FTA Probes MTC Civil Rights Policy, Casts Shadow on Funding Practices

Heminger_small.jpgMTC’s Executive Director Steve Heminger, foreground, listens to public testimony against MTC’s plan to use federal stimulus funds for the Oakland Airport Connector last year. Photo: Matthew Roth

The Federal Transit Administration has increased the likelihood the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the Bay Area’s regional transportation planning and funding body, will undergo a full civil rights investigation after it sent a letter last week [PDF] insisting the MTC turn over documents detailing its protocols for monitoring civil rights practices of the government agencies and private groups it gives federal money. Civil rights and transportation advocates are confident the MTC doesn’t have those protocols in place and argue the FTA investigation will show a pattern of discriminatory funding of transportation projects in the Bay Area that dates back decades.

The federal inquiries started after Public Advocates, a civil rights law firm in San Francisco, filed a formal complaint with the FTA over BART’s failure to conduct an equity analysis for its fare policy related to the construction of the controversial Oakland Airport Connector, an elevated tramway that would connect the Oakland Coliseum BART station to the Oakland Airport. As a result of the complaint, the FTA investigated BART and found it didn’t conduct the necessary fare analysis as required by federal Title VI civil rights law and denied $70 million in federal stimulus funds for the project. The FTA subsequently initiated a full investigation of the transit agency across all its applicable practices.

Because the MTC has given substantial funding to BART over the years and specifically for the OAC, the FTA in February requested the MTC provide justification of its Title VI compliance [PDF].

MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger argued in a March letter [PDF] that transit agencies such as BART, as subrecipients of federal funding, are responsible for ensuring they have done their due diligence and that they are not using the money on projects that discriminate against people of color or low-income communities. Heminger essentially took a narrow view of several FTA rules, saying because MTC is "not a State DOT or State administering agency," it was not responsible for mandating Title VI compliance for that funding.

In FTA’s most recent letter, Director of the Office of Civil Rights Cheryl Hershey pointed to several other broad requirements, including an FTA Master Agreement the MTC signs each year, that mandate the MTC monitor Title VI requirements, even of its subrecipients.

Wynn Hausser, a spokesperson for Public Advocates, said the FTA letter and the possibility of a full formal investigation into MTC should be a wake-up call for a commission they have sued for discrimination in its funding formulas. The 2007 Darensburg v. Metropolitan Transportation Commission lawsuit alleged MTC was subsidizing trips for wealthier white people at transit agencies like BART and Caltrain at a higher rate than they do at agencies like AC Transit, where 80 percent of riders are people of color.

"We’ve been after the MTC for years with our lawsuits," said Hausser. "We’ve had to turn to Washington and fortunately we
have a very brave FTA administrator who’s willing to stand up against
tremendous political pressure and do the right thing."

MTC_Subsidy_and_Race_Chart.jpgA chart created by Public Advocates that shows how much MTC subsidizes riders on various transit systems, as well as the racial make-up of that ridership.

Hausser believed the Darensburg lawsuit, while on its surface a victory for MTC after a judge ruled against Public Advocates, was the foundation for the current FTA action. In the lawsuit, said Hausser, the judge found prima facie discrimination in MTC policies, a decision he thought would play to their benefit upon appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The MTC’s spokesperson, John Goodwin, was particularly abrupt in his response. "We can confirm receipt of the letter," he said. "Our legal guys are scrutinizing it and we will work with the FTA to meet their deadlines."

To remedy their concerns, the FTA has demanded the MTC produce numerous documents, including:

  • MTC’s documented process for investigating Title VI complaints
  • A description of actions MTC took to investigate the Title VI complaint filed by Public Advocates against BART and alleging BART was not in compliance with Title VI
  • A description of the penalty MTC assesses against a subrecipient for being in breach of contract as a result of failure to comply with Title VI, as well as a description of how MTC determines a subrecipient is in breach of contract….
  • Provide copies of the subrecipient compliance reports as required by FTA….

Goodwin insisted the MTC would work to meet the requirements from the FTA, but Hausser didn’t believe they will be able to comply because they don’t have the requested documents.

"We have filed Freedom of Information Act requests of these documents and
we have not received anything that looks like what they’re being asked
for," said Hausser, who noted Public Advocates had received tens of thousands of pages of documents through the Darensburg case. "That’s not to say they don’t exist, but if they do, we should have
them."

Despite numerous requests for clarification, Goodwin would not comment further, except to say he was not aware of any other metropolitan planning organization (MPO) like the MTC in other areas of the country undergoing a similar review by the FTA.

Hausser said the FTA’s letter should be alarming to other MPOs in California and beyond and that the FTA action signaled a change in Washington under the Obama administration to seriously consider the civil rights implications of transportation funding.

"If I were an MPO in another city, I would be sitting up and taking notice," he said.

Both Hausser and John Knox White, the OAC project manager for TransForm who has advocated BART and the MTC support a more affordable bus rapid transit airport connector, argued the FTA letter repudiated the MTC’s contention that the matter was a mere technicality.

