Spinning a Civil Rights Complaint

One of L.A.'s less attractive bus stops. Photo: Fred Camino/Metro Rider

Late last week, most likely in response to a report by the Bus Riders Union and their community allies, a letter from Metro CEO Art Leahy dismissing the Civil Rights complaints of the BRU appeared on The Source.  The letter basically announced that the Title VI complaints against the agency announced last Spring were dismissed, leading to much cheering from Metro supporters.

While there’s nothing in Leahy’s letter that is factually incorrect on its own, it paints a picture that the Federal Transit Administration has already ruled that Metro has not violated Civil Rights laws with recent fare increases and bus service cuts.  While the FTA may rule that way, they haven’t yet.

Here’s a timeline of the BRU’s complaint and where we are now.

Over the past four years, Metro engaged in a series of fare hikes and service cuts in the name of efficiency and stabilizing the farebox recovery ratio of the agency.  Thanks in large part to Measure R, fares on students, people of lower income and the elderly have not gone up as dramatically as they have on other people.  Despite a 40% increase in its base fare, with more increases to come, Metro has one of the lower fares in the country.  The agency has also cut almost 1 million hours of bus service including many of the “lower performing” routes completely.

In November, the Bus Riders Union wrote the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) asking for a review of Metro’s practices under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Executive Order 12898 and Department of Transportation Regulations.

In March, the FTA declined the request but announced that it would conduct an on-site compliance review of the agency.  The letter from FTA credited the BRU’s complaint to the Civil Rights Department as one reason for the compliance review.  This began a split narrative on what the FTA’s review actually is.  Metro claims its a routine review and that the BRU’s complaint was dismissed, which is technically true.  The BRU claims that they pointed out a system of decision making at Metro that further disadvantages the disadvantaged.  In fact, the BRU trumpeted the announcement of the compliance review in a major press blitz.  You car read the FTA’s decision letter, available exclusively on Streetsblog, here.

This summer, the investigators came to Metro and interviewed staff, Board Members and other interested parties including the Bus Riders Union.  Following their meeting, the BRU submitted a brief on the service cuts passed by the Metro Board since their initial complaint.  This was not a second complaint, rather an informational packet submitted to the reviewers.

The Bus Riders Union did not appeal the FTA’s decision not to do a Title VI review in addition to the review the FTA is currently undertaking.  In their own words,

 Our appeal to the FTA was a procedural request, based in the complex FTA guidelines, to shift our role in the review process and did not raise any substantive issues. Likewise, FTA’s decision not to grant this request has nothing to do with the substantive issues we raised in our original complaint.

The people at FTA empowered to speak about these complaints are not available by phone this week, they’re at a training conference.  Likewise, statement from Metro staff was basically the same as Leahy’s letter.  The FTA did confirm that the BRU’s recent request was procedural and not substantive.

While the two sides in this drama, the BRU and Metro continue to tell different stories, (the BRU is acting as though this is the major transit story of the year, Metro is acting like it’s routine) there’s no escaping that the last chapter will be written by the FTA.  Their final report isn’t due out until the end of this year at the earliest, and it will quickly become apparent which version of this story is correct.

As soon as we hear anything on the FTA’s decision, we’ll let you know.

  • Anonymous

    BRU and Metro can spin their own stories how they want. Unfortunately, for the BRU, when LA was deemed to have the 2nd highest transit access of any major metropolitan in the US (http://www.theblaze.com/stories/the-best-cities-to-live-in-if-you-dont-have-a-car/), that’s going to hurt their credibility about unfair bus service cuts and adjustments. Ouch………

  • The dude abides

    Interesting editorial choice for the picture that is inserted into to the story. It connotates a crappy bus stop with no shelter indicating what? That metro is racist? Well to start off it is an unfair dig a metro since bus shelters/beeches are the responsibility of the city/county and therefor is an unfair representation of the story.

    I would have gone with a shot of a packed subway that is filled with minorities. Ya know to show the irony of the BRU claims that only white people ride the subway.

    *yes you should do a story on crappy bus stops but aim your sites on the city and metro.

  • If you review the Title VI reviews on the FTA web site, they review all transit agencies periodically. They also consult with various community groups – for example, in Phoenix, they specifically interviewed Hispanic groups to make sure that the Title VI rights of Hispanics were preserved. I think the BRU may have accelerated a Title VI review, but it would have come up eventually anyway, and the BRU would make sure to be on the contact list. I recall doing a FOIA some time during the 2008 fare increase debacle and found that FTA had a few Title VI complaints before that time which they closed out, but nothing major. With the federal review time I would not expect any response before the start of 2012.

  • P.
  • I have to admit, it was sort of an in-joke…

  • Mig

    A) Link doesn’t work
    B) Some report (which I haven’t seen due to the broken link) indicating LA has relatively good transit access is not the same as metro actually providing good transit access.  Also, it seems consistent to me that the story above could have drawn its conclusions while Metro is taking actions that disproportionately burden minority communities. 

    If the link above to a photo of the intersection today is accurate, it seems to make stronger case for the BRU than what you allude to above.  Where is the investment happening and where are the cuts happening?  And, while those investments may result in improvements to parts of the network, that doesn’t necessarily mean Metro’s actions are A OK.

  • Aren’t cities responsible for bus stops? Metro just puts up the sign.