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.

  • This discussion would be improved by looking at the long-term trends for bus and rail fares in comparison. Rail fares have increased dramatically compared to inflation over the past 10 years, while bus fares have fallen behind for the past 20 years compared to inflation. (see link below)

    In addition to the 15% increase cited by the Post, peak rail riders will be asked to shift their travel out of the peak-of-the-peak period (the busiest 90 minuted during each rush period) or pay a surcharge which could be anything from 10 cents (about 4% of an average fare) to 50 cents (about 20% of an average fare). So while some rail riders are looking at a 15% increase, some others are looking at 25-30% increases.

    The fact that one year, Metro proposes a higher increase for bus riders rather than some rail riders in my opinion does not constitute a civil rights violation. The bus fares are catching up to the significant growth rate experienced for rail.

    If the trend of only rail fare increases followed by bus increases that are never allowed to be proportionally larger than rail continues, the fare difference between the systems will increase and the transit system in DC will become increasingly segregated, with the expensive rail system only accessible to subsidized or rich workers, and bus riders not able to take a rail trip because it’s so much more expensive. The article stated that one rider takes a 1.5 hour bus ride instead of a 30-minute rail trip because the cost is about double for rail.

    See my analysis here: http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post.cgi?id=1769

  • Michael – Thanks for sharing the link; the charts in your GGW post add great context. The issue of an increasingly desegregated system, as well as the fact that Metrorail’s subsidy rate has fallen while Metrobus’ has risen, are worth noting. When it comes to civil rights complaints, however, the federal guidance tells agencies to “minimize, mitigate, or offset any adverse effects” on minority and lower-income populations. Citing long-term patterns of fare changes may not be enough to prove Title VI compliance.

  • Peter Smith

    The fact that one year, Metro proposes a higher increase for bus riders rather than some rail riders in my opinion does not constitute a civil rights violation.

    um, why not? so like, if i just steal some money from you this year, then it’s not theft because it is not yet a repeated offense?

    and what if Metrobus fares stayed the same for 20 years, and then increased by 400% overnight — would that be OK, too?

    i have a possible solution — how about making all buses free, except during peak hour when there may be overcrowding? nobody should have to pay for bus travel — it’s too demeaning as is. the City should pay people to ride the bus, not the other way around.

    as for these alleged ‘peak-of-the-peak’ fares that rail riders will pay, will they, or is it just a fairy tale for children?

    as for the trains/buses segregation problem, i don’t have a great solution, but it’s certainly not banging lower-income people for a greater percentage of their income, and it should not even be proportional (i.e. a ‘flat tax’), because that too, is regressive/unfair.

    here’s another solution — no more service cuts (essentially, a tax increase) and no more rate hikes — instead, start charging drivers for the damage they’re doing to the city, and use some of that windfall to fully subsidize transit — free transit for all, every mode, except during peak times, when we’ll use fares to manage congestion.

    also, all of this transit cut talk reminds us of the importance of placing walkable and bikeable infrastructure first on our TODO list. people need to be able to get around under their own power, without the assistance/cooperation of The State — that means full walk infrastructure, and full bicycle infrastructure.

  • @Peter Smith: It must be simpler to live in a land where budgets are not controlled by politicians that are accountable to the voter base.

    Most voters are drivers at least some of the time, and the plan of “taxes on driving combined with free transit that people have until now been willing to pay for” will not usually go over well at the ballot box. Remember, in order to continue to do the people’s work in government, you have to keep getting elected. Doing something fun like removing all transit fares and passing new taxes would result in someone else being voted in who would undo what you just passed.

    It is a straw man to argue that raising bus fares is a form of robbery. The cost of operating buses has increased, the price of a bus trip should increase too.

    The proposal is not to increase bus fares by 400%. When that’s the proposal we can talk. The proposal is to increase from $1.25 to $1.50. A quarter. And you get free transfers (even on your return trip if it’s within 3 hours [proposed 2]) and 50 cents off your rail ride. Compared to most public transit in the US, this is a remarkable deal.

    While I don’t know what the Board will eventually decide, I know that the peak-of-the-peak fares are technologically possible, they’ve been officially proposed by the General Manager and enjoy support from advocacy groups including groups that I am a part of. I would not say they’re a sure thing but I believe that they are likely.

