The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) pulled $70 million in stimulus funds from BART's Oakland Airport Connector project last month based on our civil rights complaint, finding that BART ignored civil rights laws. Fortunately, the Bay Area didn't lose that funding—it was distributed among the region's ailing transit systems. But the transit administration's action makes it clear that public money must be spent fairly or agencies will be held accountable.
A project isn't "shovel-ready" until it is fair. Agencies receiving federal funds are legally obligated to ensure that low-income and diverse communities share fairly in the benefits of that funding. To do so requires analysis and community involvement. BART failed to live up to these responsibilities. As the project evolved, the anticipated round-trip fare rose to $12 (plus BART fare), and intermediate stops that could have given workers access to hotel and retail jobs en route to the airport were eliminated. But BART didn't study whether those features excluded low-income and minority riders from the project's benefits, and East Oakland communities never had a chance to have their say when the airport tram project was revised.
Our groups expressed our concerns to both BART and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the agency that oversees the regional distribution of federal transportation dollars. But we were ignored, so we took our complaint to Washington. And the FTA backed us up.
Since then, BART has continued to insist it did nothing wrong. But it has also vowed to make its civil rights practices the "gold standard." Now is the time to turn these words into action.
BART can begin by working with the community on an airport connector plan that shares benefits with East Oakland residents as well as airport travelers, which includes seriously studying alternatives like Bus Rapid Transit. Instead of a $492 million slow cable car that dumps passengers in the airport parking lot at double the current fare, the Bay Area can have a faster, cheaper, and more convenient airport connection that also serves the needs of the East Oakland community.
For its part, MTC can thoroughly examine its long list of proposed transportation projects to make sure they promote civil rights. This critical review has never been done. Both BART and MTC can usher in a new era of respect for accountability, transparency, and fairness for all.
Juliet Ellis of Urban Habitat and Mahasin Abdul-Salaam of Genesis represent, along with Public Advocates, Inc. and TransForm, the organizations that brought the civil rights complaint.
Reprinted from the San Francisco Chronicle, March 31, 2010.