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Civil Rights

How 3 Communities Fought Discriminatory Transportation Policies

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 1.25.14 PM
The Ohio faith-based advocacy group LEAD held demonstrations to protest the suburb of Beavercreek's refusal to allow bus service. Photos: Policylink

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

To celebrate the occasion, PolicyLink held a discussion this week about how that legislation has affected transportation policy. Three local community leaders shared stories about how they used legal protections to combat discriminatory transportation projects.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Advocates have been fighting for better transit in the Milwaukee region for about a decade, says the Wisconsin ACLU's Karyn Rotker.

In the notoriously segregated Milwaukee region, nearly 50 percent of African Americans depend on transit. But regional leaders have severely limited transit access to the suburbs, which is especially problematic because Milwaukee's suburbs have captured an increasing share of the region's jobs over the last few decades.

"There are huge racial issues here as well as the urban sprawl issues," said Rotker.

The Wisconsin DOT has been planning to rebuild and expand the "Zoo Interchange" near Milwaukee for the jaw-dropping sum of $1.7 billion. The ACLU, in partnership with some of the region's civil rights groups, filed suit against WisDOT, alleging the project violated the National Environmental Protection Act, or NEPA. The complaint asserted that transit riders and transit-dependent communities were not considered in WisDOT's planning process. They also alleged that the state failed to consider the "interrelated social effects" of expanding highway capacity, and the impact that was likely to have on sprawl and racial segregation in the region.

In the winter of 2013, the coalition asked a Milwaukee federal judge to issue a temporary injunction barring construction until the issues could be resolved. The court issued an interim ruling in favor of the plaintiffs and asked the two parties to go into mediation. This spring they came back with a settlement. The ACLU and coalition groups got $13.5 million for transit from the state DOT. That money will be used to establish two or three bus routes to the area served by the Zoo Interchange.

They will be bus routes that originate in some of the most segregated neighborhoods of Milwaukee and take riders to job centers in mostly white, suburban Waukesha County, providing critical employment opportunities to some of the most isolated and marginalized neighborhoods in the region.

Dayton, Ohio

It took a three-year struggle to gain transit access to a fast-growing, mostly white suburb in the Dayton area. But advocates for low-income groups prevailed against a wealthy suburb that wanted to keep transit riders out.

The story begins in 2010, when the Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority decided it wanted to extend a bus route to the growing Beavercreek Mall area.

"In Beavercreek we have one of the fastest growing areas in the Miami Valley. There’s a large mall, a new hospital opened recently," said Ellis Jacobs, the attorney who represented Leaders for Equality and Action in Dayton, a faith-based group supporting transit service. "It’s one of the fastest-growing job areas in this city. RTA saw it as part of their mission to get people from where they live to jobs."

But when the Dayton RTA tried to add bus stops in Beavercreek it ran into problems. First, the city provided a list of requirements the RTA needed to meet. When the RTA met them, City Council still voted 6-0 against allowing them. City leaders presented the RTA with a list of outrageous new requirements, like equipping all bus stops with heating and air conditioning.

Ellis said racial prejudices seemed to be at the heart of the matter. Dayton RTA ridership is 78 percent racial minorities. Meanwhile, Beavercreek is just 2 percent non-white, Ellis says.

"City Council members had started to get emails saying, 'Don’t let west Dayton force its way into Beavercreek,'" he said. "I think everybody understood what was being said."

But advocates for low-income people and people of color didn't take it lying down. LEAP held rallies and led letter-writing campaigns. Finally, they filed a Title VI complaint with U.S. DOT. The Federal Highway Administration visited the area and conducted an investigation. In March, 2013, they ruled against Beavercreek. The suburb was ordered to allow the bus stops or forfeit up to $60 million in federal transportation funding. In the fall of 2013, the city capitulated and the following spring the bus service began running. The head of the RTA drove the celebratory first bus.

Greenville, South Carolina

Residents of Greenville's Southernside neighborhood, which is separated from much of the town by railroad tracks, were spurred to action after the state Department of Transportation announced plans to tear down a pedestrian bridge that provided critical access to jobs, schools, stores, and transit. A quarter of Southernside residents lack access to a car, and 78 percent are African American. Unfortunately, however, the state didn't even consult them before making plans to demolish the structure. The alternative route would take them a mile and a half out of the way on dangerous roads without sidewalks.

"Some estimates said they could repair the existing bridge for less than it would cost to demolish it," said Anita Earls of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which helped neighborhood residents file a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation. "A little bit of delay to weigh the decision with the community might have resulted in a much better solution."

Both the Greenville and Dayton groups filed Title VI civil rights complaints to U.S. DOT rather than filing a lawsuit, because an earlier court case established that Title VI cases need to show intent to discriminate. Administrative complaints need only demonstrate "discriminatory impact."

Southernside residents are awaiting the results. But the research they conducted established a pattern of ignoring resident input in Southernside planning processes, said Earls. Many of those plans resulted in projects that made access worse for residents and undermined the health of the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, a citizen's commission has recommended that the county fund the reconstruction of the pedestrian bridge, but it's not a done deal yet.

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