How and why LA's mass transit system remains separate and unequal
By Kevin Uhrich 04/26/2012
Los Angeles County’s mass transit system is considered a model for the rest of the country when it comes to keeping fares low while providing customers with comfortable, low-emission rides in the form of sleek-looking electric trains and a fleet of fuel-efficient buses that traverse much of this sprawling 4,083-square-mile portion of Southern California.
Early last year, the LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Board of Directors voted to raise fares for the first time in four years, pushing up single-ride rates from $1.25 to $1.50 on most buses and the agency’s color-coded light rail service — still well below one-time boarding fares in other big cities like New York and Chicago, where the cost of a subway or local bus ride is $2.25. The LA County MTA was even named Outstanding Transportation System for 2006 by the American Public Transportation Association, according to the agency’s expansive media relations department.
In hopes of securing a legacy as LA’s “transportation mayor,” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — who also chairs the MTA Board of Directors — last week urged county residents in his State of the City address to indefinitely extend Measure R, the half-percent sales tax increase passed by voters in 2008, which is expected to generate $40 billion by the time it expires in 2039. By doing that, Villaraigosa hopes to borrow more than $8 billion against anticipated future revenues to compensate for billions in federal funds that have been tied up for the past few years by GOP lawmakers in the House of Representatives and complete a number of light rail projects long in the MTA planning pipeline. Villaraigosa’s goal is to build 30 years worth of projects in a decade, hence the plan’s name, 30/10.
But for all the catchy slogans, “visionary” planning and insider accolades, fair transit advocates are wary of a public agency that, on one hand, claims massive budget deficits for the rationale behind cutting bus service and raising fares while, on the other hand, secures billions for light rail systems as the new MTA bus fleet itself now ages into obsolescence.
Esperanza Martinez is lead organizer of the grassroots Bus Riders Union (BRU), an organization formed in the early 1990s under the leadership of another advocacy group, the Labor/Community Strategy Center. She believes that all the equipment purchased over the past two decades — hundreds of buses that now ride in tribute to the organization’s successful federal civil rights lawsuit against the MTA in the mid-1990s — is only part of the solution to providing quality, timely service to some of the most underserved working class neighborhoods in LA County’s many economically challenged and traditionally transit-deprived communities of color.
The BRU, along with the Strategy Center, finally won that legal battle in 1996 following an agreed-upon consent decree that forced the MTA to improve pick-up and delivery times, decrease overcrowding and purchase a fleet of hundreds of new buses to replace aging models. The buses, BRU members successfully argued, were allowed by the MTA to deteriorate at the expense of funding construction of the county’s 13-stop, 13.7-mile state-of-the-art Gold Line light rail system from affluent Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles at a cost of $859 million.
“Transit racism” is what attorney Constance Rice and others with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund — which sued the giant transit authority in 1994 on behalf of the BRU, the Strategy Center, the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates and the Southern Christian Leadership Council — came to call this practice of depleting bus services for poor and mostly ethnic minorities to accommodate more affluent and less regular white riders with wildly expensive light rail lines. Or, as the lawsuit put it, “expending a disproportionately high share of its resources on commuter rail services, whose primary users were wealthy non-minorities, and a disproportionately low share on bus services, whose main patrons were low income and minority residents.” US District Judge Terry Hatter was in total agreement with this contention, at one point during the proceedings calling the MTA’s policies in regard to its bus-riding customers an example of “systematic racism.”
A report prepared by the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies bore out this condemnation, finding “1. Minorities pay a higher fare per mile for transit services than white persons, because (1) most MTA fares do not vary with distance and (2) minority passengers have shorter average trip lengths than white passengers.”
According to the study’s second major finding, “The average public subsidy per minority MTA passenger is less than the average white subsidy per white passenger. Because minority passengers, as a group, use fewer expensive–to–provide express rail transit services and more inexpensive-to-provide local bus service than do white passengers, the average tax subsidy of minority passengers is lower than for white passengers.”
These racial disparities, the study states, “stem largely from MTA policy decisions to (1) expand relatively expensive rail and commuter express services that serve a disproportionately white clientele and (2) adopt a generally flat fee structure that causes minority riders, who are more likely to make shorter trips on local buses, to cross-subsidize white riders, who are more likely to make longer trips on express buses and rail lines.”
But today, even with all the new, cleaner buses in operation and the county’s rail system — lines dubbed with the ostensibly cheery colors Gold, Blue, Red Purple and Green — working at its most efficient levels, those gains over the past 17 years mean little without federal funding to keep the system operating.
