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Getting on the bus is half the story

Submitted by Reporter on Wed, 11/30/2005 - 10:00pm
When Sylvia Darensburg started riding AC Transit buses from her East Oakland home a quarter-century ago, the fare was 50 cents and the routes linked her to other cities. Now, rides cost $1.50, routes have been shortened or abandoned, and more cuts are in the offing as the system faces shortfalls of $8 million to $10 million a year.

Photo Caption: Rush-hour riders gather at the AC Transit stop at Oakland's Broadway and 14th Street. A lawsuit claims discrimination against riders. Chronicle photo by Michael Macor

Meanwhile, Caltrain and BART and their suburbs-to-city commute lines get far higher public subsidies than AC Transit, the Bay Area's second largest bus system after San Francisco's Municipal Railway.

The reason, civil rights advocates charged in a federal court lawsuit filed Tuesday, is racial discrimination by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which distributes about $1 billion in annual federal and state funds to transit operators in the nine-county region. The suit, modeled on successful litigation in Los Angeles a decade ago, seeks to reorder the commission's priorities from trains to buses.

"The Bay Area has two separate and unequal transit systems: an expanding state-of-the-art rail system, Caltrain and BART, for predominantly white, relatively affluent communities, and a shrinking bus system, AC Transit, for low-income people of color," said Bill Lann Lee, lead attorney for the plaintiffs.

"What we're seeking is not to shut down Caltrain and BART but to have equity," Lee said at a news conference. He said the changes sought in the suit would probably cause a "slowdown of growth" in the rail systems, but "would be fair to the region as a whole."

He said the plaintiffs haven't examined the commission's funding of other bus systems, such as San Francisco's Municipal Railway.

Metropolitan Transportation Commission spokesman John Goodwin declined to comment, saying the commission had not yet seen the suit.

Darensburg, the lead plaintiff, a 45-year-old single mother of three teenagers, takes the bus to her job as a medical administrator in downtown Oakland and to classes at Chabot College in Hayward. Like 61 percent of AC Transit passengers -- but only 14 percent of Caltrain riders and 22 percent of BART riders, according to the lawsuit -- she relies on public transit for everyday transportation.

Because routes have been shortened or eliminated, it takes her an hour to get to work and an hour and 45 minutes to get to school "on a good day when the buses are running on schedule," she said. After school, she has to walk home through an unsafe area because evening service on a line near her home has been canceled.

And if student bus passes are eliminated, her family's $150-a-month transit bill could double, Darensburg said. AC Transit spokesman Clarence Johnson said the system hasn't ruled out getting rid of student passes but is looking at other combinations of fare increases and cuts to balance its budget.

The other two plaintiffs have similar problems. Virginia Martinez of Richmond needs 90 minutes for a round trip by bus to a grocery store that is 10 minutes away by car. She and her husband are sometimes late to work, and their older children have to walk as far as 30 blocks to school, the suit said. Vivian Hain of East Oakland has a 10-year-old daughter who has trouble getting to her magnet school by bus.

Their predicament is no accident, the suit said.

Quoting Federal Transit Administration statistics from 1998 to 2003, plaintiffs' lawyers said each AC Transit rider got a public subsidy of $2.78 per trip, compared with $6.14 for BART and $13.79 for Caltrain.

That's consistent with each system's proportion of white passengers, the suit said: 20.6 percent for AC Transit, 43.3 percent for BART and 60 percent for Caltrain. Income breakdowns show that the percent of riders with annual household incomes of less than $30,000 are 57 percent for AC Transit, 25 percent for BART and 13 percent for Caltrain.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission has known of those patterns for many years, the suit said, citing the commission's studies from the 1970s and '80s that observed that neither Caltrain nor BART served minorities well. The commission's funding decisions are only worsening the situation, the suit said.

According to the plaintiffs, the commission, in its 2001 regional plan, refused to include a $700,000 proposal for additional service to passengers in the poor, predominantly African American area of Richmond even though the commission had rated that project as the most cost-effective, with a projected cost of 75 cents for each new rider.

At the same time, according to the suit, the commission did include in its plan Caltrain's $1.5 billion electrified extension to downtown San Francisco (costing up to $26 per new rider) and the nearly $4 billion BART extension to San Jose (up to $100 per new rider).

It also said commission staff has proposed allocating $9.28 million to Caltrain and $6.9 million to BART -- but zero to AC Transit -- in federal funding available for the commission's 2004 Transportation Improvement Plan.

"By channeling the majority of new funding to cost-ineffective rail projects, MTC not only limits the pool of funds available to improve bus service, but starves the existing bus system of operating funds," said Christine Zook, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 192, another plaintiff in the case. Communities for a Better Environment, which sued the commission in 2001 over an earlier promise to increase overall transit ridership, is also a plaintiff.

The suit accuses the commission of discriminating against minority riders on the basis of race and national origin, both intentionally and by the impact of its decisions. The plaintiffs want an injunction against "any funding decision that has an unjustified disproportionately adverse impact on AC Transit riders of color."

Similar accusations were made against the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority in a suit filed by the Bus Riders Union in 1994. It was settled in 1996, with an agreement to add new buses, limit fares and reduce overcrowding, a plan subject to continuing court enforcement; only last week, a court-appointed referee ordered the agency to add 134 buses.

"Discrimination in transportation is often invisible," said Lee, who took part in the Los Angeles suit before becoming chief of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division in the Clinton administration. That suit, he said, resulted in "massive improvements for bus riders."

This story has been corrected since it appeared in print editions.

This article appeared on page B - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle