(San Francisco--Casey Miner, KALW News) If you've had a chance to listen to Back of the Bus, you know a little something about civil rights and Bay Area transportation. The quick version: local transit advocates believe money goes disproportionately to big rail projects like the Oakland Airport Connector at the expense of the local bus service used primarily by low-income and minority riders. Last month the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on that topic -- and it says the transit advocates are wrong. But you can bet the story won't end here.
"Although Plaintiffs’ statistical evidence shows that minorities make up a greater percentage of the regional population of bus riders than rail riders, it does not necessarily follow that an expansion plan that emphasizes rail projects over bus projects will harm minorities," wrote Judge Barry G. Silverman. Roughly two-thirds of the region's bus-riders are members of minority groups, compared to just over half of rail riders. "Plaintiffs’ theory forecloses altogether the possibility that MTC could devise any rail-centered expansion that could benefit minority transit riders, while the evidence shows that Bay Area minorities already benefit substantially from rail service."
In the case, Darensburg, et. al v. Metropolitan Transportation Commission, advocates alleged that MTC -- the Bay Area's regional transportation planning body -- consistently allocated funds in a way that benefited rail services like BART while neglecting bus service AC Transit. The Ninth Circuit disagreed, essentially saying that there was no way for the court to predict the future with sufficient accuracy to determine how-- or how much -- a transit project might affect those groups. "Plaintiffs' intentional discrimination claim relies on drawing equivalences, between 1) bus riders and minorities, and 2) between rail riders and whites, that are not borne out by the data," wrote Silverman. "Simply because minorities represent a greater majority of bus riders as opposed to rail riders, the rejection of a particular new bus expansion project in favor of a new rail expansion project will not necessarily work to the detriment of minorities."
Judge Silverman's argument is essentially that there's too much complexity in regional transit ridership to draw sharp racial distinctions -- some bus lines carry predominantly white riders, while some rail projects underway in the region go through predominantly minority areas. In his concurring opinion, Judge John T. Noonan took that argument a step further.
"The twentieth century racial categories so confidently deployed no longer correspond to American life among the young," he wrote, citing a recent New York Times article about changing racial categories. In essence, he seemed to be saying that civil rights considerations were not relevant in a modern context.
"The suggestion that racial bias could not have a role in the decision making of a board, I think for the civil rights community is a troubling statement," said Guillermo Mayer, an attorney who represented bus riders in the case. "Title VI remains the law of the land; it continues to protect people on the basis of race, color and national origin. We were disappointed and alarmed to hear that comment."
Randy Rentschler, a spokesman for the MTC, said that, like Noonan asserted, the Bay Area is unique. While he stopped short of saying that civil rights equity could never be an issue here, he said the region's historic liberalism sets it apart. "We’re far, far, far away from somewhere else in the country where folks of limited means, who don’t have access, are treated unfairly," he said. "I believe sincerely that policymakers are bending over backwards to make sure that the decisions they make are fair and equitable and up to the standard that represents the area in which we live."
This won't be the last word on this issue for the region -- advocates are currently asking the Federal Transit Administration to determine if it's MTC's job to make sure all 26 of the transit operators it oversees have met federal Title VI requirements in their projects. We'll be following that story as it develops.