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Lawsuit Filed to Fix Bay Area Transit and Air Pollution Problems

Victory: A coalition of environmental, transit, and community groups filed suit in U.S. District Court against the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and two Bay Area transit operators to enforce long-standing, unfulfilled commitments to improve transit ridership and air quality.
February 21, 2001
SAN FRANCISCO, CA —

A coalition of environmental, transit, and community groups filed suit today in U.S. District Court against the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and two Bay Area transit operators to enforce long-standing, unfulfilled commitments to improve transit ridership and air quality as required by the federal Clean Air Act. The suit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of Bayview Hunters Point Community Advocates, Communities for a Better Environment, the Latino Issues Forum, Our Children's Earth Foundation, the Sierra Club, the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund and the Urban Habitat Program. MTC is the agency in charge of regional transportation planning and funding.

In 1982, MTC recognized that providing Bay Area residents with viable alternatives to driving was critical to cleaning the region's air. Specifically, MTC decided to ease air pollution woes by shifting people from their cars onto public transit through a measure requiring the region to achieve a 15% increase over 1983 transit ridership by 1987. Even though that measure is still in the region's plan to achieve the federal public health standard for ozone, it has never been implemented – largely because MTC refuses to increase investment in transportation choices. Meanwhile, Bay Area residents continue to breathe unhealthy air and suffer with an aging and undependable public transportation system.

The coalition notified MTC, MUNI and AC Transit of their intent to file suit in November. MTC has remained adamant in refusing to take responsibility for implementing the measure MTC itself adopted. Settlement talks with MUNI broke down when MUNI was unwilling to develop a plan that would have detailed a list of service improvements that, if funded, would bring ridership back to 1983 levels. In contrast, AC Transit has worked closely with the coalition to resolve the case. The East Bay bus operator, recognizing that more funding for transit is a good thing for its riders, has agreed to a settlement, filed today along with the lawsuit, to draw up a plan to increase its ridership by 15 % over 1983 levels.

"AC Transit seems willing to do the right thing here, but MTC always puts new highways first and transit last. It's even forced certain operators to raise fares and cut back service," said Olin Webb with Bayview Hunters Point Community Advocates. "When transit service is cut back, so is access to jobs, schools, and essential services for the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and folks without cars."

David Schonbrunn, President of TRANSDEF, adds, "Despite a 30% increase in population, we have roughly the same number of people riding transit in the Bay Area today as we did nearly two decades ago. This means more people driving more cars, resulting in more gridlock and air pollution. In an era of limited finances, regional transit has not kept up, because MTC has not used its funds wisely."

"Current transportation investments fail to meet the mobility needs of many poor communities of color. Adding insult to injury, the increased congestion and pollution associated with poor planning continue to disproportionately compromise the health of surrounding communities, predominantly poor Latino and African American communities. Asthma hospitalization rates for Latino and African American children in Alameda and San Francisco counties are up to 4 times higher than the state average," said Kathryn Alcantar with the Latino Issues Forum. "When the transportation planning agencies fail to implement good policies, low income people of color -- especially children -- are the ones to suffer."

"MTC is fiddling while our children's lungs burn," said Tiffany Schauer, Executive Director of Our Children's Earth. "More MUNI and AC Transit riders would mean less smog, and less smog would mean fewer trips to the emergency room for the thousands of Bay Area kids who suffer from asthma."

Martha Olson, Communications Director for the Urban Habitat Program, said "This is no time to lose transit service or riders. Lively communities and equal access to the region's jobs, schools and services are needed for all. Reliable public transit will get us there – if we can get it funded."

Richard Toshiyuki Drury of CBE pointed out that "The dramatic decrease in regional ridership per capita is bad enough, but MUNI and AC Transit have done far worse. While AC ridership has lost 8 million annual boardings over the past 18 years, MUNI dropped tens of millions – in fact, MUNI has lost more riders than it was supposed to have gained under the ridership increase measure. This is directly due to MTC's refusal to provide adequate transit funding to inner city systems, despite its legal duty to increase ridership."

"Today's transportation funding determines what the Bay Area will look like in 20 years," said Dr. John Holtzclaw, a scientist and chair of the Sierra Club's national transportation committee. "Investments today could improve air quality, accessibility for people without cars, alternatives to driving, congestion on our roadways, and even our chances in the battle against sprawl. MTC must invest in mass transit today if we, as a region, are to avoid losing our quality of life to uncontrolled growth."

Deborah Reames, an attorney with Earthjustice, said, "Our clients, the EPA, and the local air district have been telling MTC to fund this transit measure for years. But it's been like driving alone down 101 during the morning rush: you get frustrated and you don't get anywhere. That's why residents are going to court to enforce the law and ensure we have meaningful transportation choices." Earthjustice is being assisted by attorneys from the Golden Gate Law School's Environmental Law and Justice Clinic, Communities for a Better Environment, and the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund.

Contacts:

Deborah Reames, Earthjustice, (415) 627.6700, John Holtzclaw, Sierra Club, (415) 977.5534, Richard Drury, CBE, (510) 302.0430x201, Tiffany Schauer, OCE Foundation, (415) 934.9600, Martha Olson, Urban Habitat, (415) 561.3338, Kathryn Alcantar, LIF, (415) 284.7209, David Schonbrunn, TRANSDEF, (415) 380.8600, Olin Webb, Bayview Community Advocates (415) 671.2862

Contacts

Brian Smith, Earthjustice, 415-627-6700

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.