As most are aware, the MTA is considering raising fares again for the 4th time in 5 years. This time around, equity should be a primary concern. Everyone is impacted when fares skyrocket, but some communities are usually hit harder than others. The last fare hike saw inequitable impacts, when low-income communities and communities of color were pushed to use more single-rides and weekly passes, as the $104 monthly MetroCard became unaffordable for many families.
In order to help prevent such disparities, transit providers are regulated under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin by agencies that receive federal money. Additionally the Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice, protects low-income people and people of color from inequitable shares of environmental benefits and burdens in federal programs.
Transportation projects have historically come under investigation for violations of civil rights. From the siting of diesel bus depots in communities of color, to the diversion of funding for buses that serve predominantly people of color to build rail projects, to the exclusion of minority communities from access to stations on a new light rail project, public transportation continues to need monitoring to prevent discrimination.
Title VI distinguishes between two types of discrimination: intentional discrimination and disparate impact. Intentional discrimination occurs when a policy or action by an agency is explicitly designed to disadvantage or privilege people based on race, color, or national origin. Disparate impact discrimination is a policy or action that on the surface is racially neutral, yet results in a discriminatory outcome.
In the fall of 2011, the Federal Transit Administration set out to provide revised guidance documents for Title VI and Environmental Justice. When the public hearings did not include New York State – the state that accounts for around one third of all transit trips in the country – NYSTEA secured a meeting with FTA officials to hear from New York. NYSTEA then submitted its own comments to the docket for further consideration.
The FTA has now released the circulars. There are many important changes to prevent discrimination. Here are some specific recommendations from NYSTEA that made it in to the final Circular:
- Consider non-transportation sources of pollution when siting facilities – Requires analysis at census tract or census block level of surrounding similar facilities when siting transportation facilities, in order to help prevent the accumulation of disparate environmental and health benefits and burdens for communities.
- Mitigate disparate impacts from service and fare changes – When a disparate impact is identified, transit providers are required try to “avoid, minimize, and/or mitigate” the impacts.
- LEP guidance – The final Circular provides additional guidance for engaging stake holders with Limited English Proficiency, suggesting use of visual aides, videos, and accessible language for people who do not speak English or are not literate.
- Disparate impact analyses for DOTs and MPOs – State DOTs and MPOs are now required to analyze their distribution of state and federal funds for disparate impacts.
- Ridership surveys – Requires surveys of ridership to be completed by December 31, 2013, with information on race, color national origin, English proficiency, languages spoken at home, household income, and travel patterns. While Census measures can tell us who lives along a transit line, only ridership surveys can tell us who actually rides transit.
- Transparency and accountability for boards – Transit boards must formally approve the Title VI program, major service change and disparate impact policies and analyses, and acknowledge results of service standards and monitoring.
- Consultation with EJ communities – Transit authorities should reach out to EJ communities and organizations in order to help create inclusive strategies to minimize impacts to vulnerable populations.
Another important change:
- Develop “Major Service Change” threshold with public - Transit providers must now engage the public in the decision-making process for setting the threshold that triggers a disparate impact analysis for a major service change.
NYSTEA commends the FTA for setting out on this process to strengthen civil rights protections in transportation. These new provisions create helpful new tools to ensure that transit service is provided equitably for all.
We are already seeing the effects of NYSTEA’s advocacy as the new circulars playing out. In the MTA’s public comment period, it has already reached out to Environmental Justice and other Social Justice community organizations in the MTA service area to weigh in on the fare hike proposals. Meaningful engagement over the short and long term with communities, organizations, and riders are crucial for achieving transportation equity.
In the summer of 2009, AVillage, Inc., a grassroots organization committed to improving the quality of life in Albany’s South End neighborhood, engaged my services. The advocacy group sought direct CDTA bus service from this low income, inner city neighborhood to the corridor housing three of the City’s major medical centers (i.e. Albany Stratton VA Medical Center, Albany Medical Center and St. Peter’s Hospital). Joining this effort were its community partners – Trinity Alliance of the Capital Region,Grand Street Community Arts Center, and Westminster Presbyterian Church.
As an economically disadvantaged neighborhood, a high percentage of South End residents do not have cars, making them dependent on transit to meet their transportation needs. While transit service was available in the neighborhood, it was impractical to reach the hospitals. It required residents to take a bus or walk downtown, significantly lengthening their commute, or walk up steep Morton Avenue to catch cross-town service, a difficult climb, particularly for the community’s disabled and large senior population. Too often, residents would miss appointments or pay expensive cab fares to make these trips. The requested service would give South End residents direct access to job opportunities, medical appointments, shopping and other businesses as well as transfers to buses serving the greater Capital District.
