Transportation Justice


Now 2010

RP&E has been tracking transportation justice since the journal’s inception.  As Carl Anthony mentions in his interview on page eight, it was Eric Mann and he who made the presentation on transportation justice at the first environmental justice summit in Washington D.C. in 1991. We’ve pubished over 50 articles on the topic and devoted two special issues to building the transportation justice movment. For an index of transportation justice articles from RP&E, visit www.urbanhabitat.org/transportationjustice.

 

Then 
2005Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark University, Atlanta summed it up in his article in RP&E  Vol. 12, No. 1: Moving the Movement for Transportation Justice—“Follow the transportation dollars and one can tell who is important and who is not. While many barriers to equitable transportation for low-income and people of color have been removed, much more needs to be done. Transportation spending programs do not benefit all populations equally. The lion's share of transportation dollars is spent on roads, while urban transit systems are often left in disrepair. Nationally, 80 percent of all surface transportation funds is earmarked for highways. Generally, states spend less than 20 percent of federal transportation funding on transit.... In the real world, all transit is not created equal. In general, most transit systems tend to take their low-income ‘captive riders’ for granted and concentrate their fare and service policies on attracting middle class and affluent riders. Hence, transit subsidies disproportionately favor suburban transit and expensive new commuter bus and rail lines that serve wealthier ‘discretionary riders.’“


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Penn Loh: EJ and TJ

Now 2010

Penn Loh is a professor at Tufts University's Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning. From 1996 to 2009, he served in various roles, including executive director (since 1999) at Alternatives for Community & Environment (ACE), a Roxbury-based environmental justice group. He holds an M.S. from the University of California at Berkeley and a B.S. from MIT. Before joining ACE, he was research associate at the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security in Oakland, California.

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Jesse Clarke: What was your involvement with environmental justice in the early ‘90s when you were at the University of California Berkeley?

Penn Loh: I went to UC Berkeley because I realized that much of the work of electrical engineers (I had an undergraduate degree in that field) at that time was really in the military industrial complex. It seemed like the profession, rather than making life better for people, was largely involved in projects supporting war research. So, I started down a different track.

At that time, I saw environment as a secondary concern to other social justice issues. But at U.C.Berkeley I met folks who had just attended the 1991 People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington D.C. I got involved with that student group and also took a class with Carl Anthony. Suddenly, light bulbs went off and I realized, “This is what I can do to contribute to something positive and which goes real deep with respect to my own social justice commitment!”

Clarke: Is that why you got a job with ACE when you got back to Boston?

Loh: Yes, I jumped at the opportunity to join an organization that was just getting off the ground. It was founded by two lawyers who had been inspired by people like Luke Cole. We were trying to figure out how we could bring legal and technical assistance to grassroots communities and support bottom-up movement building for social change. Our early issues dealt with asthma and air pollution—specifically diesel pollution.

We looked at the work WE ACT was doing in New York City and at what the Bus Riders’ Union was doing in Los Angeles to get a clean bus fleet and we recognized that we were facing exactly the same issues in Boston. So initially, we got into transportation issues from an environmental health standpoint. As we started to deepen our organizing in this area, we realized that we had tapped into a much bigger issue. The riders and folks in the community who relied on these buses every day didn’t see the diesel pollution issue as separate from all the other issues with transit. There was extreme pent up anger and frustration at the transit system. The bus riders felt like they were part of a second class system, as compared to the subways, which Boston touts as being world class.

Clarke: Can you talk a little more about the equity dimension of the transportation system and just how that came to the fore in terms of the politics around it?

Loh: We had done some very focused campaigning around clean buses and ACE was facilitating a Clean Buses for Boston Coalition that included a number of community groups, our youth, and some environmental groups. We targeted the transit authority to persuade them to use alternative fuel bus technologies as they replaced their aging fleet but they didn’t much want to talk to us.
In 1997-98, we held a series of community forums over a five-month period attended by about 500 people. We invited the transit authorities and were able to get their middle management to come out to listen to the people. Youth on ACE’s “Anti-Idling March” handing out “idling tickets” to drivers. © 2008 ACE

People talked about a variety of issues of which two clearly stood out: (1) inadequate and poor transit service and (2) disrespect in terms of how the system treated people in their communities. There was a strong sense of the inequity in the way resources were dedicated to the bus rail and commuter rail systems but there was no organized voice of transit riders, particularly in the transit-dependent low-income and communities of color. We eventually launched the T Riders’ Union—inspired by the Bus Riders’ Union. 

Clarke: A decade later, how has the struggle to equalize transportation investment and access for transit-dependent low-income communities and people-of-color communities been progressing in Boston?

Loh: After about three years of intensive advocacy and organizing, we succeeded in getting the public commitment from the transit authority to switch the fleet over. So, now almost the entire fleet of thousand buses serving Eastern Massachusetts is being converted to cleaner alternatives. We’re very proud of that. Also, we didn’t realize it then but we had really started a movement for transit justice. The T Riders’ Union has really grown and become the voice of low-income riders in the area. 

The biggest battles we’ve had to fight since 2000 are the fare increases because of the structural deficits built into our transit system. We’ve had a cycle of 25-30 percent fare increases across the board, every couple of years since 2000. It’s been quite a struggle to try to keep the fares affordable in a way that also ensures no service cuts.

Over the years, we’ve come to realize that we need broader and deeper solutions. So, about four years ago, we started to advance our own systemic solutions to dealing with the structural deficits. One of our suggestions— which is now part of the mainstream discussion—was to look at how to relieve our transit authority of an inordinate amount of debt on projects, such as the “Big Dig” highway project [a freeway tunnel under the Boston harbor].

   

RP&E Reflections 2003: Accountability

Reprinted from RP&E Vol. 10, No. 1
Where Do We Go From Here?
“We Must All be Accountable in a Grassroots Movement”

By Penn Loh

In 1992, I was a twenty-something graduate student at UC Berkeley who had just joined a student of color environmental justice group, Nindakin, which was an affiliate of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice. As a member, I often felt out of place. Not only was I not in my home community (Boston), but I was at an elite university with all its privileges. As a group, we also struggled over our role, par- ticularly one question: Are we fighting our own oppression within the university or are we using our resources to support local community groups? More than a decade later, I work for a community-based EJ group, Alternatives for Community & Environment (ACE), and those questions persist. During my seven years at ACE, the group has grown from an intermediary organization providing legal and technical support to grassroots groups in Boston to a group that is also organizing communities directly, nurturing youth leadership, building coalitions, and planning to establish a grassroots membership. We are neither a grassroots group nor an intermediary; we are both. I realize now that the divide between “grassroots” and “intermediary” is just a reflection of the root injustices—racism, classism, sexism—that we are fighting against. An intermediary is an intermediary because it has some form of power that the grassroots doesn’t and feels some responsibility to share it. For me, the guiding light for resolving these tensions comes from Dana Alston’s words at the First People of Color Environmental Justice Leadership Summit: “We Speak for Ourselves.” In that statement, she challenged us to build a movement led by those most affected—a goal that is easy to say, but hard to do. If we are a movement led by people struggling locally, then how do we build power and use it to achieve broader change regionally, nationally, and internationally?

At ACE, through an ongoing study group with our youth, staff, board, and community leaders, we’ve started to tackle these questions. We agreed that a “movement” has lots of people, each with a shared analysis of what’s wrong. Like flowing streams of water, we’re headed in the same direction, but not necessarily in a coordinated manner. A movement hits critical mass when people can identify with it and take part, yet without necessarily belonging to a group. We concluded that the EJ Movement is still in its infancy, not yet a mass movement but with the potential to be one. With the help of the Environmental and Economic Justice Project (which is based out of the organizing group AGENDA in South Los Angeles), ACE determined that we needed to build power of sufficient scope and scale to achieve systemic change. This discussion has helped us draft a five-year strategic plan that defines our role in the movement. ACE sees itself as part of a movement that is building power from the bottom up, with strong grassroots organizations connected through networks and a broad base of leadership that is representative of, and accountable to, our communities.

