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October 16, 2007

Missing the connection

New report details the disconnect between housing and public transportation, and between the public and public transportation, in LouisvilleModel America: Dreema Jackson relies solely on public transit to navigate the city. Her commutes are long, because there’s nowhere to work where she lives.Dreema Jackson needed a car when she was a teacher in Bullitt County, about a third of her life ago, so she saved a little and bought one: a Chevrolet Citation, that humpbacked oddity that was discontinued in 1985. Though that one passed rather quickly, she kept a car until she lost pace with the insurance payments.And thus Dreema Jackson came to fit one of the most vigorously studied American profiles: the transit-dependent, lower-middle class, black mother. She lives in an economically depressed area of West Louisville, where she rents a small home on a corner where drugs are sometimes sold. She relies entirely on TARC and cabs to get around, and she is self-aware with a solid sense of humor. “I am as old as my hair and older than my teeth,” the mother of six says with little prodding, her smile mirthful and becoming. She is cheerful this Friday morning, even though she is running late and rushing, a few minutes behind schedule on account of the bus. This happens often to people who rely entirely on Louisville’s lone public transit option. With a perfect connection between bus lines it takes Dreema about 30 minutes to get from 22nd Street and Hale Avenue, in the California neighborhood, to work at Making Connections, in the Metro United Way building at the corner of Preston and Broadway, more than 30 blocks east, where she works as a resident organizing coordinator, helping her neighbors connect with essentials like childcare, jobs and schools. Conversely, it takes Dreema more than 90 minutes to get from home to Seneca High School or Myers Middle, where some of her boys go to school. She has to leave the house well before them to meet them there. The core of this problem — long commutes and bad connections, lack of direct bus lines outside the central city and the tardiness that can come with it — is not in TARC, transit funding or the car insurance industry. It is in the stark fact that some of Louisville’s most underprivileged neighborhoods are that way because there is little economic opportunity there, and that is a vicious circle. There aren’t many office parks in West Louisville, but there is a huge, employable workforce there, and to be employed, many —like Dreema — have to leave West Louisville during the day.The lack of coordination between housing — particularly affordable housing — and public transportation is the subject of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition’s 2007 annual report, released today. The report is the second in a trilogy offered by the nonprofit housing group. The overall aim is to provide a roadmap for integrating more affordable housing options into city neighborhoods not necessarily pocked with economic hardship. It is also a primer on how the public can affect transportation policy, and it reveals a deep pattern of exclusion in developing a broader transportation strategy — particularly when it comes to public transit — in Louisville. “How we create housing and how we provide the infrastructure for it determines what kind of housing will be built,” Cathy Hinko, MHC’s executive director, said in an interview last week. “The choice to build roads in a certain way, and how many of our transportation dollars go to public transportation, all impacts the opportunity for people to live in different areas.” For a Ford worker living in Fairdale, for instance, a morning TARC commute takes 2 hours and 52 minutes, according to the report. Getting from New Albany to Bluegrass Industrial Park, where the headquarters of the local transportation policy agency KIPDA is located, will take you an hour and 41 minutes.The report also found that Louisville’s population remains substantially segregated, both along economic and racial lines, and those two factors tend to accommodate one another. Additionally, subsidized housing is still concentrated in high-poverty areas. If we want to change that, MHC contends, we have to move subsidized and affordable housing — defined by the U.S. department of Housing and Urban Development as a low-income family paying no more than 30 percent of its income toward housing — out of the ignored areas and into more affluent neighborhoods. The report also advocates more transit-oriented development, or development with a specific consideration for proximity and access to public transportation. It is a good time for that here, with so many urban, downtown blocks dotted with cranes and the wood frames of new, expensive condos, shops and offices. In West Louisville, the old Philip Morris site at 18th and Broadway is about to undergo an $80 million facelift. That also happens to be a high-traffic TARC corner, and with the right forethought, it could become an exemplar of such development. “(This report) talks about the quality of life in the community, and what are the components of quality of life: decent housing, decent transportation — choices,” Barry Barker, TARC’s executive director, said. MHC circulated advance copies to TARC and other agencies mentioned, as well as elected officials. For Dreema Jackson and others on the island that is West Louisville, development strategies and increases in TARC funding are not top of mind, though they’re obviously necessary here. She just wants to be on time. To download the full report, go to www.metropolitanhousing.org. Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com