Oakland’s Stimulus Flap: A Shot Across the Bow for Transport Equity?

The Obama administration's warning that the Bay Area has jeopardized federal stimulus funding for its Oakland Airport Connector (OAC) project could have national consequences for other urban transit proposals that risk harming low-income riders, civil rights and transit advocates predicted today.

HegenbergerRd_P1_HRes3000px_small.jpgThe proposed Oakland Airport Connector train. (Photo: BART via Streetsblog SF)

Several Bay Area advocacy groups briefed the media on the civil-rights complaint they filed against the OAC project, which the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) investigated late last year. In a letter [PDF] that threatened to yank $70 million in stimulus money from the project, the FTA warned BART that it has until early March to develop a plan to comply with federal equity rules.

Stuart Cohen, executive director of TransForm, said advocates' victorious bid to push Bay Area's transit planners to examine more cost-effective and equitable alternatives to the OAC would "have a ripple effect" as other cities re-examine how their transit plans would affect lower-income and minority riders.

The FTA's decision on the OAC, described as the first of its kind, "represents government at its best," PolicyLink president Angela Glover Blackwell told reporters, adding that by "us[ing] the power of purse to make transportation agencies accountable, government shows it can be consistent with its values."

So where else are civil rights complaints playing a role in local transportation decision-making?

In the Twin Cities of Minnesota, several community groups filed suit against planners of the Central Corridor light rail line to protest the choice of route, prompting local and federal officials to announce the addition of three new stops.

The move appears to be motivated as much by low-income residents' concerns about changing development in the area as it is by their fear of losing transit access. A corresponding lawsuit filed by the Minnesota groups charges that the Central Corridor “project is designed to result in the displacement of the existing population along the Central Corridor through gentrification," according to the Finance & Commerce newspaper.

Meanwhile, the town of Navassa, North Carolina, has filed a civil right complaint of its own with the Federal Highway Administration seeking to expedite construction of a highway bypass through their town, alleging that the road project would bring needed jobs and economic benefits to local residents.

Back in the Bay Area, BART and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission have a limited amount of time to respond to the FTA's letter before the $70 million must be reprogrammed to other projects. At tomorrow's MTC Commission general meeting, large numbers of advocates are expected to turn out to demand the MTC rededicate the stimulus funds to transit operators according to established funding formulas to avoid any risk that might be associated with BART's failure to comply with FTA obligations.

Public Advocates staff attorney Guillermo Mayer, who helped work on the OAC complaint, said the money could be used to help close the operating budget gap for San Francisco's transit systems despite legal limits on the use of stimulus funding for transit operations.

"The short story is that it's flexible," Mayer said, citing the federal government's treatment of preventive maintenance as a capital expense rather than an operating one. "These funds can be used to maintain existing services."