ACE’S staff has community organizers born and raised in the neighborhood along with lawyers and other professionals from inside and outside the community, white and of color. Yet, none of us has license to speak for the community. As staff, we are accountable to the youth, residents, and community groups we work with. Our constituents currently make decisions about strategy and overall direction as members of our project and campaign committees and our board of directors. As we move to a membership structure, all decisions will flow from our members, who will also elect a majority of our board. Our job in supporting the grassroots is to continually develop leaders who in turn nurture others to follow them. EJ organizations from across the country have agreed that the EJ agenda must be set by those most directly affected and that our first priority is to strengthen the grassroots base. At Summit 11, we went a step further with the “Principles of Working Together,” which sets a code of conduct to ensure the integrity of grassroots leadership while working with all sectors of the movement. The challenge now is to put our shared principles into practice by strengthening grassroots organizations. Change happens through collective action, not through an individual savior or charismatic leader. We must make ourselves replaceable and restrain personal glorification.

We must actively combat internalized racism and classism and put into practice meaningful democratic participation. As Gandhi said, we must be the change we wish to see in the world.

Clarke:  The big debt.

Loh: There was a bunch of projects that the T originally was not paying the debt on but which became a part of the general obligation of the state as a result of its taking on the Big Dig project. The debt was switched over to the T in 2000 when there was a restructuring in finances and what was already a good amount of debt on projects they had wanted to build ballooned out of control to the point where up to 30 percent of the operating budget now is servicing debt. 

We knew that you couldn’t just take the debt off the T’s books, but would have to identify new revenue streams. In the last gubernatorial election in 2006, we were able to advance the idea that we need to find new revenues. Two years ago, the Governor had suggested something that we backed very strongly—it was to increase the gas tax, which had not kept pace with inflation and had not been increased since the early 1990s.

Clarke: Your description of the debt burden in Boston reminds me of the situation in the global south—people are saddled with huge debt obligations for big wasteful projects built by politically connected contractors. The result is that social spending and needed services are gobbled up by “servicing” the debt. On a global level, a lot of the countries that are at the bottom of the carbon sink are trying to win cancellation of such debt to allow for investment in clean energy. It’s interesting that your demands in Boston parallel theirs.  

Loh: With broadening recognition that climate change is something we can’t ignore we are seeing a new framing—that a green economy or a clean energy economy is one of the ways of addressing the climate change issue. What we’ve found at ACE and our work in transit is that to really get to environmental justice, we need to figure out how to build the sustainable infrastructure that can support community health and quality of environment, as well as decent livelihoods.

Clarke: I’m interested in how you are working on the problem of getting equity into green economics. We have a report here from the Applied Research Center (ARC) showing that the percentage of low-income and people of color and women actually employed in the green energy economy are so far below the actual percentages of the population that heavy investment in the green economy might even exacerbate economic inequality in some situations. How are you framing equity into the climate change debate so that it will move towards climate justice?

Loh: I think one of the things that really helped us in talking about to green jobs and the green economy was being rooted in the environmental justice framework, which gave us a good way to really analyze what was going on. We never bought into the notion that it’s just about getting a fair share of jobs, or that somehow the economy is going to fix itself in terms of the sustainability issues and that it’s going to create all kinds of new industries. Our critique goes much deeper, which is to say that the environmental injustices that we’ve been fighting and struggling against are caused by the same factors in the economy that have generated these obscene inequalities in wealth. Environmental injustice has always been connected to economic injustice in that respect. But we’re saying that we have a real role to play in defining what a green economy ought to look like. We don’t think that sustainability and justice can be separated; that you can achieve one without the other.

ACE was one of the founding partners in Community Labor United. About three years ago, we started to work with them on building a green justice coalition on a platform with multiple demands: (1) to see measures and policies enacted that would really reduce our greenhouse gas emissions within the state; (2) to make sure that any public investment in resources for greenhouse gas emissions reductions—particularly in the areas of energy efficiency and energy conservation where people can save money—be available and accessible to lower income communities and communities of color; (3) to have all of the investment in policy done in a way that actually creates decent jobs that are accessible to our communities, especially in places where there’s been chronic underemployment and unemployment.

The Green Justice Coalition now includes  more than 35 entities across the state. We had a pretty good impact on our state’s evolving energy efficiency policy over the last year. Massachusetts now has in place a three-year statewide energy efficiency plan that the utilities are responsible for implementing. By some accounts, it’s the most ambitious energy-saving goal set by any state in the nation. We’re going to see a ramping up of the investment in energy efficiency from about $150 million a year to over $600 million a year in the next three years.

Clarke: Any final comments—for the benefit of the younger generations—on the choices you made at the start of your career to leave the military-industrial complex and join the “nonprofit-industrial complex”?


Loh: I think we should be clearheaded about the fact that the nonprofit sector is not sufficiently tooled up to serve as a proxy for a social justice movement or a mass movement. We need to pilot a lot of other structures of organizing and in particular, of building our own models of economic democracy. In the context of creating a green economy we need to think about creating sustainable economic activity that’s also controlled by our communities. The Green Justice Coalition, ACE, and a few other groups are planning to launch our own community-owned weatherization company. We are trying to figure out how we can actively take ownership and have worker-owned wealth and revenue streams for some of our nonprofits. It’s been a really exciting process and I think a lot of us need to start experimenting with it and figuring out how to do it.

B. Jesse Clarke is the editor of Race, Poverty & the Environment.


The 20th Anniversary Issue | Vol. 17, No. 1 | Spring 2010 | Credits

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". . the environmental injustices that we’ve been fighting and struggling against are caused by the same factors in the economy that have generated these obscene inequalities in wealth.

RP&E Reflections 2003: Accountability


 

RP&E Reflections 2003: Accountability

Reprinted from RP&E Vol. 10, No. 1
Where Do We Go From Here? 
“We Must All be Accountable in a Grassroots Movement” 

By Penn Loh

In 1992, I was a twenty-something graduate student at UC Berkeley who had just joined a student of color environmental justice group, Nindakin, which was an affiliate of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice. As a member, I often felt out of place. Not only was I not in my home community (Boston), but I was at an elite university with all its privileges. As a group, we also struggled over our role, par- ticularly one question: Are we fighting our own oppression within the university or are we using our resources to support local community groups? More than a decade later, I work for a community-based EJ group, Alternatives for Community & Environment (ACE), and those questions persist. During my seven years at ACE, the group has grown from an intermediary organization providing legal and technical support to grassroots groups in Boston to a group that is also organizing communities directly, nurturing youth leadership, building coalitions, and planning to establish a grassroots membership. We are neither a grassroots group nor an intermediary; we are both. I realize now that the divide between “grassroots” and “intermediary” is just a reflection of the root injustices—racism, classism, sexism—that we are fighting against. An intermediary is an intermediary because it has some form of power that the grassroots doesn’t and feels some responsibility to share it. For me, the guiding light for resolving these tensions comes from Dana Alston’s words at the First People of Color Environmental Justice Leadership Summit: “We Speak for Ourselves.” In that statement, she challenged us to build a movement led by those most affected—a goal that is easy to say, but hard to do. If we are a movement led by people struggling locally, then how do we build power and use it to achieve broader change regionally, nationally, and internationally? 

At ACE, through an ongoing study group with our youth, staff, board, and community leaders, we’ve started to tackle these questions. We agreed that a “movement” has lots of people, each with a shared analysis of what’s wrong. Like flowing streams of water, we’re headed in the same direction, but not necessarily in a coordinated manner. A movement hits critical mass when people can identify with it and take part, yet without necessarily belonging to a group. We concluded that the EJ Movement is still in its infancy, not yet a mass movement but with the potential to be one. With the help of the Environmental and Economic Justice Project (which is based out of the organizing group AGENDA in South Los Angeles),  ACE determined that we needed to build power of sufficient scope and scale to achieve systemic change. This discussion has helped us draft a five-year strategic plan that defines our role in the movement. ACE sees itself as part of a movement that is building power from the bottom up, with strong grassroots organizations connected through networks and a broad base of leadership that is representative of, and accountable to, our communities.

