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BRU Sets Sights on President Obama. Urges Overruling of FTA Decision on Metro Civil Rights Complaints

Yang speaks at yesterday's rally while BRU members ask the President to take a personal interest in the FTA review of Metro. Photo courtesy the Bus Riders Union

The Federal Transit Administration seems pleased with the progress being made by Metro to change the way it does business to be in compliance with federal civil rights statutes.  Rather than requiring major changes to the way Metro does business, the FTA seems content with changes to its outreach and reporting methods.  The FTA began a Civil Rights Title VI review of Metro last year after complaints from the Bus Riders Union and other civil rights and transit advocacy groups.  These groups hoped the FTA would reverse the over 1 million hours of cuts to bus service that Metro has ordered since the end of a judicial consent decree mandating increases in service expired in 2008.

FTA Adminstrator Peter Rogoff is under fire from the BRU for refusing to roll back Metro's recent bus service cuts.

Already knowing there was no mechanism to appeal the FTA’s decision, the BRU rallied in front of MTA headquarters yesterday kicking off a campaign calling on President Barack Obama to overrule the FTA’s decision.

“FTA is ignoring the smoking gun uncovered by its own civil rights team,” said Sunyoung Yang, lead organizer at the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, a grassroots civil rights membership organization of LA’s transit riders that has battled LA Metro for years. “Rather than hold Metro responsible, Administrator Rogoff is allowing the agency to paper over its civil rights abuses through more studies to make its civil rights violations disappear through administrative sleight of hand. Since Rogoff and FTA have abdicated their responsibility to enforce Title VI, we’re calling on President Obama to bring real civil rights to LA bus riders and order the restoration of lost transit service.”

 Yang is referring to a FTA decision to allow Metro to study and report on the cumulative impact of the bus service cuts on less affluent communities and communities of color since 2009.  Pending the findings of the report, the FTA could order a rollback of the cuts or exclude Metro from future federal funds.  The BRU worries that even though the FTA will approve the guidelines for the report, that asking an agency to report on itself is a lot like asking grade-schoolers to grade their own tests.  The BRU quotes an unnamed Metro staffer in their press materials stating, “it is anticipated that the [new] analysis will not find any disparate impacts.” Read more…
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Advocates Respond: What to Make of the FTA’s Civil Rights Report on Metro

fta civil rights compliance review for L.A Metro

Over the past week, Streetsblog published four stories on the Federal Transit Administration’s report on Title VI Civil Rights violations at Metro.  Most of our reporting focused on the conflict between the Bus Riders Union and Metro staff on what the report means.  However, advocates around the city have pored over the report and have opinions of their own of what it means and what Metro should do to respond.

As is often the case when seeking the opinions of a range of advocates, there was some disagreement.  One thing everyone agreed on is that Metro has to do better.

Going easiest on Metro was Jerard Wright, Sierra Club Angeles Chapter, Transportation Committee Co-Chair.  Wright argues that the report is a positive document for Metro as it shows how the agency can improve to better improve outreach for all users.  Wright writes, “I see the FTA report as nothing more than a punchlist of items that Metro needs to complete on top of what is already being done when decisions are being made on service, fares and the overall operations of the LA County Transportation system.

It clearly didn’t find fault with the agnecy as the directives reported were communication measures that will aid both Metro and FTA in the long run. The claims that this is a damning report is further from the truth as those claims are nothing more than a smokescreen to create a political whirlpool of drama.”

Southern California Transit Advocate Board Member, and Streetsblog contributor, Dana Gabbard took issue with both Metro’s outreach process and the idea that this report should be seen as an indictment of the agency as a whole.

“As somebody who has in the past severely criticized Metro for the poor handling of outreach for service change hearings (including in a series of commentaries that appeared on this blog earlier this year) I hope this report results in a more open and fair process,” Gabbard writes.  ”That said the notion promoted in certain quarters that this audit will result in federal intervention and or mandates regarding fares and levels of service seems fanciful and frankly disingenuous demagoguery that obscures needlessly.”

As with Wright and Gabbard, Bart Reed has been a long time critic of the Bus Riders Union, however in this case Reed’s criticisms sound similar to the BRU’s, although Reed’s style is signifigantly more measured than the Union’s.

“Metro should now shift from making service decisions based primarily on triaging cuts when revenues were falling to having a system that has both higher frequencies and better coordination of connections that attracts more riders and serves the transit-dependent better. This means revising how the load factor is used when establishing service levels,” writes Reed.

“For example, lines serving Koreatown may experience peak load when reaching the heart of Koreatown, but lines in South Central LA or the valleys may be close to peak load over a much longer portion of the route. Thus, holding all lines to the same load factor might result in disproportionate cuts to service in the areas with a more even ridership distribution.”

