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

12:17 PM PDT on April 25, 2012

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.

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.”
In 1994, the Bus Riders Union filed lawsuit against Metro citing discriminatory practices in how the agency routed buses and scheduled routes.  The BRU won a "consent decree" where the agency agreed to beef up its bus service in less affluent communities and communities of color.  The consent decree expired in 2008, and starting in 2009 Metro began a series of service cuts that over three years has totaled over one million hours of service cuts annually.
If anything, the letter from the FTA backs the spin Metro has given since the review was announced last year.  The agency claimed that FTA didn't have issues with the bus service cuts or the agency as a whole, but rather that it had a checklist of things the agency had to do to be in compliance with federal regulations.  As the agency moves through the checklist, the conversation on rolling back the service cuts doesn't appear to be a top issue.
Frustrated with the lack of urgency, the civil rights groups are trying to go over FTA Chairman Peter Rogoff's head right to the president.  Transit watcher John Walsh, who first alerted me to the FTA letter, doesn't seem convinced such a campaign would work.  Walsh credits pressure from the White House as a reason the FTA isn't considering, at this point, asking Metro to roll back its service cuts citing the close relationship between Mayor and Metro Board Chair Antonio Vilalraigosa and President Obama.  Given the speculation that Villaraigosa is on the short list to replace outgoing USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood, a FTA ruling that an agency Villaraigosa chairs is violating Civil Rights regulations would be an embarrassment.

LA Metro’s history of civil rights abuses has been well-documented. In a landmark lawsuit filed in 1994, the Bus Riders Union sued Metro for racial discrimination, resulting in a 10 years of court oversight and close to $3 billion in improvements to the bus system. FTA’s investigation showed that Metro officials returned to their previous practices almost immediately after the court supervision expired. Given that history, bus riders and their allies were appalled that FTA would not use its enforcement powers to pressure Metro to remedy the harm its policies inflicted on 500,000 mostly Black and Latino bus riders.

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