ACE’S staff has community organizers born and raised in the neighborhood along with lawyers and other professionals from inside and outside the community, white and of color. Yet, none of us has license to speak for the community.  As staff, we are accountable to the youth, residents, and community groups we work with. Our constituents currently make decisions about strategy and overall direction as members of our project and campaign committees and our board of directors. As we move to a membership structure, all decisions will flow from our members, who will also elect a majority of our board. Our job in supporting the grassroots is to continually develop leaders who in turn nurture others to follow them. EJ organizations from across the country have agreed that the EJ agenda must be set by those most directly affected and that our first priority is to strengthen the grassroots base. At Summit 11, we went a step further with the “Principles of Working Together,” which sets a code of conduct to ensure the integrity of grassroots leadership while working with all sectors of the movement. The challenge now is to put our shared principles into practice by strengthening grassroots organizations. Change happens through collective action, not through an individual savior or charismatic leader. We must make ourselves replaceable and restrain personal glorification.

We must actively combat internalized racism and classism and put into practice meaningful democratic participation. As Gandhi said, we must be the change we wish to see in the world.

Bay Area Transit--Separate and Unequal

When the late Rosa Parks protested an apartheid bus system 50 years ago, transit riders in Montgomery, Alabama, whether black or white, poor or well-off, all rode the same bus. Today’s segregation, while less obvious, is in some ways more pernicious. Affluent whites have left urban bus systems the way most left New Orleans on the eve of hurricane Katrina: in their cars. Of those who commute on public transit, most now ride deluxe rail systems, leaving people of color to rely on a second-class and deteriorating bus system.

This is the scenario many low-income communities of color face in the San Francisco Bay Area, where substandard bus service operates as a “separate and unequal” transit system. Darensburg v. Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), filed in April, 2005 by East Bay bus riders and civil rights advocates against the region’s transportation planning agency, challenges today’s pervasive and insidious form of discrimination.

The suit takes its name from Sylvia Darensburg, who lives transit inequity every day. An African American mother of three living in East Oakland, Darensburg fights her way out of poverty by working days and attending college classes at night. Since she cannot afford to own a car, she is entirely dependent on public transit provided by the AC Transit bus system. In the 1970s, Darensburg remembers bus service that was reliable, cheap, and safe. Over the intervening decades, that system has spiraled downward. Inadequate bus service today severely limits Sylvia’s access to many higher-paying jobs that are inaccessible by public transit. Even reaching jobs a few miles away in downtown Oakland is an arduous journey: She rides two buses with long waits for each, a trip that can take an hour each way.

Getting to college classes can take even longer, due to the elimination of bus routes and evening service. And she must walk up to 12 blocks at night to get home from the nearest bus stop in her neighborhood. Even routine errands like grocery shopping are physically draining experiences. “Every day, from the time I get up, I plan to get the bus,” Darensburg says. “This affects your physical health.”

Since most school districts in the East Bay do not provide yellow school bus transportation, thousands of low-income youth also rely on the bus on a daily basis to get to and from school. On top of reliability, affordability is also an issue for many of these youth. In a recent survey of Oakland and Berkeley students, 61 percent said they skip lunch to pay for the bus ride home.
The hardship and frustration that Darensburg and these youth face each day is shared by tens of thousands of low-income African American, Latino, and Asian residents, including seniors and people with disabilities, who rely on bus service provided by AC Transit. As California’s largest bus-only operator, AC Transit provides service to many communities with high poverty rates, running buses from North Richmond through Oakland and into southern Alameda County. Nearly 80 percent of AC Transit’s riders are people of color, and over 70 percent have incomes below $30,000. Nearly 60 percent are, like Darensburg, entirely transit dependent: They have no means of transportation other than public transit to get to essential destinations, such as jobs, school, grocery stores, and social services. Many of those who do have cars own older vehicles that they cannot afford to operate and maintain on a regular basis.
Public Subsidies and Race of Riders. Data from the National Transit Database, 1989-2003.
Despite the urgent needs of AC Transit’s overwhelmingly minority ridership, the region’s transportation planning agency, MTC, has continuously under-funded AC Transit over a period of decades, causing a precipitous decline in bus service and repeated fare hikes. MTC controls nearly $1 billion annually in federal and state transit dollars, and in turn controls the quantity and quality of public transit services available to communities throughout the region. Rather than prioritize the needs of its most vulnerable transit users, or even operate in accordance with basic principles of cost-effectiveness, MTC has favored costly rail expansions for Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and Caltrain. These deluxe commuter rail systems, linking suburbs to major downtown business districts, serve riderships that are disproportionately white and affluent.

Discriminatory Funding

People of color make up two-thirds, and whites, a third of all transit users in the Bay Area. But whites make up a disproportionate share of BART and Caltrain passengers: 43 percent and 60 percent, respectively. White rail riders also have significantly higher incomes than AC Transit bus riders: 75 percent of BART riders have incomes over $30,000, and 53 percent of Caltrain riders have incomes over $75,000. In addition, 80 percent of BART riders and 83 percent of Caltrain riders own private automobiles.
Fully aware of these racial and income disparities, MTC gives rail riders a significantly greater public subsidy for each trip they take than it gives to AC Transit bus riders. AC Transit passengers receive a subsidy of public funds of $2.78 per trip. By contrast, BART riders receive more than double that—$6.14—and Caltrain passengers receive $13.79, nearly five times more than a passenger of AC Transit. As a direct result, service levels on these commuter rail systems have reached an all-time high, while services continually decline and fares rise for AC Transit bus riders.

1998

East Bay communities and activists have repeatedly asked MTC to change its inequitable funding practices. In April 1998, Carl Anthony, co-founder of Urban Habitat, along with 26 other organizational co-signers, wrote MTC to oppose the agency’s proposed 1998 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP). Questioning the mobility benefits that new highway projects would bring people of color, Anthony’s letter urged MTC to conduct a comparative analysis to see how much of its $88 billion in funding would benefit high-income versus low-income communities, or white communities versus communities of color. MTC rebuffed the community’s criticism and refused to perform the equity analysis requested by Anthony.

2001

In early 2001, a large group of African American ministers in North Richmond wrote to MTC seeking equity in the funding between AC Transit and commuter rail services. The ministers pointed out that MTC itself had ranked an AC Transit bus project in the Richmond area of western Contra Costa County, with a population that is 69 percent minority, as the most cost-effective project considered in MTC’s 2001 RTP. This bus initiative would have cost a mere $0.75 per new rider, and served an overwhelmingly low-income community of color. MTC refused to fund this project despite its small price tag. Instead, MTC devoted $2.3 billion to the least cost-effective projects: two commuter rail projects—one for BART and the other for Caltrain—both designed to serve disproportionately white, suburban populations, at a much higher cost per new rider.
In adopting its 2001 Regional Transportation Plan, MTC again refused to conduct a comparative analysis of the disparity between the benefits its funding conferred on high-income, white transit riders, and those it conferred on low-income riders of color. Indeed, up to the present day, MTC has yet to conduct such an analysis.

2004
In November 2004, MTC was asked to perform just that kind of analysis by its Minority Citizens’ Advisory Committee (MCAC), which adopted a set of simple environmental justice principles. These principles asked MTC to “[c]ollect accurate and current data essential to understanding the presence and extent of inequities in transportation funding based on race and income,” and to “change its investment decisions as necessary to mitigate identified inequities.” MTC has so far failed to adopt, much less implement, these guiding principles. To the contrary, it repeatedly attempted to stonewall MCAC’s efforts by contending that the principles wrongly presumed that inequities existed, and that further study was required “to define ‘inequity.’”  At the same time, it aggressively lobbied the MCAC to water down its recommendations.

