Despite Setback, Advocates Claim Partial Win in MTC Discrimination Suit

574025995_bb076a371f.jpgSeventy eight percent of AC Transit riders are people of color. Flickr photo: jlnriang

In 2005, with frustration and anger mounting over service cuts and fare hikes for AC Transit riders, who are mostly people of color, a coalition of riders, labor and environmental justice advocates filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), accusing the agency of racial discrimination in the way it doles out transit funding. It claimed the MTC has a long history of channeling funding to mostly white riders on Caltrain and BART at the expense of AC Transit bus riders of color.

Although a San Francisco federal judge sided with the MTC last week, advocates point out that the ruling (PDF) noted the "disparate impact" AC Transit riders have endured because of the MTC's strategic long-range plan for transit expansion projects, or Resolution 3434:

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.  Although Plaintiffs’ challenge to MTC’s initial decisions on which projects to include under Resolution 3434 appear to be barred by the statute of limitations, those decisions constitute relevant context for MTC’s further reductions in 2006 of the scope of the few AC Transit bus projects that had initially been included. 

“The court acknowledged that our lawsuit may have already pressured MTC to channel more funds to AC Transit," said Guillermo Mayer, staff attorney at Public Advocates. “We're confident that momentum is building in the fight for transit fairness and equality.”

The suit named as the plaintiffs bus riders Sylvia Darensburg of East Oakland, Vivian Hain of Berkeley and
Virginia Martinez of Richmond, along with Communities for a Better Environment and the
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 192. They were represented by Public Advocates and two local law firms.

“For years MTC told us bus riders don't matter as much as train riders. The judge said we do matter. MTC can and should be doing a lot more to support AC Transit bus riders," said Darensburg, a working mother and student who has spent up to five hours a day riding public transit.

In her ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Elizabeth Laporte said she sympathizes with the plaintiffs "who have experienced declines in bus services on which they depend to meet their basic needs." She wrote the "MTC could do somewhat more to benefit AC Transit’s minority riders through bus expansion projects" but "the MTC has met its burden of showing a substantial legitimate justification for the challenged funding practices."

She also wrote that when looking at the data from the viewpoint of absolute numbers of riders advantaged or disadvantaged by MTC’s funding policies the picture becomes more complicated than the plaintiffs portrayed it:

Plaintiffs’ main complaint is that MTC facilitates expansion of costly capital-intensive rail and light rail, especially by BART, instead of channeling more funds to bus service, especially by AC Transit.  Yet in FY 2005-06, BART carried a significantly higher total number of passengers, over 101 million, so with a minority percentage of 53-percent, its total minority passengers were over 53 million. By contrast, in FY 2005-06, AC Transit carried only 65 million passengers (approximately one-third less), and at 78-percent minority, the total number of AC Transit’s minority passengers was approximately 51 million, or 2 million fewer.

The lawyers who filed the suit on behalf of the AC Transit riders are considering an appeal.