"It definitely shows a systemic issue with the way these major transportation projects are planned and implemented," said Knox White. He and other advocates have repeatedly argued the MTC and BART are merely paying lip service to civil rights, and are failing to do the necessary analysis to meet the FTA’s criteria. Both Knox White and Hausser point to the recent actions by the federal government as vindication of their position.

Knox White, however, doubted the agencies would change overnight and pointed to what he characterized as BART’s vilification of the advocates who objected to the OAC as proposed.

"Is the Bay Area going to step up and be the gold standard on civil rights they want to be, that they feel they are, or is this just going to be another time where we cut people out of the public participation process," said Knox White, who echoed Hausser’s assertion that the FTA under former President George Bush didn’t enforce civil rights laws with the same vigor the current FTA does.

"Is the Bay Area worse than everywhere else?" he asked. "I’m not sure I’m ready to make that determination, but there are significant problems. It’s clear we’re not setting the gold standard on this."

  • I’d be interested in seeing where MUNI falls into that chart. Also, is Caltrain so high because it doesn’t have its own dedicated funding source?

  • When does Heminger’s lengthy prison sentence for the Bay Bridge East Span (and BART to Millbrae, and TransLink(tm), and FasTrak(sm), and the Caldecott Tunnel, and the Oakland Airport Connector, and BART to San Jose, and high speed rail to Los Banos) begin anyway?

  • Caltrain really is that high because it is operated and maintained as a 19th century freight railroad. It’s a black hole of catastrophic inefficiency and regulatory insanity (Federal Railroad Administration = freight) … and Caltain’s 19th century staff is doing nothing about it!

    If you want to see where Muni is, the National Transit Database is one go-to source. The numbers for the Bay Area are very helpfully collated by the MTC (helpful? MTC?) in the Statistical Summary of Bay Area Transit Operators.

    Nobody should pretend to even have an opinion without browsing through and understanding this document. But NOTE that it only measures operating costs: massive, over-the-top capital “investments” (which go nearly entirely to dubious to outright fraudulent rail scams) are not included here, as they should be and must be in any honest conventional accounting.

    Again, note the below are only direct operating costs, and come nowhere near reflecting the massive capital handouts that Heminger and pals direct to their pals at BART and other contractor contractor welfare fronts.

    Muni’s FY2008/9 diesel bus operating cost amounts to $2.95 per passenger.
    Trolley bus: $2.13.
    Cable car TWU welfare operation: $7.65
    Light rail a scandalous $3.06. (So much for “investment” in “efficient” rail that “transit activists” go on and on about.)

    AC Transit: $4.32 per passenger. (Operating costs are out of control, no thanks to the operating union and no thanks to systematic MTC-approved bus network contraction and highway expansion. With 17.8% farebox recovery this means $3.55 subsidy per passenger trip.)

    BART: $4.45 per passenger. (Massively subsidizing exurban commuters at the expense of San Francisco and Oakland is hard work, but somebody has to do it. 62.5% farebox recovery = $1.68 per trip subsidy, heavily weighted to long distance exurban riders, and excluding tens of billions in capital costs and interest.)

    ACE: $16.03 (35.7% farebox recovery means $10.31 direct operating subsidy per trip.)
    Alameda Ferry: $10.31 (50.4% farebox = $5.01 subsidy)
    Caltrain: $7.07 (48.3% farebox = $3.66 subsidy)
    GG Bus: $9.78 (22.1% farebox = $7.62 subsidy)
    GG Ferry: $12.12 (42.9% farebox = $6.92 subsidy)
    Muni diesel: $2.95 (19.4% farebox = $2.38 subsidy)
    Muni trolleybus: $2.13 (26.8% farebox = $1.56 subsidy)
    Muni rail disaster: $3.06 (18.7% farebox = $2.50 subsidy)
    SamTrans bus: $6.38 (17.5% farebox = $5.26 subsidy)
    VTA hopeless bus: $9.55 (10.0% farebox = $8.60 subsidy)
    VTA boondoggle scam rail: $4.77 (15.6% farebox, and some very dodgy ridership fudging = $4.02 subsidy)

    At least I hope I calculated those numbers correctly.

    Basic deals:

    * Transit outside SF and Oakland/Berkeley is a basket case.
    * Suburban bus operations are screwed by geography, crazily high operating costs, and by massive MTC-promoted roadway programs.
    * AC Transit gets the worst of all worlds.
    * BART is the 800 pound gorilla that consumes tens of billions of dollars in capital, at the expense of everything except freeways, and then pretends that it is “efficient” by only discussing operating costs.
    * Caltrain is a basket case, combining outrageous capital and outrageous operating cost.
    * Muni looks comparatively good because of the geography and density of San Francisco which drive up boardings per hour. However its actual per-vehicle operating costs are unbelievably high, a toxic combination of service inefficiency (low speed, bad scheduling), dismal maintenance, and high wages.
    * MTC’s executive staff should all be in prison.

  • Michael Smith

    I think Richard deserves an honor for most useful blog comment ever.

  • mrcawfee

    I wonder why all of the numbers are cost/passenger not cost/passenger mile? would that make caltrain look better in those terms?

