November 19, 2013

By Sam Tepperman-Gelfant

Someday soon, you’ll be able to take the Route 1 bus from West Dayton, Ohio to the Fairfield Commons Mall in nearby Beavercreek. Now, Public Advocates is not usually in the business of publishing transit schedules. But the addition of six new bus stops in Beavercreek is a civil rights victory worth celebrating.

Back in 2010, the Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority proposed to extend its existing service by building six new bus stops in the overwhelmingly white suburb of Beavercreek. The idea was to provide critical transit access to jobs and services for residents of Dayton, a city that is 43% African American. The new bus stops would provide bus access to the mall as well as medical facilities and a college campus. It would also mean the end of bus riders being forced to walk long distances along busy roads without sidewalks to get to the jobs and services that the new stops would serve.

But even though the proposed stops complied with all local ordinances, the Beavercreek City Council decided to demand more: police call boxes and “state of the art” security cameras providing real-time feeds to the local police, heated and air conditioned bus shelters, a $150,000 slush fund for unanticipated signal improvements and more. This kind of demand was unprecedented. The Transit Authority refused to comply with the burdensome requirements, and in 2011 the City Council denied the permits for the stops.

That’s where Title VI came in. Beavercreek receives federal funds for transportation infrastructure projects. Title VI prevents federal funds from being used discriminatorily and federal regulations ensure that use of federal funds does not result in racially discriminatory impacts. Denying the additional bus stops effectively denied bus riders access to the benefit of the road. Because African Americans disproportionately rely on transit service — African Americans are the largest percentage of bus riders at 64 percent — they were disproportionately affected by Beavercreek’s decision.

So, Leaders for Equality and Action in Dayton (LEAD) filed a complaint with the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Office of Civil Rights alleging that the denial of the permits had a disparate impact on African American bus riders. The Administration investigated the complaint and agreed with LEAD. In a June letter, the Administration concluded that the City Council’s onerous demands and denial of permits had a racially disparate impact with no legitimate justification.

Rather than face the possibility of losing federal funds, the City Council voted 5-2 to approve the disputed bus stops last month. Construction to bring expanded transit access to employment, retail, and educational opportunity for low income and minority bus riders should begin soon.

Without getting too deep into the legal weeds, it’s worth noting a couple of exciting details from this story in addition to celebrating its happy ending.

First, the FHWA took its oversight job seriously. Even though this was a case about bus stops, the Highway Administration didn’t attempt to punt the issue to the Federal Transit Administration. Moreover, even though Beavercreek was a sub-grantee of FHWA funds that passed through the Ohio Department of Transportation, that didn’t stop the Administration from enforcing Title VI. This may seem like a technical detail, but the policing of sub-recipients is a big deal. Without it, there’s a danger of state and regional agencies attempting to “wash” money of its Title VI obligations by passing it along to local agencies.

Second, the Administration performed a meaningful analysis of whether there was any legitimate reason for Beavercreek to have imposed additional conditions on the approval of the bus stops. While the Administration agreed that Beavercreek had a legitimate interest in achieving goals such as public safety, it determined that none of the additional criteria was “necessary” to meet any of these goals. For example, the additional safety requirements Beavercreek described as necessary weren’t in use at any other bus stops. Too often, agencies performing Title VI analyses are willing to accept any interest put forward as legitimate and any activity or condition as necessary. Such lax enforcement can effectively gut Title VI, so it’s heartening to see FHWA applying the proper level of scrutiny.

Unfortunately, the FHWA’s decision in this case joins only a handful of other administrative cases under Title VI that have been decided in favor of those challenging a discriminatory practice. Although there are laws that protect against discriminatory outcomes, there is a disturbing lack of teeth behind these laws. Neither the federal agencies tasked with enforcement, nor the courts, are consistently willing to enforce the law rigorously.

Mobility is a cornerstone of our social and economic quality of life and our civil rights laws must protect access for all. If a city, region, transit operator, or state receives federal funds for its roads, trains, or busses, it must ensure that people from all backgrounds have equal access to travel on them. As John F. Kennedy said in 1963: “Simple justice requires that public funds, to which all taxpayers of all races contribute, not be spent in any fashion, which encourages, entrenches, subsidizes, or results in racial discrimination.“


The imminent arrival of busses to Beavercreek demonstrates the power of Title VI to make real this core civil rights promise.

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