“Transit funding is already in crisis,” Martinez wrote last fall in an email to local media outlets about a “Don’t X Out Public Transportation,” rally at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Vermont Avenue. “Nationally, over 84 percent of transit agencies are already cutting transit lifelines or raising fares despite increases in ridership. Students, the elderly, swing-shift workers, transit workers and millions of transit riders across the country are seeing their transit lifelines cut. Los Angeles alone has lost almost 1 million hours from bus service in the past three years, leaving thousands stranded.”
The gains made by bus riders in LA County, where after decades predominantly working-class people of African-American, Latino and Asian ancestry continue using a system which heavily subsidizes substantially fewer white, affluent (or at least better off) riders, would be severely impaired without federal funding. And with continued federal depravation of funds constantly being threatened, “The impacts on LA will be severe, as well as on the entire country’s ability to create and sustain jobs, further hampering efforts to stimulate the national economy,” Esperanza warned.
It seems a tragic irony: The MTA has been finally forced by a US District Judge, a Special Master, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and ultimately the US Supreme Court, which refused to hear the MTA’s final appeal, making the consent decree the “law of the land,” to recognize the agency’s built-in, or institutional, racism and redistribute public resources toward upgrading and invigorating its improving but still lacking bus system. But now, without federal assistance, the necessary funding may never be available to pay for new rail systems, let alone fuel and maintain a middle-aged fleet of motor vehicles.
The law of the land
Racism — overt and institutional — in the administration of public transportation in Southern California may appear to be anomalous in the modern world, given the now much more rigorously enforced constitutional protections against overt displays of discrimination by public agencies. It should also help to know that many of the people who sit on the various governing boards of the MTA are women and members of minority classes — like Villaraigosa, LA’s first Latino mayor in 130 years — who have risen through the political or bureaucratic ranks. However, these folks, despite their best intentions, now find themselves in the unenviable social, ethical, political and racial quandaries of carrying out the duties of administering an inherently racist system and remaining true to ethnic identities and political allegiances.
Villaraigosa is not alone in this respect. In 1998, as Strategy Center leader Eric Mann writes in "Radical Social Movements and the Responsibilities of Progressive Intellectuals," for the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review, “after the BRU argued that the MTA was reneging on purchasing expansion buses and drivers as part of the agreement, Judge Hatter ordered the MTA to purchase 350 additional buses [at an estimated cost of $120 million] as well as the requisite drivers [estimated at 700] and the requisite operating funds [estimated at $70 million per year] to reduce overcrowding to standards agreed upon in the Decree. Despite admonitions from Rev. James Lawson, a longtime colleague of Martin Luther King, that he felt he was addressing an arrogant southern school board in defiance of federal civil rights laws, the MTA voted 12 to 1 to appeal the case. Mayor Richard Riordan and every board member of color — Yvonne [Brathwaite] Burke, Jenny Orapeza, Gloria Molina, Richard Alatorre — voted to appeal a federal court order from a black judge.” Burke, a former county supervisor, is black. Molina, a sitting supervisor, is Latina, as was the now-deceased Orapeza, a former state senator who was the first Latina Long Beach City Councilwoman. Alatorre, a former Los Angeles City Councilman, is Latino. Mann, who is white, seems to have forgotten in his analysis Franklin White, CEO of the MTA at the time the subway and light rail projects were first being planned, who is African American.
While this is something of a new twist to an old political dilemma for minority officeholders and bureaucrats moving up political ladders, racism is certainly nothing new in the American public travel experience. Nor are these inequities likely to be completely eliminated as long as the MTA’s mission remains one of continual growth and technical innovation and the system’s primary customer base continues to be poor and working-poor people, immigrants, the elderly and people of color — all especially vulnerable to the conditions of institutional exploitation that often comes with economic growth.
It is because of these social, political and economic forces that the idea of racially exclusionary transit systems is literally ingrained in the American consciousness. Carriage, train, trolley and bus systems — public and private — routinely discriminated against African Americans, immigrants and poor whites in every state in the nation throughout much of the country’s history. Given the fact that many of our attitudes about race and class came to be molded and continue to be influenced by issues originating in the field of mass transit, it’s hardly surprising that race and class bias would still be infecting the administration of modern community transportation systems, such as the MTA.
It was here, in the glaringly unequal and unfair world of LA’s transit-needy communities, that Mann, a longtime labor advocate who worked alongside union members to keep the now-closed GM Plant in Van Nuys open in the 1980s, saw the possibility of new socialist-oriented “revolution,” especially following the LA riots in late April and early May of 1992, or “rebellion,” as Mann called those six days of killing, arson and looting following the acquittal of four LAPD officers who mercilessly beat Altadena’s Rodney King on March 3, 1991.