2005

In April 2005, AC Transit bus riders of color, in coalition with civil rights and labor groups, filed the Darensburg action in federal court. The suit, brought as a class action on behalf of all current and future AC Transit riders of color, seeks to end MTC’s racially discriminatory funding practices. The suit alleges that MTC violates federal and state civil rights laws by channeling funds to benefit predominantly white rail riders at the expense of AC Transit bus riders of color. In addition to plaintiff Sylvia Darensburg, Vivian Hain from East Oakland, and Virginia Martinez from Richmond are individually named plaintiffs. Two organizational plaintiffs have also joined the suit: Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) and the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 192. The Darensburg lawsuit is an important tool in the long struggle for equity in Bay Area transportation funding. But that long community struggle demonstrates the essential role that a sustainable grassroots constituency must play in any long-term solution.

The Bay Area must draw lessons from the Los Angeles Bus Riders’ Union’s (LA BRU) involvement in winning and implementing their lawsuit against the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). After a two-year legal fight, the LA BRU obtained a consent decree in 1996 obligating the MTA to reduce overcrowding on buses, maintain equitable fares between bus and rail, and create a multiyear and county-wide New Service plan to eliminate transit segregation in Los Angeles. But this historic legal victory did not stop MTA from aggressively resisting change. The agency fought the consent decree up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and stubbornly pursued its costly rail projects while simultaneously implementing new rounds of service cuts for bus routes.

MTA’s aggressive tactics have been thwarted thus far by a highly-organized and committed constituency of low-income and minority bus riders who have engaged in massive protests, direct action, and civil disobedience, as well as careful research, analysis and monitoring, to vindicate their legal rights. Their determined effort has ensured that this legal victory bore concrete results: Since 1994, LA BRU, a force of 3,000 dues-paying bus riders, has secured over 2,000 compressed natural gas (CNG) replacement buses, more than 300 new CNG expansion buses, restored Night Owl service from midnight to 5 a.m., and reduced the price for bus passes and fares.

The victorious Bus Riders’ Union campaign illustrates that bus riders know better than anyone else what inadequacies they are facing, and are best suited to monitor conditions, set priorities, and apply political pressure to hold public agencies accountable. Like the MTA lawsuit, the ultimate success of the Darensburg case will largely depend on the existence and participation of a sustainable grassroots constituency of bus riders.
Bay Area transit advocates must also draw on the lessons from Montgomery, Alabama. When NAACP lawyers challenging Jim Crow laws brought suit, they acted in a context created by the mobilization of large numbers of people in boycotts, demonstrations, and acts of civil disobedience. In these earlier struggles, legal strategies were tied to a broad range of other strategies that were primarily spearheaded not by lawyers, but by organized communities. The success of litigation strategies, both in the immediate sense of prevailing in court and in the broader sense of achieving progressive structural change, has always depended on a close link between legal tactics and community mobilization. In instances where inequity is so deeply ingrained and insulated from democratic participation, litigation is often an essential tool to initiate change. But it is organized constituencies that both create the possibility of change and ensure that legal victories are implemented effectively. That is the case today in the East Bay, no less than it was 50 years ago in Montgomery, Alabama. To achieve transportation justice in the Bay Area, we will need the same sort of grassroots coalitions and coordination that were created in 1955.

Guillermo Mayer is an attorney fellow, and Richard Marcantonio is a managing attorney, with the public interest law firm of Public Advocates, Inc., in San Francisco. They serve as co-counsel on the Darensburg case, together with Lieff Cabraser Heiman & Bernstein, Communities for a Better Environment, and Altshuler Berzon Nussbaum & Demain.


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Civil Rights Coaliton Challenges Unfair Transit Project

Now 2010

Five years ago—while the Bush administration was in power—Sylvia Darensburg of Oakland filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). On behalf of the class of minority bus riders she represented, Darensburg hoped the federal courts would force MTC to change its funding priorities, which favored affluent rail commuters over transit-dependent people who rely on local bus service for access to employment, education, health care, and other essential services. (See ”Bay Area Transit—Separate and Unequal” on page 30.)

Back then, civil rights and Environmental Justice (EJ) advocates could not have foreseen that it would be a federal regulatory agency and not the federal courts that would step up for equity in the allocation of transportation funding. But that is what happened on February 12 this year when the head of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), citing civil rights violations, withdrew $70 million from a $500 million rail project on MTC’s priority transit expansion list.

The story of how bus riders—with the help of civil rights, EJ, and labor organizations—pulled off this unprecedented victory holds out hope for a much desired fundamental shift in how the Bay Area allocates some ten billion dollars in public funds for transportation each year. It also offers important lessons for regional equity advocates across the country.


Courtroom Drama
Our story begins in a crowded San Francisco courtroom, just a month before the election of President Obama. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte of the Northern District of California had already heard several days of testimony about MTC, the transit agencies under its jurisdictions, and the riders those agencies serve. The testimony showed that the ridership of AC Transit, the largest bus-only transit provider in California, is nearly 80 percent people of color, many of whom cannot afford to own a car. By contrast, BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) provides deluxe rail service to a ridership that is much more affluent and approximately 50 percent white.

The court had also heard testimony about MTC’s $17 billion “strategic master plan for transit expansion” known as Resolution 3434. The inclusion of a project in the plan implied a commitment of considerable funds and advocacy muscle for that project. Then on the fourth day of trial, plaintiffs’ transit finance expert, Thomas A. Rubin took the stand to explain how minority bus riders figured into MTC’s “master plan”: 94 percent of the funding was allocated for rail projects and only 4.7 percent for bus projects.

On March 27, 2009 the court issued a decision with a mixed outcome. On the one hand, Judge Laporte acknowledged that MTC’s funding decisions caused AC Transit to raise fares and cut service.[1] She also found that “Plaintiffs have shown that MTC’s practice with respect to Resolution 3434 caused disparate impact... MTC allocates more funding to rail projects than to bus projects, resulting in bus projects proposed by AC Transit being excluded from projects listed in Resolution 3434.” At the same time, the court applied an unusally lax standard in finding that MTC’s discrimination was justified:

“The Court sympathizes with the predicament of the members of the Plaintiff Class, who have experienced declines in bus services on which they depend to meet their basic needs, such as getting to school and work safely and on time. Nonetheless, MTC has met its burden of showing a substantial legitimate justification for the challenged funding practices.”Ultimately, the court did not grant bus riders any relief against the discriminatory impacts it had found. The ruling is now on appeal before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.


De' AnthonyAn “Immoral” Use of Transit Stimulus Funds
Meanwhile, Congress passed its historic stimulus legislation. In anticipation of receiving $340 million in federal “formula” funds, in February 2009, MTC announced its plan to divert $70 million of those stimulus funds into closing a shortfall for BART’s Oakland Airport Connector (OAC) project—a 3.2 mile elevated rail “people mover” linking an existing East Oakland BART station to Oakland International Airport. The project would replace an existing bus shuttle service at an estimated cost of nearly $500 million.

MTC’s decision came at a time when Bay Area transit systems, like their counterparts across the country, were imposing draconian service cuts and fare hikes. Community advocates, led by Urban Habitat and Genesis, a regional faith-and-values organizing group, turned out more than a hundred vocal opponents to an MTC hearing that month. Rev. Scott Denman, president of Genesis, asserted that it was “immoral” for MTC to prioritize the needs of people who could afford an airline ticket over those who could barely afford a bus pass. In a lighter vein, he added that the Connector project was “shovel ready, and we should bury it today; I myself will perform the last rites.”

The protesters won over only one Commissioner but in a nod to the urgency of their appeal against bus service cuts, MTC adopted a contingency plan: It would re-allocate the $70 million to the region’s transit systems for existing service in the event that the BART project could not obligate the funds to the OAC project in time to meet federal deadlines.

But questions were already being raised about whether the MTC had met its duty to ensure that BART, one of it its subrecipients, had properly conducted an equity analysis of the OAC project as required by the FTA under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The purpose of such analysis is to ensure that low-income and minority populations receive a fair share of the benefits of the project, without being unduly burdened by its adverse impacts. A request from Public Advocates   for the equity analysis under the California Public Records Act determined that BART had not conducted any equity analysis.