Our first step in addressing the transit issue was to speak with transportation staff. They were unconvinced of the level of demand for service and doubtful that even if the demand were there, we would see any new service given CDTA’s shrinking funding. In response we decided to approach the CDTA Board. Looking at the composition of its members, we noted that: 1) none of the nine members came from one of the four cities within the Capital District, 2) none were actual transit riders though one was a transit advocate; and 3) there was an Albany County seat vacancy.
Soon thereafter we approached the CDTA Board with a petition signed by over 1,300 people, the majority of whom were from the South End or the other inner city neighborhoods which would benefit the most from this service. We also presented the results of a transportation questionnaire showing a large pent up demand for the service especially for medical and work trips, and its anticipated frequent use (2-5X/week). Finally, we gave them support letters from fourteen prominent individuals and organizations, among them Albany Medical Center, City of Albany Common Council members, the Albany Housing Authority, local housing and human service groups, church leaders, and neighborhood associations.
Ultimately the service was created through a new transit loop serving not only the South End but Arbor Hill and West Hill as well, giving all three inner city neighborhoods a direct connection to the medical centers. (CDTA has since reported that ridership on this new route is double what was expected to the point that overcrowding is now an issue.)
On November 13, 2011 I joined about a hundred South End residents and community leaders gathered at the Union Missionary Baptist Church on Morton Avenue. We chanted “this is how democracy works” as the new CDTA bus #100 pulled up for the first time. A major victory had been won for both the neighborhood and for CDTA.
By Monique Wahba, Principal and Owner of MW Planning (www.mwplanning.org)
CDTA and local organizations have proven that system operators throughout New York State can make positive steps forward by engaging communities to best utilize existing resources. But we here at the New York State Transportation Equity Alliance (NYSTEA) and our 80+ coalition members see that there are fundamental statewide issues that need to be addressed. Join NYSTEA as we make the case for voting rider representation on transit authority boards. Riders can and should have the right to be recognized as a transit stakeholder.
Albany has passed the 2012-2013 State Budget on time for the second consecutive year. Compared to previous years, transit made out pretty well:
MTA Capital Plan
In the end, the State decided to support the MTA’s Capital Program, despite the Senate’s proposal to scratch $770 million in capital funding and refuse to raise the agency’s debt limit. The State’s support will go a long way to help prop up the underfunded program that maintains and expands the MTA network. The capital program creates 350,000 jobs and $44 billion in economic benefit for New York State, in part due to the state’s extensive transit manufacturing sector.
Unfortunately, the heavy reliance on outside lending has troubling repercussions down the road. Already, 17% of the operating budget goes to debt service on current and past projects. The NYS Comptroller estimates annual debt service will grow to $3.3 billion (over 22% of the operating budget) in 2018, with the increased debt burden putting further strain on fares and service levels. Riders are preparing for the MTA’s upcoming fare hike at the beginning of next year. Like the last fare increase, this is likely to have a particularly burdensome effect on low-income communities and communities of color in the outer boroughs. Fare increases are also planned for 2015 and 2017.
Upstate transit gets some help
Upstate systems will be helped by a 6.95% increase in operating funding. A corporate and utilities tax, which is collected statewide but has previously gone only to downstate systems, will now go to fund transit across the state for the next year. The Governor’s budget proposed this as a permanent reform, but backlash from the Assembly constrained it to only one year. The state is also releasing $16 million of capital moneypreviously allocated for upstate transit providers. It’s unclear whether the funding increase will be enough to stop a double-digit-percentage fare hike and 6% service reduction for NFTA riders, or hold back layoffs and route reductions for the CDTA, but this is certainly a welcome improvement over previous years.
BRT on the Tappan Zee Bridge
Unfortunately, the budget did not include language to secure Bus Rapid Transit as part of the rebuilding of the Tappan Zee Bridge (in fact, funding has not been identified for the bridge itself). Senators Martin Dilan and John Bonacic issued a bipartisan call for Tappan Zee BRT, which would provide affordable and environmentally friendly transit trips across the Hudson River.
New York State’s 2012 draft budget gave transportation some much-needed attention. If the plan is adopted, the state will dispense $4.4 billion to New York’s transit systems ($4 billion to the MTA and $430 million to non-MTA systems). The increase in aid comes from tax restructuring and revenue increases from various dedicated taxes (MMTOA) that pay for transit.