Reed goes on to argue that changing headways along commercial corridors is one way that Metro policies are hurting the transit dependent.

“One of the results of service cuts is low-income workers who previously took buses with 10-15 minute headways on a major commercial corridor like Ventura Boulevard are now faced with up to 40 minute headways. Therefore, if one bus is late, the tardy worker is in danger of losing the job.  This creates a powerful incentive to switch to driving.”

Also weighing in is Public Counsel, a legal non-profit that defends the rights of the less-advantaged.  The group’s president is one of the few people I’ve met who both have a law degree and have read the FTA report.

“Government must protect its citizens from discrimination on account of race and ethnicity. Yet by failing to properly analyze how its policies, including service cuts, disproportionately affect minorities, Metro has failed  in this core obligation.  This failure has resulted in major barriers to economic survival for Metro’s core riders — including access to jobs, education, and health care,” writes Public Counsel President and CEO Hernán Vera.

“We urge the Metro board to take seriously the FTA Compliance Review which found Metro to be deficient in 5 of the 12 Title VI requirements: Notice to the Public of Title VI Rights, language access, adoption of system-wide service standards and policies, evaluation of service and fare changes, and monitoring transit service.”

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BRU to Metro: Let Public in on Civil Rights Remedies

Yesterday, the Metro Board of Directors discussed the recently released FTA Report detailing Title VI Civil Rights violations at Metro.  The Source called the discussion “by far the liveliest part of the meeting,” but it also showed ongoing confusion about what the report means and what is the best way to meet the complaints.

Photo of yesterday's rally outside Metro Headquarters via the Bus Riders Union

Mayor Villaraigosa, whose plane from Asia had landed just over eight hours before the meeting began, spoke for the entire Board that they were “very concerned” about the report’s findings.  While other members expressed some particular issues with items raised in the report, the strongest complaints came from other non-white members of the Board.  City Councilman Jose Huizar complained about the lack of translated materials outside of English and Spanish and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas was perhaps most blunt when he called the entire affair “rather embarrassing” in the Los Angeles Times.

Despite their concerns with Metro actions that led them to yesterday’s discussion, the Metro Board did back the basic plan to get the agency back on track.  While Metro staff has told anyone willing to listen that these are minor procedural complaints that will be addressed by March or April or June (depending who is speaking for Metro) of next year, critics with the Bus Riders Union and other civil rights groups protested Metro Headquarters throughout the afternoon.  Their message was simple, the FTA report is a big deal, and the BRU doesn’t trust Metro to do handle the complaints fairly without an empowered citizen oversight committee.

The Bus Riders Union has long argued that Metro should restore the over 1 million hours of service cuts from the past three years and restore fares to their 2007 levels.  They believe that the FTA’s report, coupled with strong civilian oversight of Metro’s response is the key to start making these positions a reality. Read more…

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FTA Chooses Crenshaw Line for Federal Fast Track, Will It Lead to Faster Start Date?

Will an expedited pre-construction process lead to a Leimert Park Station, more lawsuits, or moving up construction by a couple of months? Image: Crenshaw Subway Coalition

Yesterday, the White House announced that the Crenshaw Light Rail Line is one of fourteen projects nationwide selected to be part of an expedited federal review so that construction could proceed more quickly.  This announcement was met with praise from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Senator Barbara Boxer and County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.  Ridley-Thomas even went so far as to ponder whether accelerating construction could lead to enough funds becoming available to construct the Leimert Park Station that has been environmentally cleared but not funded.

Here’s the official announcement:

Crenshaw/LAX, California

The Crenshaw/LAX project will extend the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (LA Metro) existing Green Line light rail nearer to the Los Angeles International Airport and connect it to the Expo Line light rail.  The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is providing additional targeted technical assistance to shorten the approval time for this project by several months. In addition FTA and LA Metro will pilot FTA’s new streamlined risk assessment approach for major transit projects to ensure risks and associated mitigation measures are identified and addressed promptly.

“I am so pleased that the Obama administration has taken these steps to fast track the Crenshaw/LAX project, so that local communities will have access to improved transit service even sooner than expected,” said Boxer through a press statement.  ”The Crenshaw/LAX Project will provide many much-needed jobs in the construction industry, which has been hard hit in these tough economic times.”

The first question on everyone’s mind is, “how much time can actually be saved by this new process?”   Read more…

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FTA: Transit Maintenance — Not Just Expansion — Will Grow Ridership

Aging infrastructure across the country has become an enormous safety risk. It’s also becoming an economic hazard.

SEPTA is forgoing new amenities to focus on making sure their trains don't end up like this one. ##http://www.brownstoner.com/brownstoner/archives/2008/07/the_septa_train.php##Brownstoner##

SEPTA is forgoing new amenities to focus on making sure their trains don't end up like this one. Brownstoner

Last year, the Federal Transit Administration announced that the seven largest rail transit systems had a backlog of $50 billion in maintenance needs to bring them into a state of good repair. In June, the agency determined that nationwide, the backlog is nearly $78 billion.