In July 2009, Public Advocates, Urban Habitat, and TransForm, a Bay Area transit advocacy organization, brought the Title VI issue to the attention of the BART and MTC boards of directors. Despite that, in August, MTC certified to the federal government that the BART OAC project “has received the full review and vetting required by law.” On September 3, 2009 Public Advocates filed an administrative civil rights complaint under Title VI with the FTA’s Office of Civil Rights.[2]

Advocates Speak Truth to the FTA
The complaint, brought on behalf of Genesis, Urban Habitat, and TransForm, charged BART with failing to comply with its civil rights and environmental justice duties in connection with the OAC project. It noted that two neighborhoods within a half mile of the project area have 95 percent minority and 25 to 33 percent low-income populations, and spelled out clearly why the project would deprive these populations of a fair share of the benefits from this investment:

“The OAC... would charge a one-way fare of up to $6. The rail project would replace an existing bus link with a fare of $3... Situated in an East Oakland community with a very high minority and low-income population, the OAC will traverse a corridor with many low-wage jobs that employ local residents, yet it will apparently be built without any intermediate stops. Even if such stops were added in the future, [the] extremely high fare will exclude low-income riders from the delayed benefits of the new service.”

More than just a procedural shortcoming, BART’s failure to evaluate the equity impacts of the OAC project and weigh appropriate alternatives to find a less discriminatory one, is likely to have disparate impacts on Environmental Justice populations in East Oakland, low-income and minority BART riders, and the many low-wage workers with jobs at the airport and along the Hegenberger corridor in which the OAC project would operate. Those populations either rely on the existing bus connection or would benefit from a low-fare transit option with stops at the airport and along the way.

 

Voices for Transportation Justice 2010

Transportation is an essential and vital service for cities and its residents. Recently, I’ve seen the inequalities within the San Francisco transit system, and with my position of power within the Youth Commission, I have the opportunity to fight for justice and equality within this system. This youth commission term, I am the chair of the Planning, Land Use, and City Services Committee and this has led me to become involved with the city service of transportation. We have been asking the MTA to not increase the discount fast pass to $30 per month [increase scheduled for May 2010], to create a Life Line fast pass for youth who qualify for free and reduced lunch, and to keep the fast passes the same [$20 per month], for this coming fiscal year 2010-11.

One of the biggest challenges young people face today is that during the budget crisis, many human and health services are being cut. Within these services are programs that directly affect youth. Without services, our youth are left in the most vulnerable position because there is no place to turn to. These services allow youth access to some of the basic human needs for living in the city. Yes, I take the bus everywhere I go because my family doesn’t have a car. Public transportation is one of the only ways my family can get around the city
.

Leah LaCroix is on the San Francisco Youth Commission and a Psychology student at San Francisco State University.


The complaint urged the FTA to investigate these Title VI violations and require BART to conduct the  equity analysis. It also asked the FTA to “place a hold on the provision of federal funds to BART for the OAC project, including the $70 million in ARRA [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] funds programmed for the OAC project by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission... pending the satisfactory completion of the required evaluation, mitigation and review of alternatives.” Among the alternatives that BART had refused to analyze was a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system proposed by TransForm that would have provided fast service to intermediate stops for a very low fare at about a tenth of the cost of the OAC.


Civil Rights Action Wins $$ for Community

In December, two FTA civil rights investigators met with BART staff and representatives of the groups that had filed the complaint. In the course of this on-site compliance investigation, BART acknowledged that “it failed to integrate Title VI into [its] service planning and monitoring activities for the Project,” according to a January 15, 2010 letter from FTA chief Peter Rogoff, which also informed BART that it had to submit a “corrective action plan” for the preparation of the equity analysis for FTA’s pre-approval and that the $70 million in stimulus funds were being placed on hold.


After several weeks of failed efforts by BART to negotiate the terms of an acceptable corrective action plan, Rogoff wrote again on February 12: “I am required to reject your plan... Given the fact that the initial Title VI complaint against BART was well founded, I am not in a position to award the [stimulus] funds to BART while the agency remains out of compliance.” Furthermore, he stated, “it is imperative that BART, as a recipient of FTA funds, come fully into compliance with Title VI as soon as possible” and added that MTC must work “to ensure that [stimulus] funds can create and preserve jobs in the Bay Area” through reallocation according to MTC’s contingency plan.

Suddenly, MTC was all but forced to distribute the $70 million among all Bay Area transit systems, including BART. These funds could now be used to help fill the large operating deficits and mitigate, if not entirely avoid service cuts and fare hikes. At last, regional equity and transit advocates had the very outcome they had sought a year ago. Coming as it did at a time of great hardship for minority and low-income bus riders who are the first victims of growing operating deficits, the FTA’s landmark decision has had a profound effect across the country.

Bay Area advocates, however, are not resting on their laurels but working to keep the pressure on BART (which has yet to conduct a proper equity analysis for the OAC) and the MTC (which is facing further FTA scrutiny to determine if its failure to impose Title VI guidelines is part of a larger pattern). Ultimately, advocates hope to ensure that both agencies meet their civil rights obligations and provide low-income communities of color a fair share of the benefits from public funds.

The Obama Administration’s demonstrated commitment to revive civil rights enforcement so that the economic recovery lifts everyone, not just the few, has buoyed advocates into action across the nation. And as Congress moves ahead with its deliberations over the next major reauthorization of the surface transportation bill, the message that increased funding must be accompanied by Title VI protections is gaining traction.

Endnotes
1.    The court’s decision after trial is available at www.publicadvocates.org
2.    The Title VI complaint is available at www.publicadvocates.org

Richard Marcantonio is a managing attorney and Guillermo Mayer is a senior staff attorney with the public interest law firm
Public Advocates, Inc., in San Francisco


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De'Anthony Jones--Sidebar

Now 2010De'Anthony JonesVoices for Transportation Justice 2010

Public transportation is actually helping the environment and the price effectiveness of public transportation literally dictates how the environment will end up. Let’s face it, if public transportation costs too much, folks wont take it, they’ll buy cars.

We have a lot of youth who live in public housing, who’ve grown up in public housing, and who have used the transportation system. They utilize these services. It’s all about public transportation while you’re in high school and even in college, commuting. You’re not rich at 21 or 20 or 19, so you’re going to need housing and transit.

With the Muni fare increase proposal, we organized youth to go to City Hall in preparation to protest the board meeting for the MTA. After that, we found out that the proposed fare increases got shut down, six to one. So, it’s important that we organize youth around these issues because our voice does matter. Many people don’t see how environmental justice relates to housing and transportation. Many low-income individuals don’t even know about the green jobs industries. That’s why I’ve built up a passion for it.

My mom didn’t have a car for a couple of years. When she didn’t have a car we’d catch buses. It was tough—seeing her take me places on the bus and getting home late, not having the luxury of a car. The cars she got were  old. We didn’t have a lot of money. So, I grew up most of my life on MUNI. My mom just recently got a new car. I’ve lived through those fare increases, where it was 34¢, then it went up to 50¢, and then 75¢. Now, I’m just thankful to have had the experience of driving and taking public transportation. If I would have grown up driving a car, I would have looked down at the public transportation system, like, “That’s for poor people.” I can actually appreciate the public transportation system. I think San Francisco and the Bay Area are blessed to have these systems.

De’Anthony Jones is on the Youth Commission representing the Fillmore Western Addition neighborhood.

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Leah LaCroix--Sidebar


 

Voices for Transportation Justice 2010

Transportation is an essential and vital service for cities and its residents. Recently, I’ve seen the inequalities within the San Francisco transit system, and with my position of power within the Youth Commission, I have the opportunity to fight for justice and equality within this system. This youth commission term, I am the chair of the Planning, Land Use, and City Services Committee and this has led me to become involved with the city service of transportation. We have been asking the MTA to not increase the discount fast pass to $30 per month [increase scheduled for May 2010], to create a Life Line fast pass for youth who qualify for free and reduced lunch, and to keep the fast passes the same [$20 per month], for this coming fiscal year 2010-11.

