TWENTY five cents isn't much. Unless you don't have much to start with.
That is the premise causing citizen groups in New York and Los Angeles, two of the largest and most emblematic American cities, to fight in court 25-cent increases in bus-and-subway fares that they argue fall unfairly on the working poor and minorities.
If successful, the court battles may expand the scope of civil rights laws into a relatively new area: economic discrimination. Even if unsuccessful, the preliminary federal injunctions already won in both cases may alter municipal decisionmaking by putting minority concerns on the political map in a new way.
The New York City increase - from $1.25 to $1.50 - has been a see-saw affair, testing New Yorkers' patience. The hike, scheduled to go into effect Monday, was blocked last week by a federal judge who ruled that blacks and Hispanics appeared to be discriminated against.
The judge noted that city bus fares increased 20 percent while commuter-rail lines increased only 9 percent. The ruling was overturned - then argued again Tuesday. In the meantime, the city transport authority sold, then bought back, then sold again the $1.50 tokens to long lines of New Yorkers not amused by the circumstance. A circuit court of appeals ruling is now pending.
Los Angeles is already under an injunction, based on a discrimination suit brought last year. A judge essentially forced a compromise between passenger groups and the city after the transit authority tried to raise fares from $1.10 to $1.35 and eliminate the free passes riders use for transfers. A trial to decide the case opens Jan. 23.
In both instances, federal transportation subsidies anchor the legal challenge. Based on the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, discrimination on the basis of race or national origin where federal funds are involved is illegal.
Rider groups on each coast argue that not only has the overall cost of running the city metro increasingly shifted to those least able to pay - but also the majority of improvements and the new fares benefit wealthier suburban riders, who tend to be mainly white.
Riding the rail in L.A.
L.A., for example, is constructing a new rail system, now millions over budget, that will connect downtown with the affluent 'burbs. In the next decade, however, the rail will serve 10 to 15 percent of all L.A. riders - whereas the bus system, which has been cut back, will serve 90 percent of the users. The average income for rail users is $63,000, according to studies, while 62 percent of bus users have incomes under $15,000. Eighty percent of bus riders are minority.
Neither city contests the basic facts in the case. But they say it is smaller budgets and federal government cutbacks - not racial bias - that has forced higher fares. They also argue the proper venue for challenging the fares is the ballot.
''It's not discrimination to charge for operating your subway,'' a leading urban economist says. ''If blacks or whites happen to ride it, fine. But the city has to make the subway run.''
The lead lawyer for the New York Urban League and the Straphangers Campaign, G. Oliver Koppell, views the case differently: ''This is a disproportionate allocation of subsidies that is creating a burden on minorities. The way the system is set up and financed needs to be addressed.''
A ruling for the citizens groups in either case is expected to reverberate in city halls nationwide and may bring a major reassessment of transport systems. ''There is a huge amount of interest in this case'' in city planning offices, says Tom Rubin, a transportation official in Alameda County, Calif. ''It has already started to force city departments to think twice....''
Legacy of N.Y.'s inequity
In New York, the disparities between urban and suburban riders date back to decisions made in the '50s, experts say, when Robert Moses took over the Port Authority and rammed through a rebuilding program, against the warnings of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.
''There is no question the city's transport system has been run to favor rubber-wheeled transport,'' says Ferdinand Shoettle of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. ''The whole decisionmaking process tilted the transport system against the poor.''
In legal terms, the cases may open up new ground. Previously, the Title VI guidelines of the Civil Rights Act were almost exclusively applied to inequities among school districts in states. They have never been applied to municipal services as in these two cases. The court must decide the reasonableness of the grievance brought by the two citizens groups. Since poverty does not fall under a constitutional protection, the court will weigh how many riders have minority and an economic-hardship status.
While the plaintiffs do not have to prove a ''conspiracy'' or ''intent'' to discriminate the court will also not assume ''all government actions can be perfectly executed,'' says Robert Jarvis, a transportation law expert at the Nova Southeastern University Law Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. ''They can always work out a compromise.''