Though these needed repair and maintenance projects may be less impressive to the public than major expansions, they are key to increasing ridership and decreasing costs.

Last week, FTA Deputy Administrator Therese McMillan told the North America Strategic Infrastructure Leadership Forum that the agency is linking good transit maintenance to its livability initiatives. Keeping systems in good repair, she said, is the foundation of safe, reliable rail service that can help draw new residents to vacated areas.

“When we’re looking at the opportunities for in-fill, particularly in our major urban areas, where we can take advantage of the infrastructure we already have, this is where State of Good Repair becomes a very key piece of a livability initiative,” McMillan said. “So it’s not just about building the new stuff into greenfield. It’s about investing and making transit a real value-added as part of these strategic re-investments in communities.”

Read more…

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Metro Misses Out on Federal “New Starts” Funding

24_10_source_map.jpgFor a full copy of the map, visit The Source

Earlier this week, Streetsblog Capitol Hill’s Elana Schor wrote about the transit agencies across the country that received federal "New Starts" funding.  As is common knowledge now, Los Angeles was shut out, receiving $0 in federal funds in this round of funding from the federal government for the two projects for which they applied, the Regional Connector and the Subway to the Sea.  Yesterday at The Source, Steve Hymon explained why Los Angeles was shut out, but also made the case that the most populous county in the country deserves a share of federal dollars.

The reason: the
projects haven’t yet been designated as official New Starts projects,
although FTA officials are working with Metro on the complex
application process.

As a result, the FY 2011 budget has no New
Starts money for Los Angeles County, the most heavily populated county
in the United States, with 9.86 million people…

…The county did
receive its last installment of nearly $500 million in New Starts money
last year to help pay for the Eastside Gold Line, which opened in
November. In fairness to the feds, it can also be argued that Metro may
have received subway and connector funds this year if the planning
process for both had started earlier than 2007 and the projects were
farther along.

Both advocates for the Gold Line Foothill Extension and opponents of the Expo Line have argued that Metro should apply for "New Starts" money for these projects as well.  Adding more projects to the list of projects Metro submits does increase the chance that Metro will bring home more of that federal bacon; but it also decreases the chance that those projects favored by the Board are the ones that are partially funded.

Regardless of where "the blame" should go for "the most heavily populated county in the United States" getting shut out of this popular transit funding program, let’s encourage both Metro and the Federal Government to make certain this doesn’t happen again next year.

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Miami, Sacramento, Boston Transit Projects Still Seeking Federal Approval

Amid the good vibes yesterday
over new federal funding agreements for transit projects in New York
City, Oakland, Hartford, and other metro areas, the Federal Transit
Administration (FTA) also offered a spell of bad news to a few local
proposals that are still working to meet the agency’s standards for
aid.

subway5.jpgAn extension of Miami’s Metrorail is on the ropes in the fight for federal aid. (Photo: Laurel_blogger via Photobucket)

In its full report [PDF]
on transit New and Small Starts, the FTA listed 14 transit projects in
the "Preliminary Engineering" phase, with three of those receiving an
overall project rating of Medium-Low. Projects need to receive
an overall status of Medium or above in order to get federal funding,
even after the FTA relaxed its former emphasis on cost-effectiveness.

So which three projects are still stuck in neutral when it comes to winning Washington’s approval? Boston’s Silver Line Phase III plan, a $1.7 billion tunnel that would connect Chinatown with the southern waterfront and the airport; Sacramento’s South Corridor Phase II, a four-mile extension of local light rail estimated at $270 million; and Miami’s Orange Line Phase II, a 9.2-mile extension of the city’s Metrorail with a price tag of $1.3 billion.

Miami
and Boston, having already gotten the cold shoulder in 2008, could face
a permanent no from the feds if they cannot strengthen their proposals
this year.

Interestingly, the three transit projects that
have yet to reach a Medium rating got subpar evaluations of their local
governments’ financial contributions even though their proposed federal
share of capital costs was comparable to the those for successful
transit projects in Minneapolis and Denver. (Boston’s preferred federal
share stands at 60 percent, Sacramento’s at 50 percent and Miami’s at
47 percent.)

For the full skinny, check out page 13 of the FTA’s report.

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Feds Propose to Expand Opportunities for Biking and Walking to Transit

When it comes to infrastructure improvements that encourage more people
to walk or bicycle to transit stations, how long will commuters be
willing to travel? The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has
officially answered that question, proposing a significant expansion of
the rules governing how close bike-ped projects should be to transit in
order to receive government funding.

