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Suit Alleges Bay Area Transit Agency Runs an 'Unequal' System

April 20, 2005|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Minority bus riders and community groups from Alameda and Contra Costa counties filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday accusing the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission of maintaining a "separate and unequal transit system" that favors white suburban commuters.

The lawsuit is modeled on a 1994 Los Angeles case filed against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority by the Bus Riders Union. The settlement in that case resulted in a federal consent decree mandating improved services for urban riders.

The Bay Area lawsuit alleges that the commission has disproportionately funded Caltrain and BART -- rail services used predominantly by white suburbanites with relatively high incomes -- while under-funding the East Bay's AC Transit bus system, used mainly by low-income minority city dwellers.

According to the lawsuit -- filed on behalf of three minority riders from East Oakland and Richmond, the nonprofit Communities for a Better Environment, and Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 192 -- the commission has channeled a per-person public subsidy of $2.78 to AC Transit riders, $6.14 to BART riders, and $13.79 to Caltrain riders.

"The numbers add up to racial discrimination in violation of the [U.S.] Constitution," said Bill Lann Lee, a lead attorney on the case, who as a Los Angeles civil rights attorney in the 1990s helped press the case against the MTA.

Commission spokesman Joe Curley declined to comment Tuesday on the lawsuit, saying the legal staff had not yet been served with a copy and commissioners had yet to discuss the matter.

The lawsuit seeks a "fair and equitable share" of funding "to accord inner-city riders equal dignity with white suburban riders," said Lee, who served as assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Clinton administration. Attorneys for the plaintiffs are seeking to pursue the case -- filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco -- as a class-action lawsuit.

Commission ridership surveys over the years indicate it intentionally discriminated against minorities in violation of the U.S. Constitution, the suit alleges. However, even if the discrimination was not intentional, the suit maintains, it resulted in disparate delivery of services along racial and ethnic lines -- also a federal law violation.

A similar approach was taken in the Los Angeles case, which has prompted the MTA to add 1.6 million annual bus-service hours. Last week, the special master overseeing the consent decree ordered the MTA to add 134 more buses to its Metro Rapid fleet.

Sylvia Darensburg, an African American divorced mother of three who lives in East Oakland, said cuts in funding to AC Transit have led to inferior bus routes and cost increases that strain her family budget. The 45-year-old medical administrator works in downtown Oakland and also attends Chabot College in Hayward with her eldest teenager.

She spends five hours a day on the bus at times, and could see her monthly transit costs increase from $150 to $230 if bus passes are eliminated as proposed.

"It's nice to see in paper what I see every day riding AC Transit," Darensburg, one of the three plaintiffs, said of the lawsuit.

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