Is BART the most racist transit agency in the nation?
That’s a question Bay Area residents should be asking after the U.S. Justice Department announced Friday that it was opening an investigation into the transit agency’s handling of BART police officer Johannes Mehserle’s fatal shooting of Oscar Grant. The investigation, which the Justice Department confirms is being launched together with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Francisco. But it is not the first effort by the Obama administration to rein in BART over civil rights.
After all, it was only five months ago, that the Obama administration pulled $70 million in federal stimulus funding for BART’s Oakland Airport tram because the Federal Transit Administration said BART failed to analyze how its planned connector to the Oakland Airport would affect low-income and minority riders. The FTA cited the agency’s failure to comply with Title IV of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits agencies that receive federal funds from discriminatory practices. If BART failed to comply with anti-discrimination laws in the future, it stood to lose out on $100 million more.
The move, which made BART the first public agency in the country to lose out on stimulus money because of civil rights concerns, came after community groups complained BART was spending hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money to serve affluent residents who wanted to get to the airport at the same time Bay Area transit agencies were cutting basic service meant for people who couldn’t afford a car. Worse yet, the tram would travel through, but not stop in, East Oakland, one of the Bay Area’s most chronically underserved areas.
BART’s response to the Obama administration’s action on the airport connector has been telling, and might give a glimpse into how much the transit agency will cooperate with the Justice Department’s investigation into the Mehserle shooting. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, BART has spent $800,000 on consultants and outreach meetings to ethnic communities throughout the Bay Area since the stimulus money was pulled. That does not mean BART changed its ways after listening to its low income riders.
On June 22, with community outreach meetings still ongoing, BART put together a package to build the controversial airport connector without stimulus funds. According to the Bay Citizen, the stimulus funds would be replaced with $45 million in state, county and BART funds — and a $30 million increase in a federal loan program. In other words, BART planned to pillage other transit funding in order to get the airport connector built, the very reason it had been reprimanded by Washington in the first place.
One reason BART keeps getting into civil rights trouble is the history of the agency itself. While most public transit agencies, like San Francisco’s Muni and the East Bay’s AC Transit, were created to get regular working people to and from work and the grocery store and young people to school, BART was born as sprawl hit the Bay Area after World War II and the region’s business elites realized there was no efficient way to get from newly built suburbs like Walnut Creek and San Leandro to downtown San Francisco (or, in the words of BART’s official history, “rail network linking major commercial centers with suburban sub-centers.”
Whereas transit usually helps the communities it serves, BART’s construction devastated urban communities like South Berkeley’s Lorin District and the North Oakland areas near MacArthur BART where blocks of mostly black businesses were bulldozed to make room for a noisy elevated train line and parking lots. In the 1960s and ‘70s, protests greeted the construction of BART in the Mission District, as the neighborhood’s mostly Latino residents correctly predicted they would be displaced by the gentrification that would take hold after BART’s construction.
How much has BART changed since then? How well the agency’s board cooperates while under the investigation launched by our nation’s first black president and black attorney general will go a long way toward showing whether change is in the air.
Aaron Glantz is an editor at New America Media and author of numerous books. His most recent is “The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans” (UC Press)