6a00e551eea4f588340120a5b6138d970b_800wi.jpgThe BikeStation in Washington D.C., which provides parking and services for bicyclists who use transit. (Photo: U.S. DOT)

The FTA’s new rules,
released for public comment on Friday, replace the previous definition
of the so-called "structural envelope" surrounding a transit station.

In
the past, regulators had tended to use 1,500 feet as the distance which
"most people can be expected to safely and conveniently walk to use the
transit service." But the Obama administration, stating plainly that
the current radius is "too short," has proposed expanding it to a
half-mile for pedestrian improvements and three miles for bicycle
projects.

In its explanation of the new proposal, the FTA wrote:

The most successful and useful public
transportation systems have safe and convenient pedestrian access and
provide comfortable waiting areas, all of which encourage greater
use.

Distances beyond the walkshed of public transportation stops and
stations may in fact be within the range of a short bicycle trip.
Providing secure parking and other amenities for bicycles and cyclists
at public transportation stops or stations can be less expensive than
providing parking for automobiles.

The proposed regulation also codifies a U.S. DOT definition of "livability" that Streetsblog Capitol Hill took note of
when it was first mentioned by Transportation Secretary LaHood: "If
people don’t want an automobile, they don’t have to have one."

Public comments on the FTA’s proposal can be filed here.

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Senate’s New DOT Spending Bill Eases One Transit Funding Barrier

large_I5_2Bridge_Render_11248119.JPGAn
artist’s rendering of the proposed multi-modal Columbia River Crossing,
with light rail and a bike path beneath the bridge. (Photo: Oregonian)

During the lengthy process
of pursuing a "New Starts" funding agreement with the U.S. DOT, local
transit officials are often at the mercy of cost-benefit calculations
that have failed to keep pace with evolutions in transport planning.
But one aspect of that slog could soon change, thanks to Sen. Patty
Murray (D-WA).

When evaluating a bid for federal aid by the Columbia River Crossing
(CRC), a proposed multi-modal road and light rail link between Portland
and Vancouver, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) decided to
treat the broad project as separate highway and transit efforts –
effectively prohibiting state gas taxes and proposed bridge tolls from
counting towards the local share of the CRC’s transit costs, as the
Oregonian reported.

Murray fired back by using
her power as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s
transportation panel to insert a relevant provision in the DOT’s 2010
budget. Her language requires the FTA to calculate the local share of
multi-modal transit proposals based on "all local funds incorporated in the unified finance plan" for the project.

Murray’s
move, if it survives a conference with the House, should ensure that
the CRC’s FTA pitch is evaluated using more appropriate math. Yet
Murray’s language would apply across the board, meaning that other
regional transport plans blending roads and transit could have an
easier time winning federal money for the latter portion of the project
– as opposed to just the former.

(h/t Twitter user @cwsjd99)

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Senators Hear From Obama’s Transit Chief-in-Waiting

One of the Capitol’s sad, secret truths is that members of Congress
often skip committee hearings on issues of vital importance to their
states — and today’s confirmation session with Peter Rogoff, the
president’s nominee to lead the Federal Transit Administration (FTA),
was no exception.

Just three members of the Senate Banking
Committee showed up to question Rogoff, a 22-year veteran of the
Senate’s transportation appropriations panel. But lawmakers from both
parties demonstrated an acute awareness that the FTA needs to revamp
the arduous process of funding mass transit projects.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) decried the lengthy delays that have plagued the FTA’s New Starts program,
which requires mass transit proposals to clear a number of bureaucratic
hurdles before qualifying for federal aid. "Many desirable projects
don’t seem to make it into the mix," Reed said.

Rogoff strongly agreed, pointing to a recently released FTA report
that found a $50 billion backlog of needed repairs at America’s seven
largest transit systems (Boston, Chicago, New York, New Jersey, San
Francisco, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.).

"Some of
these deferred maintenance issues quickly become safety issues," Rogoff
warned. He urged the senators to strike a balance between funding new
public transit projects — for which "it’s a lot easier to garner
enthusiasm" — and repairing the already broken systems in major cities.

Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL), mourning this month’s defeat
of a proposed light rail line for Central Florida, broke from his
party’s conservative bloc by declaring that mass transit should be a
central part of the solution to the nation’s transit woes. He probed
Rogoff on the growing popularity of public-private partnerships to fund
transit projects, which has sparked heated debate in Washington.

The
fundamental problem with relying on private financing, Rogoff observed,
is that its inherent profit motive could prove incompatible with the
operating subsidies that mass transit often needs in order to survive.
Rogoff also ruled out any deals to sell off states’ and cities’ transit
assets: "When you get into some pure privatizations, when transit
assets are sold … clearly, that’s where we need to draw the line."

Rogoff
is likely to clear the Banking panel within a week or so, with a vote
by the full Senate to follow. As a former congressional staffer, he’s
expected to win quick confirmation.