets? Were MRI machines going haywire? Apparently not.

Mass transit is also key to offsetting the global damage from climate change. Transportation accounts for nearly a third of greenhouse gas emissions in North Carolina, according to the state’s recently published GHG inventory. Since the Trump administration is proposing to relax vehicle emissions standards, North Carolina’s decrease in tailpipe emissions — 12 percent from 2007 to 2015 — is in jeopardy.

Duke University’s own Climate Action Plan, published last November, advocates for enhanced public transit access, including “regional light rail, efficient bus routes, etc. that connect employees to Duke University.”

Nothing short of becoming its own city seems to align with Duke’s vision of civic duty. The university already strong-armed Durham into changing the route of the Bull City Connector, a free campus-to-downtown bus that ran every 15 to 20 minutes. The service was especially popular among low-income Durham residents — and moderate-income townies like myself.

But Duke argued that the timetable was insufficient for its employees and students. Thus, the university demanded that the BCC save time by bypassing the main transit center, the hub where people could transfer to the fare-free system. Durham caved to that demand, over much opposition from the Black community and its allies. Yet even that major route alteration didn’t satisfy Duke. The university withdrew funding for the route, and now it’s in jeopardy. And it still doesn’t stop at the main transit center.

Instead, Duke started a shuttle service — wait for it — with a stop next to the transit center that runs nearly the identical route as the BCC. But you must have a Duke ID to board the cocoon. Unencumbered by the hoi polloi, riders can be whisked to their destinations on a cushion of airs, propelled not forward, but backward — to a regressive, shortsighted, punitive transit policy. It’s bad not just for the patients, students and workers at Duke, but also the residents of Durham, and ultimately, the planet.

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Education, Environment, Higher Ed, News, public health

The week’s Top Stories on Policy Watch

1. In some North Carolina counties, traditional schools are being squeezed by charters

School buses prepare for another school year

There has been much written about the impact charter school growth has had on some of North Carolina’s larger, urban school districts.

But the impact might be greater on some of the state’s smaller, rural school districts where the loss of students, and the funding that follows them, are felt more profoundly.

Take Granville County Public Schools (GCS), a district of about 7,600 on the Virginia border.

This month the school board approved a plan to close an elementary school and to consolidate two middle schools, the result of lagging enrollment. [Read more…]

2. When will Republicans’ patience with President Trump run out?

 

Republicans, we need to talk.

Not about the shutdown. I get the ceasefire, I get that the air traffic slowdowns may have finally spooked the president and D.C. Republicans, even if only for a temporary respite.

This is about the bigger picture, not about short-term, beltway battles and shutdowns that may or may not be on the minds of Americans when they go to the polls in 2020 – although I don’t imagine the passage of time will sweeten the memory for Americans who worked weeks without paychecks.

This is about the future of the GOP platform, that grand-old-promise to shrink government, reduce inefficiencies, cut taxes, and preserve the American dream. [Read more…]

3. “The spill was an instant disaster”: Reflections on the five-year anniversary of the Dan River coal ash breach

Until that winter’s day, the 4-foot section of corrugated metal pipe, 48 inches in diameter, had done its job. It swallowed storm water, said to be uncontaminated, that drained from Duke Energy property, chugged the water through its gullet that ran beneath an unlined coal ash basin, and then spewed it into the Dan River near Eden.

But on Feb. 2, 2014, the pipe could take no more.

For more than 50 years, Duke Energy had dumped millions of tons of coal ash into an open, unlined pit at its power plant on the Dan River. On that calm, cloudy Sunday afternoon, as pre-gamers chilled beers and fried chicken wings for their Super Bowl parties, the pipe collapsed. Hazardous material from the basin rushed through the breach, which released at least 39,000 tons of ash and up to 27 million gallons of contaminated water into the Dan River.

At 2 o’clock, a security guard making the rounds had noticed the water level in the 27-acre ash pond had dropped.