    I’ll agree strongly with you on your point that walking and biking should be encouraged heavily as a first resort. Those modes don’t require us to provide continuing operating support, and are healthy to boot.

    I would love to see higher subsidies available to public transit, which would keep fares low and service up. The local governments have not been forthcoming in providing that support. We cannot assume that we’ll get all the subsidy money we need to prevent fare increases and service cuts. We have to fight for it but also be ready to accept what happens if we don’t get it all.

  • @Elana Schor: In that case would it be reasonable to insist that whenever fare increases are proposed, that every fare increase at least with the amount of inflation we’ve had since the last one? Then we’d be out of this situation where bus fares have fallen behind but it’s impossible politically to catch up.

  • Just161

    Michael, I agree with your argument for pegging fares to some kind of inflation index. However, do you advocate for indexing fares to WMATA’s bus operating costs, or to “inflation” like the Consumer Price Index? These are two very different things – notably, WMATA’s costs have risen faster than CPI. At times, you seem to conflate the two. Which would you recommend, and why?

    A seemingly technical point, but compounded over the long term, the answer can have a big impact.

    Good thread! 🙂

  • Peter Smith

    Most voters are drivers at least some of the time, and the plan of “taxes on driving combined with free transit that people have until now been willing to pay for” will not usually go over well at the ballot box.

    i’m not proposing new taxes on driving, i’m proposing new taxes on certain types of driving — certain locations, certain paths, certain times, certain voters — that could change the ballot box equation from “no we can’t” to “yes we can”.

    and i wouldn’t be so quick to condemn free public transit, or some version of it. Nashville is trying some new stuff — why not DC? i’ve long since wondered why tourist/destination cities make it so difficult for tourists to spend their money.

    it’s so easy to say, “Voters will never go for it” — i say, how about a little leadership? people (including drivers) can and do vote for and against all sorts of stuff all the time — shoot, Salt Lake County voters went 64% in favor of a new sales tax to fund….transit? Yes, yes they did.

    anything is possible.

    It is a straw man to argue that raising bus fares is a form of robbery. The cost of operating buses has increased, the price of a bus trip should increase too.

    i’m not arguing ‘robbery’ — I’m arguing that something unfair is…unfair (in this case, ‘disproportionate’==’unfair’), whether or not it is repeated year after year, as in the hypothetical you gave. anyone who’s ever been broke (me!), lived paycheck-to-paycheck (me!), etc., can testify to the hardships that even ‘small’ price fluctuations can have on your life.

    The proposal is not to increase bus fares by 400%. When that’s the proposal we can talk. The proposal is to increase from $1.25 to $1.50. A quarter. And you get free transfers (even on your return trip if it’s within 3 hours [proposed 2]) and 50 cents off your rail ride. Compared to most public transit in the US, this is a remarkable deal.

    the proposal is to bang people on the bottom rung of the economic ladder even harder than the people in the middle and at the top — it’s unfair — it’s regressive and places an undue burden on the people who can least afford it. it could be, and probably is, a civil rights violation — that’s what we’re talking about here — see the title of the post. ‘just a quarter’ can be a big deal to someone who makes ‘just minimum wage’. a 3-hour transfer won’t allow you to get from your first part-time job to your second. DC has cheaper fare structures than much of the US, and the US doesn’t torture as brutally as Saudi Arabia, so let’s pat ourselves on the back? how about, maybe torture shouldn’t be condoned at all, and bus fares shouldn’t be condoned at all? the simple fact is, our government has not given us the ability to get around on foot and bike — they’ve left us with two options — a car or transit — we’re a captive audience. if we had the ability to walk and bike to our destinations, then the game changes completely, but until such a time, transit agencies need to be particularly sensitive to how they treat us, as we have no other option.

    i, too, am down with indexing everything important to inflation — going through the ‘fare/toll/fee hike’ drama every few years is tiresome/wasteful/etc.

    i’d also like to see DC raise the gas tax within DC by 1 or more cents per gallon. why not? forget all this ‘cut cut cut’ nonsense. a time of crisis is the time to raise taxes on the people who can most afford it, not raise taxes (cut services and raise fares) on the people who can least afford it.

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