  • Michael Smith

    It is VERY important to not use cost/passenger mile because that would only encourage the wasteful habit of traveling long distances. Subsidizing sprawl creates sprawl. And this is supposed to be the country of “one man, one vote”, not “one mile, one vote”.

  • Alex

    Wait. I agree with Richard? What’s this world coming to?

    @Michael The one area in which the MTA is actually nearly competent is in publishing statistics (presuming they’re honest and accurate). The MTA’s service standards report also includes information on the hourly cost of operation for their vehicle fleets. Even then MTA rail is hideously expensive.

  • @mrcawfee

    http://theoverheadwire.blogspot.com/2009/03/calculating-social-justice.html

    From the 2007 NTD: Cost per passenger mile

    Caltrain is 27 cents per passenger mile.
    BART is 34 cents per passenger mile
    AC is $1.32 per passenger mile.

    If we’re going to look at capital and operating per passenger mile, it comes out to this in 2007:

    BART: 50.9 cents per passenger mile
    Caltrain: 60.3 cents per passenger mile
    AC Transit: $1.57 per passenger mile

    Versus a Per Trip operations calculation:

    AC Transit is $4.02
    BART is $4.21
    Caltrain is $7.28

  • Hopefully the increased scrutiny will shed light both on the unfair outcomes the MTC produces and draw attention to its horrible record in general.

    It’s also important to take a step back and remember that much of the operating subsides are necessary in the first place because grantmaking from the MTC (as well as at the state and federal level) incentivized agencies to build ridiculous capital projects that didn’t make sense if not for the “free” MTA money, and which now bloat their ongoing operating expenses. We’d be much better off with the MTA out of the grantmaking business entirely and counties keeping their revenues local.

  • “AC Transit: $4.32 per passenger. (Operating costs are out of control, no thanks to the operating union and no thanks to systematic MTC-approved bus network contraction and highway expansion.)”

    Richard,
    AC Transit operating costs are no more “out of control” than any other large bus agency. For year 2007, AC Transit operating cost per vehicle revenue hour was $147. By comparison: New York MTA is $156, Muni diesel bus is $145, VTA is $156.

    The majority of AC Transit ridership (and operating funds) goes to the trunk lines. Simply upgrading those trunk lines to BRT would massively improve the operating performance (50% reduction in costs).

    As we’ve seen, the huge obstacle to performance improvement isn’t so much MTC (which did actually provide capital funds for the #1 BRT line), but local city government; i.e. the cretins on Berkeley City Council who have all but killed East Bay BRT.

  • Winston

    As much as it pains me to say it, Richard is right about bus operating costs.

    ~$150/hour mean out of control costs. Such costs should be running around $75-100/vehicle hour. This is achieved by most of the smaller bay area operators who contract out services.

    As for suburban transit being a basket case, you have to remember that suburban transit – especially in the outer suburbs, is typically quite different in its mission than urban transit. Suburban transit systems tend to exist as a social service for folks who are too young, poor or infirm to operate a car. Planning such services is generally focused on things like trying to ensure that every resident is within half a mile of a transit stop that is served hourly. This is an important social service because it provides the poor with a means of escaping (or at least surviving) poverty and allows kids to get to school and the elderly to visit doctors.

    This kind of service can be done well or poorly. An example of an agency that does it well is Tri Delta Transit. VTA is an example of one that does this poorly.

    VTA serves 1.8 million people spread of 326 square miles. Tri Delta Transit serves 273,000 spread over 250 square miles, so one would expect Tri Delta Transit to have much worse performance. However Tri Delta Transit has focused on cost control and on providing appropriate service while VTA has not.
    For bus service only:

    Cost per vehicle hour (2008-2009):
    VTA – $186 Tri Delta – $96
    Cost per Passenger
    VTA – $9.55 Tri Delta – $5.73
    Subsidy per passenger
    VTA – $8.60 Tri Delta – $4.91

    Tri Delta Transit not only pays their workers less, they utilizes their employees more efficiently as shown in revenue hours/employee:
    VTA – 800 Tri Delta – 1100
    (since a year is around 2000 hours, it takes 2.5 VTA employees working for one hour to operate 1 hour of bus service, while Tri Delta manages the same feat with only 1.8 employees)

    Not only does VTA’s poor management cost the public at large money, it also costs riders more – about 25% more (depending on what pass you need)

  • @Winston:
    You really set the bar low by comparing against VTA (“worst transt agency ever”).

    And yes…contracting out service would certainly reduce cost, but that solution is politically infeasible for AC Transit. The purpose for comparing AC Transit against Muni (and other large operators) is to keep it apples-apples. Tri Delta is a very tiny operation. One single AC Transit trunk line carries more than Tri-Delta’s entire daily ridership.

  • Sven

    These comparisons are all apples to oranges. Fix route systems — BART, Caltrain, MUNI LRT, VTA LRT — have track maintenance costs included, whereas bus operations run on public streets and are subsidized by drivers who pay fuel taxes.

    If you want to drive toward economic efficiency, think about privatizing all transit operations in the Bay Area. Every five years we could rebid the operations, and make certain that we get the best value.

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