Feds to investigate civil-rights claims against L.A. bus authority

Activists in L.A. say the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has discriminated against minorities and the poor by cutting their bus routes first. The MTA says it welcomes the federal audit.

Mary Knox Merrill / The Christian Science Monitor / File
An MTA bus sign denoting numbers and corresponding routes in downtown Los Angeles.

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. “In no way shape or form does this announcement imply judgment on our past actions,” says Marc Littman, MTA spokesman.

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.

“We are especially delighted that the FTA has announced this audit just one week after [FTA Chief Administrator] Peter Rogoff sent a letter to all transit agencies nationwide reminding them of their responsibility to comply with federal civil-rights obligations … especially during a time of ‘financial difficulties,’ ” said Esperanza Martinez, spokeswoman for the coalition, in a statement.

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.”

He says the FTA took a similar approach about a complaint against Bay Area Rapid Transit in 2010, and investigations led to a wide array of changes.

But Steven Schlickman, executive director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois, Chicago, says that in Illinois, at least, federal requirements are well known and adhered to. Illinois' Regional Transportation Authority and Metra commuter rail were sued in late 2009 on civil-rights grounds, alleging in part that RTA's funding allocations to the operating agencies were discriminatory. But the suit was decided against the plaintiffs after the judge reviewed the facts of actual discretionary and formula allocations.

The MTA says it has nothing to hide.

In the past two decades, several municipalities in the region have started their own bus lines, competing with the MTA, says Mr. Littman. 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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