Lawsuit claims racial bias in Illinois transit funding

CHICAGO – Chicago Transit Authority riders filed a class action lawsuit in federal court here Jan. 6, claiming the amount of money allocated toward the city’s public transit, compared to the surrounding suburbs’ Metra system, unfairly discriminates against minorities.

The lawsuit, against the State of Illinois, the Illinois Department of Transportation, the Regional Transportation Authority and its Metra commuter rail service alleges that all are responsible for violations of Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act and the Illinois Civil Rights Act.

Attorneys for the suit say the case is designed to challenge the inequitable and unconstitutional funding disparities between urban and suburban ridership.

Latinos, African Americans and other minorities are the predominant riders in the city, says the lawsuit, and the way operating and capital funds have been passed down for the last 26 years has “grossly and disparately” disfavored minorities who depend on mass transit.

The Chicago-based law firm of Futterman, Howard, Ashley, Watkins & Weltman and the Chicago-Kent College of Law Civil Rights/Employment Law Clinic are leading the suit, filed on behalf of two plaintiffs.

The funding scheme for public transportation in the RTA region has unfairly favored Metra and its predominantly white ridership at the expense of the CTA and its predominantly minority ridership, attorneys say.

The result, they say, has negatively impacted African Americans and Latinos in Chicago since 1983 when the current funding scheme was adopted. The formula, renewed in 2008, has amounted to a pattern of racial inequity, they charge.

More than 70 percent of Metra riders are white, while more than 60 percent of CTA riders are Black or Latino.

Speaking at a press conference, Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., D-Ill., said that Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. gained national headlines more than 50 years ago when minorities in Montgomery, Ala., were being denied a seat on the bus.

“Half a century later, it appears that minorities in Chicago are subsidizing all transit riders, yet still not getting their seat on the bus,” Jackson said.

He was joined by other elected officials and community leaders who argue public transportation in the city is vital to working families to get to school, work and other necessary places. Public transportation is essential to strengthening communities, increasing property values and ensuring a stronger local economy, they said.

The lack of appropriate funding for the CTA has created problems for city users in continuing transit fare increases and increasing service problems.

Since 1983, CTA operating funding has decreased from 71 percent of overall RTA operating funding to 59 percent, even though the CTA accounts for 82 percent of all transit trips in the area, says the suit.

Stewart Weltman, one of the lead attorneys in the suit, said the funding scheme in place distributes subsidies “on rigid arbitrary bases, rather than on ridership or other need-based measures.”

“Tax dollars from those living in the CTA service area have been, in effect, subsidizing the transportation of the residents of the collar counties,” he said in a statement.

Those counties, surrounding Chicago’s Cook County, include Lake, McHenry, Dupage, Kane and Will.

The suit cites repeated instances in which the defendants have been made aware of the CTA’s precarious financial situation in the yearly budget reports the CTA has submitted to defendants since 2004. The suit argues that the defendants have shortchanged the CTA intentionally.

The plaintiffs include Dorothy McGhee, an African American resident from Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, and Manuel Munguia, a Mexican American resident from South Chicago.

Both assert that the funding disparity has resulted in a mass transit disenfranchisement of minorities living within the CTA service area. And they say the trains and buses in which they use are in a permanent and worsening state of physical disrepair.

In recent years the CTA has perpetually faced funding woes and has repeatedly had to decide whether to cut service, lay off workers or raise fares or all three to stay afloat.

By comparison Metra has flourished over the last 26 years, the suit notes. The commuter rail service has been able to keep fares affordable and equipment in better condition. In stark contrast to the CTA, Metra has greatly expanded its service area and routes in the recent years. The system provides its predominantly white suburban riders mass-transit luxury at below-market prices, says the suit.

The plaintiffs asked for a declaration that the officials have violated the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection “through their prior, current and ongoing discriminatory policies, practices, procedures and/or customs of funding transportation projects and services for the CTA and Metra.”

This suit is more than just a political fight over how the funding pie is divided between city and suburban transit, says Munguia, and more than about potential fare hikes or service cuts.

“This is about people’s livelihoods,” he said in a statement. “It’s really about getting the access we deserve, to education, to good jobs, and ultimately, to opportunity and prosperity. The defendants need to acknowledge that and make this right.”

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said the CTA is definitely getting short shrift when state subsidies are doled out. He said he hopes the lawsuit will draw attention to the problem and correct the inadequate subsidies for the city’s public transit system.

Photo: PW/Pepe Lozano