Lawsuit Claims Racial Bias in CTA, Metra Funding

Bob Secter and Richard Wronski, Chicago Breaking News Centre, January 6, 2010

CTA riders have long grumbled about getting a raw deal with high fares and skimpy service, and a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday argues that the complaint is not just real but fueled by policies that favor white commuters over blacks and Hispanics.

At stake is more than $1 billion in tax dollars split each year among the CTA and the suburban-based commuter railroad and bus lines, Metra and Pace.

Most of the aid goes to the CTA, which serves a far larger share of minority riders than Metra and Pace. But the suit contends that cut is still too low and seeks to remedy things by shifting resources away from the suburban transit agencies. It blames chronic racism for shortchanging the CTA, disproportionately harming black and Hispanic riders.

A controversial contention, to be sure, and one that some experts think is legally shaky. Even so, the lawsuit, filed by public-interest lawyers, serves to highlight long-standing tensions over how to divvy scarce transit resources in an equitable and smart way among agencies that cater to very different customer bases.

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CTA officials have lobbied state lawmakers for years to gain a bigger share of the mass-transit funding pot but have never invoked discrimination as an argument. The lawsuit, on the other hand, frames the CTA’s chronic funding woes in starkly racial terms while seeking to remedy them by forcing a shift of public resources away from Metra and Pace.

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Spearheading the suit are lawyers from a civil-rights law clinic at Chicago-Kent College of Law and the Loop firm of Futterman Howard Ashley Watkins & Weltman, which specializes in civil-rights litigation.

Futterman associate Rafael Vargas said the idea for the suit was his and grew out of a thesis he wrote four years ago while a law student at Kent that compared “transit equity” in Chicago to other U.S. cities. {snip}

Quick to embrace its central thesis was U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., a Chicago Democrat, who said the CTA carries 80 percent of all regional transit riders but Metra gets more capital and operating funding per rider from the state.

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Even if provable, that may not be enough to pass legal muster, said Andrew Koppelman, a constitutional scholar at the Northwestern University Law School. Koppelman said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that laws that have uneven impacts on blacks and whites are not unconstitutional as long as they don’t make clear distinctions on the basis of race.

“Politically, it is quite powerful,” Koppelman said of the racism argument laid out in the lawsuit. “But as a legal argument, it’s a loser.”

At a minimum, the lawsuit may serve to focus fresh attention on the delicate geographic and political balancing act that has tied the financial fortunes of the three transit agencies together for decades under the umbrella of the Regional Transportation Authority.

The RTA, approved in 1974, was initially a tough sell to suburbanites who feared the increased sales taxes they would have to pay would go largely to prop up a financially ailing CTA system that few of them used.

Ironically, some black community leaders also expressed early qualms about the RTA plan because it lacked guarantees of adequate funding for suburban transit projects that would make it easier for minorities to get to jobs outside the city.

The suit attempts to draw a connection between alleged funding inequalities at the transit agencies and the fractious “Council Wars” era in Chicago that began in 1983 with the election of the city’s first African-American mayor, Harold Washington.

Racial tensions in the council spilled over to the legislature, which invoked the first in a series of changes in the funding formula for transit that repeatedly shrunk CTA’s share, the suit said. Ever since, the suit said, the CTA has been unable to invest in “much-needed” rail service extensions into minority neighborhoods, including extension of the Red Line.

At the same time, the suit said the RTA has not required Metra to build stations in minority neighborhoods. “Instead, Metra’s trains whiz past these communities as if they do not exist,” the suit said. “They do so for a purely racial reason–they do not want their white suburban customers to have to mingle with poor minorities.”

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