Here are some of the budget’s notable transportation components:
Upstate transit systems get attention: upstate bus systems have long struggled to deliver service. Bus systems currently receive revenue from the petroleum business tax, which has brought in less money over the years. To address this, the Governor proposed a redistribution of the Transmission Tax (also known as the “Long Lines Tax”) more equitably between downstate and upstate systems. Instead of a yearly transfer of tax revenue between upstate and downstate, funds would be distributed based on population. This would bring in an additional $11 million in aid to upstate transit systems. NYSTEA and TSTC have pointed out that existing funding structures have proven inadequate for upstate transit systems; this reform is a good start towards the broader fixes which will be needed.
The MTA gets paid back: thanks to pressure from transit advocacy groups, Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget keeps his promise to fill the $310 million gap in the MTA’s budget caused by the reformed payroll mobility tax deal in December. The restructuring worried transit advocates, who feared that the drop in yearly revenue would trigger another fare increase and service cut in 2012. State sources indicate that the MTA will be compensated for the full $310 million over the state’s fiscal year (which runs April 1 through March 31). The state would also reimburse the MTA for costs associated with an EZ Pass rebate program for Queens residents that use the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge.
The MTA Capital Program gets additional state commitment: the state would give an additional $770 million over the remaining three years of the MTA’s construction effort. This aid would be accompanied by a $7 billion increase in the MTA’s debt ceiling (from $34 billion to $41 billion), which would finance the bulk of the capital program. State legislation is required for this action.
Tappan Zee bridge construction bill has not been resolved: the Governor reiterated his proposal to fund the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project with $5 billion from a New York Works Infrastructure Fund, with the New York State Thruway Authority being the responsible entity. It is still unclear how the Thruway Authority would pay for the replacement, though increased tolls and taxes seem to be the most likely options. Meanwhile, BRTontheBridge.org was launched earlier this month to advocate for a bridge replacement plan that includes the public transportation communities need.
The draft budget is already having an effect. In Buffalo, where the Niagara-Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA) is about to start hearings on a proposed 22% cut in service miles, transit riders are making their voices heard. According to NFTA Executive Director, Kimberley A. Minkel, the extensive public comment and the additional money from Albany has the Authority considering a change of direction—they’re now considering a $.25 increase in fares and a 5% cut in service instead.
Veronica Vanterpool is associate director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a member of the NYSTEA steering committee.
Yesterday, the commissioners of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA) formally adopted a plan to cut 22% of service miles from their Metro transit system.
These cuts attempt to address NFTA’s $7.1 million budget shortfall, which stems from increased operating costs and reduced funding from Albany (money that’s known as State Operating Assistance, or STOA). Since 2009, Buffalo has seen a $3.6 million reduction in STOA and a $7 million increase in operating costs, and they’re not the only transit system in the state that’s suffered from these cutbacks.
NFTA, like many transit systems, isn’t scaling back service because people aren’t taking the bus. With 27 million annual passengers and over 1,600 employees, it’s the second largest transit provider in the state. Approximately 84% of metro riders use the system to get to work, and 77% of these don’t own a car. As a coalition of advocates noted last week, this means that these cuts “will undermine all other efforts to spur economic development in our region—even if we create jobs, people won’t be able to get to them.”
In a city with the 3rd highest poverty rate in the country, these cuts will deeply constrain access to economic recoveryfor many low-income Buffalonians. Additionally, as America’s 6th most segregated city, these cuts will also likely create a heavy burden on people of color who use the system. As many vulnerable communities are concentrated near transit hubs, reductions in service will impair their ability to access their jobs. Riders who “reverse commute” from inner urban areas out to jobs in the suburbs will also be negatively affected as many of these routes will be cut.
Faced with this hard reality—an economically vital transit system that can’t make ends meet—NFTA has requested $10 million from Albany during the 2012-13 fiscal year. They also requested eight megawatts of low-cost power from the New York Power Authority, which would provide $1.8 million in annual operating savings. Buffalo officials have been joined by Erie County and New York State legislators in their calls for help from Governor Cuomo. NYSTEA and several other advocacy organizations have joined this fight.
The situation is dire. Unless NFTA gets more funding, it will have few choices beyond cutting routes and raising fares. Across New York, transportation authorities are implementing cost saving measures, but they can only fasten their belts so much before they cut off circulation entirely.
To help NFTA and other New York transit agencies stay alive, demand that Albany stand up for transit.