Public transportation as a civil right

The nonprofit law firm Public Advocates believes public transportation is a civil right, and the federal government agrees.

This story is adapted from a broadcast audio segment; use audio player to listen to story in its entirety.

When U.S. cities build new rail lines, they have to worry about more than making the trains run on time. The federal government is forcing public transportation officials to think about equity and civil rights, too.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, for example, lost out on $70 million in federal stimulus money for its plans to build an elevated connector to the Oakland Airport. Activists, like Guillermo Mayer of the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates, charged that the project neglected largely African American and Latino communities of East Oakland. Mayer says the proposed rail line ignored low-income local residents and favored affluent visitors.

This year, Federal Transit Administration (FTA) agreed with Mayer, and found that BART had violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The FTA had significant equity concerns in the new BART plans, and denied the system $70 million in funding.

Instead of building expensive new rail lines, Mayer advocates a cheaper bus rapid transit system for new BART projects. Bus rapid transit runs modernized buses on dedicated lanes, and "would serve everybody's needs" according to Mayer. "OnEarth" magazine recently profiled Bus Rapid Transit systems, calling them "more flexible, cheaper, and in some cases more environmentally friendly than building a new rail-based mass transit system." 

The FTA's decision to deny funding has other communities taking note. According to Mayer, transit agencies in Atlanta, Washington DC and Los Angeles are now paying more attention to how their decisions will affect low income and minority populations. Mayer says, "The feds are watching, and they want to make sure that civil rights are watching.

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This story originally appeared on Public Radio International's site on May 2, 2010 and is available here:  http://www.pri.org/business/nonprofits/public-transportation-as-a-civil-right1972.html

Note:  TEN member Genesis in Oakland, CA was a party to the lawsuit that led to the FTA's decision.