One of the biggest challenges young people face today is that during the budget crisis, many human and health services are being cut. Within these services are programs that directly affect youth. Without services, our youth are left in the most vulnerable position because there is no place to turn to. These services allow youth access to some of the basic human needs for living in the city. Yes, I take the bus everywhere I go because my family doesn’t have a car. Public transportation is one of the only ways my family can get around the city
.

Leah LaCroix is on the San Francisco Youth Commission and a Psychology student at San Francisco State University.

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Transit Breakthrough in Restoring Civil Rights

Title VI Complaint by San Francisco Bay Area Coalition Has National Implications

In the first successful action of its kind in the nation Urban Habitat, helped organize a coalition that filed a civil rights complaint to stop $70 million in stimulus funds from being allocated to a $500-billion boondoggle elevated “people-mover” known as the Oakland Airport Connector (OAC). The funds will be shifted to Bay Area transit agencies to help avert service cuts, fare hikes and layoffs that will affect hundreds of thousands of people, as the coalition recommended.

The complaint, filed by the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates on behalf of Urban Habitat, TransForm and Genesis, charged the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency (BART) with failing to take the needs of communities of color and low-income communities into account when planning the OAC project.

BART has historically ignored the transit needs of thousands of low-income Black, Latino, Asian and white residents of the Bay Area and the federal government has given them a free pass. The OAC was no exception. [1]

Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations set up to enforce it, require an “equity analysis” of new projects to be sure that service and fare changes will not have discriminatory impacts.

A key break in the community’s battle to re-allocate the funds came in June 2009 when Urban Habitat Transportation Director Bob Allen discovered the BART had never actually submitted a required equity analysis to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. (See FTA letter to MTC dated Feb 3, 2010.)[2] He informed the MTC of this fact in public testimony and in follow-up letters to both BART and MTC lawyers but BART denied it—and refused to conduct an actual equity analysis. As a result Urban Habitat and allies filed an official complaint in September 2009.
BART (apparently accustomed to operating under the supervision of the Bush era FTA) confidently assumed a few pages of hastily collated information would be sufficient to rectify their failure to address the civil rights impacts.  But once the FTA investigation of the complaint was complete, FTA Chief Peter Rogoff sent a letter to BART and MTC rejecting BART’s so-called action plan to address Title VI violations.
He advised Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) to reallocate the funds before a March 5 deadline. “I am required to reject your plan…Given the fact that the initial Title VI complaint against BART was well founded, I am not in a position to award the ARRA funds to BART while the agency remains out of compliance,” Rogoff wrote. “It is imperative that BART, as a recipient of FTA funds, come fully into compliance with Title VI as soon as possible.” [3]

The key reason that BART didn’t want to do the study—it would have showed that the project was unjust.[4]
In addition to a direct investigation of BART the FTA has also initiated a review of the Metropolitan Transportation Commissions handling of all its federal grants Title VI compliance reviews.[5]

In a separate letter to MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger on February 3, the FTA stated that “the fact that BART has not conducted the necessary service equity analysis for the OAC project or fare equity analysis raises concerns that your agency does not have procedures in place to monitor its subrecipients.” FTA ordered MTC to provide information within 30 days.
This is a positive sign that might indicate the Executive Branch is ready to start enforcing civil rights law when it comes to transportation infrastructure funding and perhaps other federal spending as well. It also makes a clear case for restoring the ability of community organizations and individuals to file suit to enforce civil rights law.

The power to enforce civil rights law?

For over 35 years the 1964 Civil Rights Act gave advocates the ability to use Title VI regulations to dismantle segregation and uproot discriminatory practices.  The LA Bus Riders Union’s 10-year Consent Decree has been a landmark Title VI case.[6] However, in Alexander v. Sandoval (2001), the U.S. Supreme Court took away the ability for individuals and organizations to bring private lawsuits to enforce disparate impact regulations, reasoning that Congress had never expressly created such a “private right of action.” As a result, federally-funded activities that have harmful and disproportionate effect on people of color can only be challenged in court if one can demonstrate intentional discrimination, which is rarely possible.

The Sandoval decision has had a chilling effect on civil rights enforcement, leaving communities of color with limited recourses to challenge policy decisions that have racially inequitable outcomes. This is particularly true in the area of transportation, where billions of dollars in investments are stake, and where communities of color already suffer from a disproportionate share of transportation-related burdens while lacking access to safe, affordable and reliable transit.

Though people of color no longer literally sit at the back of the bus, they still get shoved to the back of the line when transit funding is handed out. For example, the MTC consistently favors funding for rail while shortchanging bus systems. Its $13 billion transit expansion program dedicates 94 percent of the project costs to rail, while buses receive only 4 percent.

This adverse treatment falls mostly on transit-dependent riders. Nearly 60% of AC Transit riders depend exclusively on the bus, while 80% of BART riders and 83% of CalTrain riders own cars. [7] Being dependent on buses with long waits, long walks and long trips hampers people’s access to jobs, services, childcare and recreation, marring the quality of life on every front.

Urban Habitat has joined a national coalition, Transit Riders for Public Transit (TRPT), coordinated by the Labor/Community Strategy Center to restore the private right of action under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Congress should expressly establish a private right of action in the Federal Surface Transportation Authorization Act (FSTAA) to enforce the disparate impact regulations adopted by the DOT.
By restoring private enforcement of the DOT’s antidiscrimination regulations, the FSTAA will give local communities a well-proven tool to redress existing transportation disparities while ensuring inclusive treatment and equitable outcomes in future transportation investments.
To find out more about the ongoing OAC campaign.
For more information on the TRPT national campaign.

Footnotes
[1] In its defense, BART claimed that since current ridership of the bus shuttle service to the airport were affluent (39% of passengers making over $100,000 per year, 66% making over $50,000) the proposed 100% fare increase  ($3 to $6) would be no problem for the new tram service riders.
[2] “The complaint alleges that BART did not conduct a service equity analysis of its Oakland Airport Connector project. Also, noted in the complaint sent to FTA, on July 8, 2009, Mr. Bob Allen of Urban Habitat spoke during a public meeting before Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) staff advising of BART’s “failure to produce the required equity analysis for this project.” As a follow up to this public meeting a letter was sent to the Programming and Allocation Committee of MTC, dated July 8, 2009, by Mr. Allen outlining the service equity requirements.” http://urbanhabitat.org/files/FTA OCR compliance letter to MTC 2-3-10-1.pdf
[3] http://urbanhabitat.org/files/Feb 12 BART MTC Letter_0.pdf or html: http://urbanhabitat.org/tj/oac/pr/2-12-10
[4] The OAC proposal would have erected an elevated “people-mover” that would whisk travelers over the black and Latino East Oakland neighborhoods between the station and the airport. The 3.2-mile tram would cost an estimated half-billion dollars to build–and $6 to ride one way, putting it well out of reach of area residents and the thousands of low-wage workers at and near the airport. The project would have not only diverted stimulus funds from basic transit needs, but would have continue sucking scarce dollars out of the system going forward. Project supporters made much of the potential construction jobs that would have been created in building the rail connector but ignored the employment and transit access needs of the actual communities surrounding the project and gave short shrift to the many long-term jobs that will be created by spending the money in a more equitable manner.
[5] http://urbanhabitat.org/files/FTA OCR compliance letter to MTC 2-3-10-1.pdf
[6] http://www.thestrategycenter.org/campaign/consent-decree-compliance
[7] (“Bay Area Transit–Separate and Unequal” Race, Poverty & the Environment, http://urbanhabitat.org/node/313.)


The 20th Anniversary Issue | Vol. 17, No. 1 | Spring 2010 | Credits

Oakland Airport Connector Ignored Civil Rights Laws

Now 2010

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.


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End Funding by Discrimination in Public Transit

Fifty years ago, Rosa Parks did not give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. Public transportation, and more specifically buses, became the stage from which the civil rights movement was launched. This act of courage is fresh in our minds due to the recent passing of Mrs. Parks. Viewed as a national hero, her body was placed in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol—the first woman ever accorded such a tribute.

