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White House threatens to yank stimulus funds over civil rights

By Ngoc Nguyen New America Media | Last updated: Feb 4, 2010 - 12:59:17 PM

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For the first time since President Obama signed the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act a year ago, his administration has threatened to withhold stimulus money from a transit agency because it failed to comply with federal civil rights laws.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) threatened to pull $70 million in stimulus funds from Northern California's Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system because it failed to comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI prohibits agencies that receive federal funds from discriminatory practices.

Transportation equity advocates say the action signals a new era of stepped up enforcement of civil rights law—and a major change from the government's behavior when George W. Bush was president.

“Before, we were pretty lucky if we got a response,” said Guillermo Mayer, an attorney at the civil rights group Public Advocates. “Under Bush, there was a huge backlog of unaddressed, uninvestigated complaints,” he said. The FTA's speedy and decisive action points to a new level of ramped up enforcement under Title VI.

The FTA faulted the BART District for not adequately analyzing how a connector to the Oakland International Airport would affect low-income and minority riders. The FTA requires this type of fairness analysis as a part of its Title VI enforcement.

In a letter to BART and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff said the Bay Area could lose the $70 million entirely if BART failed to come into compliance by March 5.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission faced making a decision on the fate of the funds: either keep the money with BART and risk losing the federal funds if BART cannot satisfy the requirements, or reallocate the money to other transit agencies. On Jan. 27, commissioners voted to give BART more time to comply with FTA civil rights rules.

The FTA conducted an investigation in response to a complaint filed in September by Public Advocates on behalf of Oakland-based community advocacy groups Genesis, Urban Habitat and TransForm.

“In the Bay Area, all transit agencies are facing a shortfall,” said Mr. Mayer. “At a time when people are hurting most, BART moves forward with a project that benefits mostly affluent riders.”

The three-mile Oakland Airport Connector would replace an existing bus shuttle from BART to the airport for an estimated $500 million. The project would double the round-trip cost of going to the airport to $12—on top of the cost of a regular BART ticket. Advocates say the increases would cause economic hardships for many low-income and minority riders, including thousands of airport workers.

The proposed tram would also not make any stops along its route in Oakland, depriving residents in a low-income, primarily Black and Latino neighborhood of access to jobs and retail opportunities along a main business corridor.

“At the same time, across the Bay Area, local bus service, which many people depend on, is getting cut and fares are going up,” said Bob Allen, transportation and housing program director at Urban Habitat.

In a letter responding to the FTA, BART said it intended to seek federal funding beyond stimulus money for its Oakland Airport Connector project, and said it intends to comply with civil rights rules. BART also said the project would create thousands of construction jobs.

Advocates say the commuter rail system will be scrutinized not only for its airport tram project, but also system-wide on issues such as language access for riders with limited English proficiency and public participation. Results of a broader FTA investigation of BART are pending.

In an email response to NAM's request for comment, BART spokesperson Linton Johnson sent a press release issued Jan. 28 detailing its compliance plan. In it, BART General Manager Dorothy Dugger said:

“According to our records, we have had no prior Title VI findings or deficiencies in any of the triennial audits conducted by the FTA of our activities over the past decade. This audit did, however, raise deficiencies and we are now addressing them. We have been engaged actively with FTA headquarters staff over the seven working days since we received the Administrator's letter. The schedule that the MTC staff is recommending is aggressive for all parties. We are committing the time and the resources to meet our schedule. We plan to submit a draft plan to the FTA this week.”

“The civil rights community embraces transportation issues because transportation is how communities get linked to opportunities,” said Angela Glover Blackwell, CEO of PolicyLink, a national research institute in Oakland. “It's how people connect to each other and get to work, school, stores and church,” she said.

Mr. Mayer and Mr. Allen say transportation funds could instead go to bolster existing transit services, and they say studies show funds spent on transit operations create twice as many jobs as those spent on transit construction.

In its decision Jan. 27, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission voted to maintain funding for the Oakland airport connector, on the condition that BART submit an “action plan” and get FTA approval by Feb. 16. If BART fails to meet the deadline, the funds would be shifted to other regional transit agencies.

Commissioners made the decision after hearing hours of heated testimony from community members, area trade unionists, rank-and-file transit workers, and transportation advocates during its Jan. 27 public meeting.

King Brooks, an apprentice with the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 3 and a longtime Oakland resident, urged commissioners to fund the airport connector. Oakland, he said, is in desperate need of jobs.

“I've been out of work for a while,” he said. “I've lost my health benefits. My family is without health care. I'm just trying to go back to work.”

Transit workers from bus operators to bus cleaners also testified, arguing the money allocated for building the airport connector could be better used to maintain service and prevent layoffs. Because of cuts to bus cleaners, one worker called conditions on some city buses “abominable.”

Nancy Schiller, 70, of Berkeley asked commissioners to use the stimulus money to bolster local bus service, which she says she will depend on when she's no longer able to drive.

If BART fails to get an action plan approved come Feb. 17, regional bus systems and other transit services, struggling with budget shortfalls, would get a much-needed shot in the arm that could reduce layoffs, service cuts and fare increases.

Under the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's contingency plan, BART, which has a $25 million deficit, would get $17 million, as would MUNI, San Francisco's bus system. But, that wouldn't close their budget holes.

MUNI faces a nearly $53 million budget gap next year, and city officials are considering steep fare increases and service cuts to keep the deficit from ballooning to $103 million.

Transit agencies across the country, including those in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and D.C., are also facing budget shortfalls, and increasingly they are eyeing stimulus funds.

“Agencies have to make a choice,” Mr. Mayer said. “Preserve the system we have or build out new projects, and cut existing service and increase fares, which have the biggest impact on people of color.”