Public Comment

Fairness and Climate Change Demand MTC Attention

By Richard A. Marcantonio
Thursday November 20, 2008 - 11:08:00 AM

These pages have hosted vigorous discussion about AC Transit bus service. But they have largely been silent on the critical role of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the nine-county regional transportation funding and planning agency that holds the purse strings for AC Transit. MTC’s funding decisions should treat all communities equitably and address the effects of catastrophic climate change. With the agency soon to adopt a $200 billion Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), it deserves far closer public scrutiny than it has received. 

For many years, MTC has chosen to fund costly freeway and rail capital expansion projects by systematically shifting public funds away from transit operating needs. This has come at the expense of maintaining existing urban bus service. 

The result has been a shortage of operating funding, leading to repeated service cuts and fare hikes for AC Transit riders. This hurts our most vulnerable neighbors and communities. Nearly 80 percent of AC Transit’s riders are people of color. More than 60 percent (including seniors, people with disabilities and low-income families) are “transit-dependent,” meaning they rely on buses to reach essential destinations like jobs, schools, health-care services, recreation, and places of worship. And 15 percent of AC Transit’s riders are youth, for whom AC Transit buses have replaced the now-defunct yellow school bus. 

AC Transit was once a world-class bus system. Since 1986, however, it has lost 30 percent of its service. 

Recognizing the importance of the issue, and the central role MTC plays in starving bus service, we filed a federal civil rights class action lawsuit, Darensburg v. MTC, that went to trial last month. Our contention is simple: MTC should fully fund operating expenses for existing bus service before it diverts scarce public dollars to costly expansion projects. 

Our case challenges three practices by which MTC builds a structural operating deficit into AC Transit’s budget, causing it to cut service and raise fares to unaffordable levels. 

First, MTC’s “regional transit expansion program” puts nearly 95 percent of its funding into expanding rail service, and less than 5 percent into bus projects. For example, MTC has included in its expansion program (known as Res. 3434) costly projects for BART and Caltrain. To get a sense of the relative cost-effectiveness of those investments, just one mile of new BART track from Fremont to Warm Springs will cost more than $400 million. With that sum, AC Transit could operate vastly expanded service for ten years. However MTC chose to exclude seven of the eight routes on which AC Transit proposed to operate enhanced bus service. 

Second, we are challenging MTC’s funding policies on how much state and federal funding a transit operator can receive, and for what purposes. For instance, MTC policy directs nearly all of the federal “formula” funds to capital use, though the funds could be used to meet a significant portion of transit operating budgets instead. And it allows large sources of state and federal funds to be used for expansion, though they could better be used to modernize the capital infrastructure of existing transit networks. (This decision does not affect only bus service. BART has a $6 billion shortfall to replace its aging cars and tracks over the next 25 years.) 

Finally, we are challenging MTC’s policy in its last four Regional Transportation Plans on so-called “uncommitted” funds. In the RTP, MTC identifies shortfalls between the funding each transit operator needs just to maintain its existing service levels and the funding the transit operator has. Those shortfalls have two components, capital and operating. Yet MTC funds only capital shortfalls, not operating shortfalls. Unfunded operating shortfalls can cause immediate service cuts, which AC Transit has suffered from consistently for 15 years. 

Over the same period, MTC has told the public that “uncommitted” funds can be used only for capital purposes. At trial, however, it was forced to admit the truth: that a significant portion of AC Transit’s operating needs—over $40 million a year—can be funded out of “uncommitted” RTP funds. 

These decisions also have a powerful effect on the environment. At the same time that our suit has focused on MTC’s deficiencies from a civil rights perspective, the California Attorney General has found that some of the same practices contribute to worsening the effects of climate change. AB 32 requires California to reduce its GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Fifty percent of the Bay Area’s GHG emissions result from transportation, primarily auto trips. In a strongly worded Oct. 1 letter to MTC, the attorney general noted that MTC has grandfathered some $29 billion in freeway projects into the new 2009 RTP that have not been shown to help meet California GHG reduction goals. The letter concludes: 

“If low-performing ‘committed’ projects were eliminated where feasible to do so, funding would be available to cover transit shortfalls, particularly for BART, Muni, and AC Transit, which together carry 80 percent of the transit riders in the Bay Area. If these shortfalls are not addressed, or if they are addressed through fare increases, as recently proposed, ridership may fall, with a concomitant increase in GHG emissions.” 

A newly-formed regional interfaith group known as Genesis has taken up the challenge of holding MTC accountable for promoting funding equity and GHG reduction by sufficiently funding current and increased AC Transit service. At an MTC meeting on Nov. 3, Gabrielle Miller of Genesis urged the “review, with community input and collaboration, of all MTC projects,” adding: “Only by doing this will we be able to achieve the environmental protection and transportation equality that we at Genesis demand of this region.” 

Equal access to every kind of opportunity depends on transportation, usually meaning bus service for low-income families, senior citizens, people with disabilities and people of color. The effects of global climate change must be altered. MTC can address both by fully funding AC Transit. It should be required to do so in the new Regional Transportation Plan slated for adoption in March 2009. 


Richard A. Marcantonio is an attorney with Public Advocates Inc. in San Francisco.