Discrimination lawsuit challenges inequitable transit funding
In 2005, low-income and minority bus riders filed a federal class_action lawsuit accusing the MTC, "the transportation planning, coordinating, and financing agency for the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area", of discrimination for its underfunding of AC Transit, a bus system whose ridership is heavily minority and low-income. The case is known as Darensburg v. MTC. In late March the District Court in San Francisco released its decision after trial.
The plaintiffs argued that the MTC's emphasis on rail expansion in its Regional Transit Expansion Program (known as Resolution 3434) comes at the expense of improving the bus service used more by minorities. The court agreed "that MTC's practice caused disparate impact... resulting in bus projects proposed by AC Transit being excluded." Because "MTC must balance competing interests and satisfy diverse and to some extent conflicting mandates," however, the court ruled that the plaintiffs are not entitled to any relief.
At the beginning of the year, when it was clear that the economy was slowing down and causing a decrease in transit operating funds, AC Transit, like many Bay Area transit operators (including San Francisco's Muni) began to explore large cuts to existing transit service. Many people asked the MTC to put more funds towards transit operations. In late February commissioners responded at a public meeting by saying operating funds were important and would be an MTC priority.
Less than two weeks later, in early March, many of the commissioners went to Washington DC to lobby for more transit and highway money. The information kit they took with them, "MTC's Annual Report to Congress" emphasized freight movement, infrastructure repairs, traffic congestion, High Occupancy Toll lanes on freeways, and new transit capital projects (rail, ferry, transit hubs, and bus service on freeways), but not transit operations.
During the Darensburg trial last year, a top MTC official (since appointed to a top post at the Federal Transit Administration) testified that MTC's policy is to not use FTA formula funds to pay for capital expansion projects, but only to preserve the existing transit system. After the trial ended, however, MTC decided to use $70 million of the federal stimulus transit formula funds to help build the proposed Oakland Airport Connector, a capital expansion project. Most of these stimulus funds could have underwritten transit operating costs.
MTC is funding this expansion even though it lacks funds to operate existing transit. A staff presentation to the Commission in late March reported that "the current transit system is not sustainable for many operators." Operators with significant operating shortfalls over the MTC's 25-year Regional Transportation Plan include Muni, Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, Golden Gate Transit, and SamTrans; these four together are projected to be more than $7 billion short in operational funds. The capital shortfall to sustain the existing transit system (e.g., to replace rolling stock) is now estimated by MTC to be $17 billion. Building the Oakland Airport Connector will add to the burden.
Over the past 25 years, despite a 34.5% growth in population, transit ridership in the Bay Area has increased only about 3%. This may be due to MTC's emphasis on very-costly railroad projects serving relatively few passengers. Instead, MTC should promote more "rapid bus" projects along busy arterial streets. These could be placed into service relatively quickly and deliver lower-cost transit to more people, including minority residents, than the rail extensions.
The court noted that the lawsuit may already have caused MTC to provide more operating funds to AC Transit. The recently adopted Regional Transportation Plan, however, does little to change MTC's direction on transit.
This year MTC is touting "change". It would be a good idea to change how it funds transit. With Barack Obama in the White House, treating minority bus passengers equitably would be a good change of direction for MTC.
Plaintiffs in Darensburg v. MTC have appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Matt Williams, former boardmember, AC Transit