The irony is that today, discrimination is alive and well in mass-transit bus service. In the Bay area, for instance, a federal civil rights lawsuit is pending in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, charging that the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC)—which plans and allocates funding for the area's transit needs—supports a “separate and unequal transit system” that discriminates against poor transit riders of color.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of African-American and Latino AC Transit riders, states that public monies are spent to expand a “state-of-the-art rail system”—BART and Caltrain—into relatively affluent suburban communities, at the expense of a shrinking bus system, AC Transit, for low-income people of color. According to AC Transit's ridership survey, nearly 80 percent of its bus riders are people of color, and more than 60 percent of them have no other means of transportation. In cities across the nation, African Americans and Latinos comprise over 54 percent of transit users, according to the Harvard Civil Rights Project. Richard Marcantonio, an attorney with Public Advocates, citing data from the federal National Transit Database, noted: “As a result of MTC's knowingly discriminatory funding practices, AC Transit riders receive a public subsidy of $2.78 per trip, BART passengers receive more than double that—$6.14—and Caltrain passengers receive $13.79, nearly five times more than AC Transit riders.” 

And it's not just AC Transit. Just last week, The San Francisco Chronicle published an article detailing the high cost of a commuter train in Marin and Sonoma counties (“New debate over light rail for North Bay,” Nov. 22, 2005). A report prepared by an engineering firm and requested by the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District not surprisingly concluded that the North Bay “is better off environmentally with a light-rail system.”
In 1999 in the South Bay, three weeks after SamTrans agreed to give a $72 million interest-free loan to BART for the construction of the SFO extension, SamTrans cut 15 percent of its bus service. SamTrans has repeatedly cut bus service in the last several years, according to Bay Rail Alliance, as well as increased fares in order to balance its budget.

The issue is not solely buses versus rail. Public transportation receives a fraction of the government funding spent on highways and roads.
Buses are the backbone of our transportation system. The majority of bus riders are transit dependent; that is, they rely on public transit for all of their essential trips—unlike rail commuters, who rely on BART (according to its rider survey) for 25 percent of their essential household trips. BART, light rail, and commuter rail systems depend on buses to get people to and from stations. Without an effective bus system, the rail system will not work. Buses also mean less congestion and less pollution on our roads. 

Why buses over rail? If funded properly, technology exists to make buses fast, clean and quiet. Buses are cheaper to run and can be more flexible in terms of routes. Buses are like gigantic car pools. They do the best job of getting people to their destinations. Buses work within existing road structures, and local and express routes create time efficiencies MTC's own analysis in 2001 indicates that a minimum of $109 million per year is needed to fund the transit needs of low-income riders. It also found that 80 percent of AC Transit's safety-net or “Lifeline” routes were served too infrequently and/or were not served from midnight to 6 a.m. Since then, it has gotten worse. For instance, AC Transit cut 14 percent of its service in 2003. (MTC said it was important to update the Lifeline gap study, but has not done so.)

Transportation justice advocates do not oppose BART or rail; however, we do support equal access and mobility for all. Funding and service cuts in bus service disproportionately affect youth, the elderly, people with disabilities, and low-income communities. The MTC must change its discriminatory practices by treating all transit riders equally and subsidizing bus transit at the same level as rail. Everyone in the Bay Area deserves equal access to a first class, safe, dependable public transit system.

Juliet Ellis is the executive director of Urban Habitat, an environmental justice organization in Oakland. Reprinted from the San?Francisco Chronicle of December 1, 2005. Photo: Rosa Parks 1956. ©1956 Topham / Image Works


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Transit Workers and Environmentalists

Then 1995Reprinted from RP&E Vol. 6, No. 1: Transportation and Social Justice

Traditionally, labor unions and environmentalists have fought over issues such as urban development vs. growth management, or natural resource extraction vs. preservation. But the lean and mean ‘90s, which are becoming characterized by a growing tendency to privatize public services and roll back environmental protections, makes this a decade to recast our alliances.

For the past two years, I have been participating in exploratory meetings between the Coordinating Council of Bay Area Transit Workers Unions (Coordinating Council) and some of the Bay Area's environmental organizations.* Overall, the group found that there were many opportunities to work together and good reason to move forward. One of the first projects for the group was a jointly crafted vision statement on public transportation. Based on the vision statement the group has begun to identify strategic areas of reform and some general objectives for addressing those targets. (For additional details and the complete article, see RP&E, Fall 1995 at www.urbanhabitat.org/20years/95.)

The Vision Statement

Transportation in the San Francisco Bay Area is a significant element in the formation of regional vitality and solidarity. One important aspect of transportation, regardless of its mode, is its capacity to unify or fragmentize communities through accessibility. The existing and future public transportation system must provide that access, and by its nature it must play an integral part in the building of sustainable communities in the Bay Area. Public mass transit is a critical link to reducing wasteful suburban sprawl, increasing socially just urban infill development, reducing reliance on automobiles, improving energy efficiency in transportation, and otherwise improving the social, economic and environmental quality of life of Bay Area communities.

Public transportation is the system that provides mobility to travellers for whom distance proves a hardship and who have no other transportation options. Public transportation is not an isolated system; in fact, its primary function depends on people, on riders. The public transportation “system’’ begins with people and affects local community and regional economic opportunities, affordable housing, land-use development patterns, and environmental quality. The importance of the public transportation system requires that a broad-based coalition be involved in the design of a “public transportation vision.”

Transit workers are the frontline of the public transportation system and work within it on a daily basis. They must be principal partners in creating a regional transportation vision and in implementing steps to improve or otherwise change the public transportation system. This preliminary “vision” of a public transportation system reflects a significant step towards realizing a San Francisco Bay Area region that is socially just and ecologically sustainable. We believe all regional or local public transportation “visions” should include and address the following elements and considerations:

Labor
The transit operators are the frontline of the public transportation system. The operation and maintenance of a public mass transportation system requires the involvement of skilled labor; public transportation should be operated and maintained by union transit workers. More emphasis on mass transit and transportation alternatives can promote job creation, economic opportunity, and environmental protection. The public needs to understand the health, safety, and security issues of transit workers. Public and local government support is needed to operate and maintain the highest quality public mass transportation systems. Public transit workers must be participants in decisions that affect their work; and the public transit workers must have a central role in shaping decisions that affect the public transportation systems. Public transit workers must be informed about financial public transportation support mechanisms created by federal, state, regional, and local government. Public mass transit is an essential public service (like fire and police) and should not be “contracted out” or privatized.

Economic Opportunities

Public transportation invites economic activity to a community. Public transportation can improve the diversity of employment and economic opportunity by increasing accessibility and encouraging multipurpose land uses that meet larger community needs. Some of the mechanisms that achieve these elements are:

1.    Commercial/residential/office/recreation/open space mixed-use and land-use development patterns.
2.    Locating needed services and housing near worksites.
3.    Orienting neighborhoods around distances that one can walk or bike.
4.    Coordinated broad-based community involvement in transportation, land-use, and economic development planning.

Access
Equitable access to efficient and affordable public mass transit systems that serve all regional communities is essential. Transportation access has a particular obligation to first serve those communities least likely to have access to motor vehicles, including the socially and economically disadvantaged, communities of color, low-income and working communities, youth and seniors, and the physically disabled. Transportation systems need to be designed so that jobs, child care services, health services, shopping, and recreation, are easily accessible and in close proximity to one another. Public transportation systems must be “user-friendly” to non-English speaking people and serve the multicultural communities that make up the Bay Area.
 
Environmental Quality

Public transportation is related to environmental quality and as an alternative to motor vehicle use it does the following:

1.    Reduces traffic congestion.
2.    Improves air quality by reducing air toxins produced by auto exhaust and smog.
3.     Improves water quality by reducing urban runoff (water from city streets and sewers carrying oil and soot from motor vehicle   emissions, leaking fluids, battery acids, tires, and other motor vehicle parts containing poisonous substances).
4.    Provides for variety in land-use decisions, including open space, urban core development, and reduction in suburban sprawl.
5.    Reduces the area of land being designated for vehicle use, such as road expansions, additions, and parking lots.
6.    Utilizes energy resources more efficiently and cost-effectively.