“The black and Latino working classes share many components of a common experience and oppression, but have many structural and cultural obstacles to unity. During the urban rebellion of 1992, there was a black and Latino working class alliance in the streets — a far greater unity of concerted mass action than has been seen before or since. The Strategy Center,” Mann wrote, “worked to generate a Left post-rebellion urban politics, in direct contradiction to the rainbow corporatism of Rebuild L.A. guru Peter Ueberroth.” A millionaire, Ueberroth was responsible for bringing the Olympics to Los Angeles in 1984 and served as commissioner of Major League Baseball after the Olympics until 1989. A lifetime trustee at USC, Ueberroth headed Rebuild LA after the riots to help people whose lives and businesses were destroyed get back on their feet.
The Strategy Center’s plan involved working with such emerging leaders in the African-American community as South Los Angeles organizer Anthony Thigpenn and Pasadena’s Michael Zinzun of the Coalition to Prevent Police Abuse (CAPA), as well as Latino leaders like organizers Lisa Duran, Martin Hernandez and Rodolfo Acuña, a former professor at Cal State Northridge. The Strategy Center brought together these otherwise disparate groups to work on issues such as criminal justice, immigrant rights and worker rights, and the Strategy Center published the book, “Reconstructing Los Angeles From the Bottom Up.” That coalition — now with the ability to reach and speak for some 500,000 people — then turned its considerable political strength toward improving bus service for LA County’s transit-deprived citizens.
Plessy v. Ferguson
It seems that with every new innovative turn in much-desired mass mobility came another opportunity to make personal fortunes while putting the poor, particularly African Americans, down — keeping people concentrated in dirty, crowded, dangerous and ever-industrializing inner cities while those communities were expanding, growing outward into cleaner, more scenic and more healthful and hospitable surroundings in America’s newly emerging suburbs. As a result of this discrimination in mass transportation, blacks found themselves permanently shut out of opportunities such as this type of mobility brought: better homes, better jobs, better schools, better lives — the American Dream.
As time would tell, US Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan was correct in his prescient lone dissent in the 1896 US Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, the case that codified official segregation through affirmation of what came to be known as the “separate but equal” doctrine. Harlan believed that the court’s ruling against desegregation of passenger trains would be just as harmful to Americans in every walk of life as the 1857 court ruling that affirmed the legal right of whites to own African Americans as slaves and led to the Civil War, and he openly and succinctly said as much. “In my opinion,” Harlan wrote, “the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case.”
Given the tenor and racial attitudes of that age, it’s difficult to overstate just how enlightened Harland really was. Come the early 1880s, the Louisiana Legislature had enacted a number of Jim Crow laws aimed at keeping black people down after the Civil War by limiting voting and other opportunities for African Americans. Many other states — Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina among them — did the same. One such law enacted in 1890 and put into effect in New Orleans required separate railway cars for blacks and whites, or “star” cars, which, write history professors Howard P. Chudacoff, Judith E. Smith and Peter C. Baldwin in “The Evolution of American Urban Society,” were first introduced in the 1860s and were reviled by most people of color as dirty, unkempt and run-down train cars compared to those enjoyed by whites, but also a reminder of slavery and “a mark of inferiority.”
In 1892, Homer Adolph Plessy, who was certainly white-looking enough to believe his dominant seven-eighths Caucasian heritage would persuade train officials to see things his way, acted out a scenario that would become commonplace over the next five decades: Plessy took a seat in a “whites only” car and was immediately arrested after refusing to move to the “coloreds only” car.
Plessy, who was set up to be arrested by mostly black civic empowerment groups and a number of white writers and intellectuals of the time, fought the charge and lost, then appealed. He lost again, with the lower court’s decision issued by Louisianan Judge John Ferguson later being upheld by the Louisiana Supreme Court. This set the stage for the case to be heard by the US Supreme Court. By then, most Southern states had their own Jim Crow laws pertaining to separating blacks and whites in every aspect of social life and civil society, including public transportation.
In legal parlance, this case was “ripe” for the Supreme Court to consider reaffirming existing similar laws in other states. This, then, would be the statute with which the Supreme Court could finally determine once and for all that “separate but equal” accommodations for whites and “colored” railroad passengers in every state in the nation did not violate the “equal protection” or “due process” clauses of the 14th Amendment, thus making this widely embraced doctrine of exclusion the “law of the land.”
Next week: How mass transit in Southern California came to be what it is today and why federal officials are currently investigating the MTA for possibly violating the civil rights of bus riders in the pursuit of light rail expansion.