A San Francisco federal jurist Wednesday denied a motion to dismiss a proposed racial discrimination class action lawsuit against the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC).
The litigation, backed by the Berkeley and Oakland city councils and Democratic legislators, alleges that the commission’s public transit funding policies are discriminatory against people of color.
“Good, it was the only thing to do,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Dona Spring of Wednesday’s action by federal Magistrate Elizabeth D. LaPorte.
“The judge has decided they want to hear this case, so that’s what we’re going to do,” said Randy Rentschler, MTC’s Director of Legislative and Public Affairs.
The lawsuit alleges that MTC’s funding policies discriminate against people based on race.
“CalTrain has three times the number of white riders that AC Transit buses, and the subsidy is almost five times greater,” said Richard Marcantonio, attorney for Public Advocates, Inc., the public interest law firm handling the case on behalf of bus riders, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 192 and Communities for a Better Environment.
The next step, following a late January pre-trial conference, will be a hearing on the issue of certifying the litigation as a class action on behalf of all AC transit riders, Marcantonio said.
“This is an important lawsuit because they have been discriminating against transportation of people at the lower end of the economic spectrum,” said Spring. “This is an inequity, and it needs to be rectified.”
Rentschler said the lawsuit is misdirected, “because the allocation of transportation funds is complex, and depends an array of state, federal statutes that are enormously complicated.
“Even if their allegations are true—and I don’t believe they are—it’s not the result of any actions we have taken,” he said.
The Berkeley City Council passed a resolution sponsored by members Kriss Worthington and Max Anderson on July 12 calling on the MTC to increase funding for AC Transit.
That resolution noted that 80 percent of AC Transit bus riders are people of color, 70 percent come from very-low-income households and 60 percent lack any other means of commuting to jobs, schools, medical appointments and shopping.
A joint letter to MTC chair Jon Rubin calling for greater equity in transit funding was also dispatched on Sept. 12 by East Bay Assemblymembers Loni Hancock, Wilma Chan and John Klehs, joined by State Sen. President Pro Tempore Don Perata, U.S. Rep Barbara Lee, Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson and Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia.
“AC Transit funding has dropped precipitously over the last 20 years,” Marcantonio said. “Along with fare increases there have been funding shortages and service cuts.”
Currently, he said, AC transit receives public subsidies of $2.78 per rider trop, compare to $6.14 for BART and $13.79 for CalTrain, “more than five times the subsidy for AC Transit riders.”
While local governments are promoting infill development as an alternative to urban sprawl, the greatest subsidies are given the transit systems that bring in passengers from farthest away, Spring said. “Smart growth depends on public transit, yet we have less transportation today than we did 10, 15 and 20 years ago.”
“Instead of suing us, we need to join together and go united to Sacramento and Washington, D.C. and to the local voters to make the case that if people are serious about increasing public transportation, they have to give more money,” Rentschler said.
“Instead, we’ll be spending money on lawyers, which we think is a waste of money,” he added.
Now that the lawsuit is going ahead, Marcantonio said one of the next steps will be the discovery process. “We’ve received around 800 pages of documents [from MTC] out of an estimated 60,000,” he said.
Public Advocates, Inc. is a non-profit public interest civil rights law firm founded in 1971.
“We’re one of the first of the public interest firms that was formed as a result of the civil rights movement,” Marcantonio said. The firm has won some notable victories, which are listed on their web site at www.publicadvocates.org.