Within new and existing communities we need to affirm pedestrian access and mobility and reduce reliance on personal automobile use by promoting and creating safe, fun, and ecologically sustainable pedestrian walkways and bikeways. Transportation and land-use planning must be integrated.

Safety

The public transportation system has an obligation to be safe, secure, and healthy for all—transit workers and the public alike. Additional security needs to be implemented where necessary in order to prevent crimes directed toward transit workers and riders. This security needs to be accountable to transit workers and the public. Environmental health risks associated with transit operation (e.g. exposure to airborne lead, carbon monoxide, etc.) must be reduced. Ways must be found to reduce hypertension and stress among transit operators.

*   The Coordinating Council represents San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni, TWU-250A), Santa Clara Transit (ATU-265), Greyhound (ATU-1225), AC Transit-Alameda County (ATU-192), Golden Gate Transit-Marin County (ATU-1575) Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART, ATU-1555), San Mateo Transit (Samtrans, ATU-1574), UPE-790, UTU-23, UTU-1741, SEIU-707 (Scope), and ATU-1605. Besides the Urban Habitat Program (with whom I work), other participants in these meetings have included Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Greenbelt Alliance, and Urban Ecology.

In 1995, Luz DeVerano Cervantes was a transportation project associate with the Urban Habitat Program.


The 20th Anniversary Issue | Vol. 17, No. 1 | Spring 2010 | Credits

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BART, GM and Bechtel

The Bay Area Rapid Transit system, or BART, has always lived a double life, split between its sleek public presentation and its unadvertised purpose. The ad campaigns and lobby efforts supporting the $792 million bond measure of 1962 to finance the system presented BART as a cure for traffic congestion and air pollution. The engineering reports at the time, however, plainly discussed the need for a rapid transit system not to ease traffic jams, but to protect and enhance downtown San Francisco property values and direct urban development.

BART’s schizophrenia is no accident. The system was created by and for the San Francisco Bay Area’s urban elite class—engineering firms, oil companies, and banks that all profited enormously from BART’s unusual design. And neither the schizophrenia nor the profiteering are matters of history: BART continues to absorb about 80 percent of the Bay Area’s mass transit budget, and its recent San Francisco Airport extension and the proposed San Jose extension follow upon the same split between public perception and private intent. To this day, BART remains a transit system that subsidizes land speculators and the mishaps of engineering firms, reinforces the regional dominance of the automobile, and displaces most of the economic and environmental burdens onto low-income communities of color.

BART was the product of the Bay Area Council (BAC), initially a state-funded program to guide post-war development in the area. BAC formed a private, nonprofit organization in 1945, after its first year, and secured annual $10,000 donations from members, such as Bechtel Corporation, Bank of America, Standard Oil of California, Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern Pacific, U.S. Steel, and American Trust Company.

Origins
In 1951, seven years before light rail lines would be removed from the Bay Bridge, BAC formed a committee to study the creation of a rapid transit system for the nine counties of the Bay Area, helping convince the state legislature to create the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit Commission that same year. The BAC guided the rapid transit plan through various research and planning stages, the creation of the San Francisco Bay Area Transit District in 1957, and the 1962 bond campaign that narrowly passed, only after a successful lobby effort to count the vote over the three county area, rather than county by county, and to reduce the necessary overall vote from 66 percent to 60 percent. Aiding in BAC’s BART campaign, San Francisco’s Key System of electric streetcars was purchased by the GM-controlled National City Lines in 1946. Its conversion to bus lines culminated in 1958, when the rail lines were removed from the Bay Bridge.

Throughout the campaign, BART advocates sold the project to voters as a much-needed relief program for traffic congestion and air pollution. Bechtel led the BAC Board of Trustees at the time and contributed $5 million to a Stanford research team and later $15,000 to the BART campaign. Bechtel joined with Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Hall, and Macdonald, the New York engineering firm brought in by BAC to conduct initial studies, and Tudor Engineering of San Francisco, to capture the design and construction contract in a no-bid process.

Bechtel and BAC sought a publicly funded rapid transit project to provide commuter access from the suburbs into downtown San Francisco and Oakland. Such a rail line would vastly increase the property values in the downtowns, spurring the construction of high-rise office buildings in downtown San Francisco and pushing suburban growth out in the East Bay.

The locations of BART stations, combined with the inflexibility of the system, favor driving to BART, outward urban growth, and above all else, protect the property values of downtown San Francisco real estate. The predominantly African American neighborhoods in San Francisco and Oakland were either cut out or cut in half. Bayview Hunters Point, San Francisco’s largest African American neighborhood, is perhaps the neighborhood with the least access to BART in the entire city.

Community groups in West Oakland and Richmond both advocated during BART’s early years for a transit system that would aid in making their neighborhoods into self-sufficient communities. They called for job development within their neighborhoods rather than a transit system to take them to suburban jobs. BART proposed doing the opposite, while in the process, ripping up streets in West Oakland, forcing residents to move, and building its Richmond line on an elevated earthen mound that local critics called the Richmond “wall.”

BART officials denigrated West Oakland, describing it as a slum, “both to mitigate BART’s negative impacts on the community, and to argue that blacks would benefit from better links to suburban jobs, stores, and schools,” writes Joseph A. Rodriguez in his study on BART and West Oakland community groups. “Blacks, on the other hand, argued they had chosen to live in West Oakland and that BART did serious harm to the community, and that they did not want to move or be forced to commute to suburban jobs.”

One West Oakland resident at the time said that the promise of access to suburban jobs was empty. “If we have jobs at all, they are right here.”

Building in Profits
Of the many ways that Bechtel and its partners devised to overcharge taxpayers, the most ingenious, and egregious, is only four inches long. BART’s tracks were designed and built with a width of 5 feet. The global standard for rail track width is 4 feet, 8 inches. BART stands alone in the distance between its tracks—a fact that costs Bay Area residents untold millions of dollars.
“That was the biggest mistake,” says Allan Miller, Executive Director of the Train Rider’s Association of California. “I mean, it wasn’t even a mistake. It was done purposefully, just to raise everyone’s profits. Every time you order anything for BART, you have to not only get different parts, you have to actually build the machines to build those parts. Every machine that builds the parts has to be made from scratch. That’s an incredible expense, and they’ve plagued us forever. There is no way out of it.” 

Another problem with the 5-foot width of BART’s tracks is that it is not compatible with any other rail system. This makes it impossible for BART to link with Caltrain or the San Francisco Municipal Railway. It also makes it impossible for BART to use the tracks of abandoned freight lines. This is one of the reasons BART will cost about $200 million a mile to extend to San Jose, whereas Caltrain could extend along old freight lines for about $2 million.  

BART was initially planned to survive on fares, but already ran a $40 million deficit in 1974. That year, the state legislature temporarily extended the one-half cent sales tax passed to finance BART’s construction. In 1977, the legislature made the sales tax permanent. By the late 1970s, taxpayers were paying two-thirds of BART’s costs through regressive taxation, meaning that low-income Bay Area residents were paying a disproportionate share for a system that primarily served more affluent suburban commuters.  

BART not only caters to the more wealthy suburbanites, it subsidizes their driving by providing “free” parking. Free only means that the individual driver does not have to pay to park his or her car; the cost is spread out over the entire system and hence, disproportionately over low-income area residents. BART has a total of 46,000 parking spaces. The cost to operate and maintain these parking spaces is about one dollar per day per parking spot, or $16,790,000 a year. This is an amazing subsidy for drivers, lowering the overall costs of moving further out and driving to BART.
Transportation justice activists, such as Public Advocates, have denounced the subsidies to BART as part of a pattern of racial discrimination against African Americans and Latinos. They are suing for more equitable funding, but the essential inequity of our current transportation system is built right into the infrastructure of our streets, highways, rails, and bridges by the business-first builders like Bechtel. 

John Gibler is a freelance writer on environmental and social justice issues in California, and a former policy analyst at Public Citizen.
You can find his recent writing in Colorlines and Terrain.


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