Feds to Investigate Civil-Rights Claims Against L.A. Bus Authority

Daniel B. Wood, Christian Science Monitor, March 17, 2011

Outside the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority building, protesters chanted, waved signs on cue, and gleefully celebrated a decision they hope will affect city transit authorities coast to coast: The Federal Transit Administration will conduct a comprehensive civil-rights audit of the MTA.

At issue is the long-running allegation that the MTA, the nation’s second-largest metropolitan transit agency, discriminates against minorities and low-income residents by cutting their bus routes first in times of financial belt-tightening. Other transit systems have come under similar federal scrutiny in the past, but the saga in Los Angeles dates to 1997, when a federal court forced the MTA to provide transit “without regard to race, color, or national origin.”

Robin Kelley, an urban history professor at New York University, called the 1997 ruling “the most important civil rights ruling since 1954’s Brown v. Topeka” to end US school desegregation. What followed that was a consent decree, forcing the MTA to buy new buses and create new routes, but when the consent decree ended in 2006, the MTA began making cutbacks again.

Recently, the MTA announced that it would reduce bus service 5 percent in June, in addition to eliminating nine bus lines in three years.

For its part, the MTA says it welcomes the audit and defends past and future cuts as based purely on economics. {snip}

With the MTA seeking to borrow as much as $9 billion from the federal government for several large projects, organizers of the rally hope that the audit could have a significant impact on how the MTA runs its operation. A coalition of three civil-rights groups is hoping to preempt cuts by the MTA. Ninety percent of the county’s 500,000 bus riders are nonwhite, and 61 percent earn less than $26,000 annually, activists say.

{snip}

To some observers, the FTA announcement is a warning not only to the MTA but to other urban transit systems in the US. “This will keep attention on this key issue, for sure,” says Guillermo Mayer, senior staff attorney with Public Advocates, a civil-rights law firm in San Francisco. “It gives teeth to Rogoff’s message during hard economic times that agencies may have to make cuts, but be sure to do so in ways that don’t impact protected classes.”

{snip}

In the past two decades, several municipalities in the region have started their own bus lines, competing with the MTA, says Mr. Littman [Marc Littman, MTA spokesman.]. Now the MTA buses regularly run only half full, he says. The consent decree also took funds away from bus maintenance, which now need to be replenished.

“Something has to give, we don’t have bottomless money,” says Littman.

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