Could D.C. Become Transit’s New Civil Rights Battleground?

A $189 million budget shortfall for next year is forcing some tough choices on Washington D.C.'s local transit authority, which is poised to approve a package of fare increases and service cuts that includes a 35-cent hike for bus trips.

PH2010032802899.jpgOne in five of D.C.'s bus commuters lives without a car, compared with one in 50 of the city's rail commuters. (Photo: WaPo)

As riders brace for the lean times ahead, a front-page story in today's Washington Post asked whether that 20-percent jump for bus riders -- compared with a proposed 15-percent fare hike for rail -- disproportionately hits the city's lowest-income residents.

Transit planners and pundits alike have long debated the relative merits of bus versus rail, with some vocal supporters of the latter mode depicting the former as an inferior option that alienates middle-class travelers who might otherwise eschew a car.

But tucked in the middle of the Post's piece is a sign that buses could be making a comeback as more local riders' groups pursue activism and organizing:

For the first time, Metro is using Census Bureau and other data to identify the impact of fare and service changes on minorities and households without automobiles, under a mandate from the Federal Transit Administration [FTA], said Jim Hamre, Metro's acting director of bus planning. That evaluation is not completed, he said.

Why is that FTA-mandated analysis so crucial? It was first sought in 2007, when the agency formally advised recipients of federal grants on how to comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Local transit authorities were told to survey minority and lower-income riders on the effects of fare and service policies, to ensure a minimum level of public outreach to all communities, and to craft concrete plans for giving equal access to riders with limited English ability.

That guidance might have fizzled in practice, but the FTA put teeth in its civil-rights enforcement, recently revoking $70 million in federal stimulus money from the Bay Area's Oakland Airport Connector (OAC) rail line after critics charged that the project would negatively impact minority communities. One advocacy group involved in the OAC complaint noted that the city's metro planning agency has set aside 94 percent of its transit expansion funding for rail, leaving 4 percent for buses.

Could local riders file a civil-rights complaint against a proportionally higher increase in D.C. bus fares, should it become official? The law requires that such grievances be filed within 180 days of an alleged discrimination, meaning that action before this summer is unlikely. After the Oakland decision and a second high-profile civil rights complaint filed in Chicago, however, the issue is one to watch.