Darensburg v. MTC
On April 19, 2005, Public Advocates and a coalition including bus riders, labor, and civil rights advocates filed a federal class action lawsuit against the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission on behalf of AC Transit bus riders of color. The suit alleges that MTC violates federal and state civil rights laws by channeling funds in favor of BART and Caltrain commuters while denying equitable funding to AC Transit bus riders of color.
MTC's discriminatory behavior is starkly reflected in the level of public subsidies it provides to transit users. BART and Caltrain passengers, who are disproportionately white and affluent, receive a per passenger subsidy of $6.14 and $13.79, respectively, for each trip they make. AC Transit riders on the other hand, 80% of whom are people of color and 60% of whom are transit dependent, receive a public subsidy of only $2.78.
The litigation seeks equity in the funding and services available for low-income transit-dependent riders of AC Transit. Plaintiffs include three individual AC Transit bus riders: Sylvia Darensburg of East Oakland, Vivian Hain of East Oakland, and Virginia Martinez of Richmond. Additional plaintiffs are Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 192. Representing plaintiffs with Public Advocates are Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein; CBE; and Altshuler Berzon Nussbaum & Demain.
The case went to trial in October 2008 and on March 27, 2009 the U.S. District Court issued its decision. The Court found that MTC’s $13 billion transit expansion funding program (known as the Resolution 3434 “Regional Transit Expansion Program”) has a harmful impact that falls disproportionately on bus riders of color. The Court also found that MTC’s transit expansion selection process causes a disparity in funding for rail projects that on the whole are used by a lower percentage of minority riders, as opposed to bus projects. The Court’s findings were based on evidence that showed that 94% of transit expansion funding in Res. 3434 goes to rail projects, and that a greater proportion of bus riders than rail riders are people of color.
Despite agreeing with plaintiffs that MTC caused a “disparate impact,” however, the Court found that MTC had a “substantial legitimate justification” for its practices because it relied on the Partnership Advisory Board in formulating them, and because it had other competing goals to meet (such as reducing highway congestion, enhancing transportation connectivity, ensuring safety and security of transportation system). The Court ruled that these justifications were sufficient to allow MTC to continue these practices in spite of their discriminatory impact.
The Court also found that MTC’s funding decisions have caused many of the cuts implemented by AC Transit; that MTC can do more to fund AC Transit; and the plaintiff class would benefit from such additional funding. Interestingly, the Court stated that the lawsuit may have already caused MTC to channel more operating funds towards AC Transit.
Plaintiffs’ legal team, including attorneys at Public Advocates and Communities for a Better Environment, believe that the Court’s findings against MTC are very significant. For the first time, minority bus riders have been vindicated in their belief that MTC’s Res. 3434 expansion program -- which MTC calls the “cornerstone” of its regional planning -- expands rail at the expense of vital bus service. The Court also found that MTC’s funding practices are responsible for service cuts and fare hikes, undermining MTC’s ability in the future to argue that its “hands are tied” and that it is “bending over backwards” to provide operating funding to AC Transit.
At the same time, the legal team believes that the Court applied the wrong legal standard in concluding that MTC had adequately justified the discriminatory impacts of its decisions. While MTC’s actions may meet the low legal standard for being consistent with its general statutory obligations, the civil rights law requires that when those actions have a discriminatory impact on racial minorities, they must meet a much stricter standard of justification; there must be a “necessity.”
On April 23, 2009, we appealed the U.S. District Court's decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
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