At 6:30 p.m., thousands of North Carolinians watched the Seattle Seahawks, led by former NC State quarterback Russell Wilson, win the coin toss to start Super Bowl 48 against the Denver Broncos. Two minutes later, as the Seahawks kicked off, Duke Energy officials were investigating the pipe breach and preparing an EM43 report, used to document emergencies in North Carolina. [Read more…] Read more

Commentary, News, public health, Trump Administration

Trump administration moves to curb health and safety rules for workers

President Donald Trump (Credit: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)

The Trump Administration launched its latest attack on working people yesterday, repealing a 2016 rule requiring large employers to electronically report injuries and illnesses to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

And this is just the latest assault. Previous efforts have included privatization of inspections in hog slaughtering plants, allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to operate patient lifting machines in nursing homes, limiting mine and oil rig inspections, and many others.

See the statement below from Deborah Berkowitz, program director for worker health and safety with the National Employment Law Project, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group that focuses on low-wage and unemployed workers:

“Today, despite the ongoing federal government shutdown, the Trump administration announced yet another rollback of workplace safety protections. The final rule, published today, allows dangerous employers to hide workplace injuries, seriously hindering the efforts of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)—as well as the efforts of state agencies, the public health community, workers, and employers—to identify and prevent workplace injuries.

“The administration’s new rule repeals provisions of an existing rule adopted in 2016—the ‘Improve Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses’ rule—which required large employers (those with 250 or more workers in an establishment) to electronically submit to OSHA important detailed information on injuries at their workplaces. The administration has arbitrarily reversed the conclusions of the 2016 final rule, which found enormous benefits to the rule—not just in targeting scarce agency enforcement resources, but in providing compliance assistance and overall injury prevention efforts.

“Without citing any supporting evidence or facts, the Trump administration has again sided with big corporate interests over working people. It ignores the abundance of evidence that workers and their representatives overwhelmingly supported the collection of this data. Once again, the Trump administration has ignored the voices of workers and their representatives, and listened exclusively to large corporations and their lobbyists who don’t want to report any of this information to the government and the public. It’s yet another shameful move by the Trump administration.”

Carol Brooke is a senior attorney for the N.C. Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights project. 

News, public health

In one of NC’s many food deserts, a co-op grocery store closes

When Greensboro’s Renaissance Community Co-Op opened in 2016, it was the area’s first since grocery store since 1998.

Last week the store, in largely Black and low-income East Greensboro, announced it is closing at the end of the month. Despite demonstrable need in the under-served, low income area the store simply didn’t maintain the sales strength to keep its doors open.

The store on Phillips Avenue is at the center of what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls a food deserts – a low income area where at least 33 percent of the people are more than a mile away from a real grocery store or supermarket.

There are 24 food deserts in Guilford County – 17 in Greensboro and seven in High Point.

More than 35,000 people in Guilford County have poor access to healthful food, according to USDA statistics. More than 18,000 of those are low-income.

Guilford’s food deserts are mostly in well-known low-income areas: south of Kivett Drive in High Point, most of east Greensboro and a large rural area near the outskirts of McLeansville.

Concerned Citizens for Northeast Greensboro worked with the Greensboro-based Fund for Democratic Communities partnered and Durham community development lender Self-Help to get the store off the ground. Citizens raised more than $1.2 million and the project received grants of $250,000 from the city of Greensboro and $25,000 from Guilford County. The c0-op’s membership grew to more than 1,300. But in the end, sales weren’t enough to sustain it.

Roodline Volcy, president of the co-op’s board of directors, told the News & Record that over 16 years without a grocery store, people seemed to  have developed other habits in terms of how they got their food.

“I’m just heartbroken over the whole thing,” said Greensboro City Councilwoman Goldie Wells, who represents the area.

News, public health

Healthcare round-up: From Florence recovery to Medicaid expansion to combating NC’s opioid crisis (podcast)

Is 2019 the year for Medicaid expansion in the Tar Heel state? Will Medicaid reform save North Carolina money and deliver better service for millions of North Carolinians? And what do you need to know about open enrollment under the Affordable Care Act before December 15th?

We asked those questions and more to North Carolina’s Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen last week when she joined NC Policy Watch director Rob Schofield on News and Views.

Click below to hear our full interview where Sec. Cohen and Schofield also discuss Hurricane Florence recovery and the latest efforts to curb the state’s opioid crisis: