Feds rule efforts to restrict travel into one Ohio town are discriminatory, but the debate keeps on rolling
In a predominantly white suburb near Dayton, where jobs and schools could expand opportunities for minorities who use public transportation, the conversation hasn't focused on expansion. Instead, it's been about how to keep the buses out. That debate – to restrict access to areas reached by public buses – even reached Ohio’s General Assembly, which removed a related amendment in a Senate conference committee.
The controversy over where buses can travel is framed by some as an issue of local control; others say restrictions on travel are exclusionary and discriminatory. Public transportation supporters say the tension is heightened by a lack of state funding for public transit and Ohio’s resistance to change the way it views public transportation.
“There’s been a lot of talk about public transportation over the years, but very little action,” said Capri Cafaro, the ranking Democrat on the Ohio Senate Transportation Committee. Cafaro, who represents Ashtabula, Geauga and parts of Trumbull counties, said that lack of action has contributed to “a two-tier system of transportation.”
“There are those who can access it and those who can’t.”
Will the buses stop in Beavercreek?
In recent years, advocates for the disabled have most often led the fight for access to public transportation, but in the Dayton area, civil rights leaders say the issue is centered on race.
In 2010, the Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority proposed adding three bus stops in the suburb of Beavercreek, about eight miles east of Dayton. The stops were proposed for Pentagon Boulevard, south of Interstate-675, in the suburb of Beavercreek.
From a pure transportation planning point of view, the plan made sense.
A shopping mall, a medical clinic, several schools, and lots of businesses line Pentagon Boulevard. But the plan to expand the bus line into Beavercreek had to be approved by the city administration and City Council.
After a series of meetings, City Council put up road blocks to the bus stops, requesting a series of design changes to RTA’s proposal that RTA said would be difficult, if not impossible, to fulfill. Council voted to deny the application to install the stops.
Among Beavercreek’s desired changes: Heating and air conditioning the bus shelters; 18-inch concrete-pad platforms (larger than the most heavily used stops in the city, which are about 10-inches thick); state-of-the-art surveillance cameras at the shelters, and other conditions not typical of most bus stops, either in the city or the suburbs.
Leaders for Equality in Action in Dayton (LEAD), a civil rights advocacy group, filed a complaint [PDF] under the Title VI non-discrimination provisions of the Federal Highway Act. Because Beavercreek benefits from government highway funds, under the law it must comply with federal anti-discrimination laws.
LEAD maintained that Beavercreek’s requests for design changes would have a harmful effect on African American riders who need to get to Beavercreek for employment or school. Ridership on Dayton’s RTA at the time was comprised of 73% minority and 27% white passengers, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
On June 13, the FHWY’s civil rights division ruled in favor of LEAD, saying 11 of Beavercreek’s requests were outside of standard design criteria, and that the denial of RTA’s application had a disproportionate impact on African Americans and was therefore discriminatory. The ruling instructed Beavercreek, with monitoring by the Ohio Department of Transportation, to work with RTA to restart the application for the bus stops and simplify its process for approving bus stops.
Doug Hecox, a spokesperson for FHWA, said Beavercreek could lose federal highway funds if it doesn’t comply. Beavercreek officials say the value of those funds is “in the tens of millions.”
Hecox said his department typically receives 20 to 30 civil rights complaints from around the country each year, but only 10 to 15 result in full-fledged investigations such as the one in Beavercreek. He said “the lion’s share” of cases usually relate to access for the disabled.
Adam Levin, an attorney representing Beavercreek, said in a presentation to City Council on July 22 that the U.S. Department of Transportation is watching the case closely and that if Beavercreek chooses to challenge the ruling, it could be referred to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Attorneys for LEAD and transit executives are hoping the case sends a signal to cities everywhere that access is a civil rights issue that affects the transit-dependent, who are disproportionally racial and ethnic minorities as well as the disabled.
“I hope that going forward, at the federal level, this will be a model case when these types of issues arise,” said Mark Donaghy, executive director of Dayton’s RTA. The ruling, he said, “sends a clear message that people need access.”
James Gee, president of the Ohio Public Transportation Association and general manager of the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority, said the ruling underscores the principle that “transportation should be considered a right as opposed to a privilege.”
“And too many folks don’t have that privilege,” he said.
Samuel Gresham, executive director of Common Cause, a citizen’s lobbying group in Columbus, and former director of the city’s Urban League, said he’s glad that the issue of public transportation is being regarded more seriously as a civil rights issue, and a matter of opportunity for those who are low-income.
“If I don’t have access to a job, then my ability to sustain myself and my family are reduced,” he said. For seniors, the disabled, and low-income people, he said, lack of a car affects access to jobs, schools, doctors and voting.
City Council members in Beavercreek maintain their decision to reject GDRTA’s bus stop application had nothing to do with race or denial of access to transportation.
“We turned downed an application because they didn’t meet our (design) criteria,” said Scott Hadley, noting that Beavercreek shouldn’t be forced by others to do something it doesn’t want to do.
“I don’t mind stops if they’re done properly. We’re not trying to build a wall to stop people from coming into Beavercreek,” he said. “They can come in buses or carloads, I don’t care. That’s not what this is about.”
When asked what the issue is about, he said, “I don’t want to get into that.”
Brian Jarvis, another council member and an African-American, said he requested that surveillance cameras be placed in the bus shelters because of what he said were high crime rates at stops in downtown Dayton. Jarvis said he wanted what was best for Beavercreek and that other cities could do what is best for them.
At the July 22 meeting, Levin explained the consequences of the ruling to the mayor, council members and residents. He said a challenge to the ruling would be expensive, and that while it was pending, Beavercreek probably would have to begin complying anyway.
Beavercreek officials plan to hold additional meetings to discuss how to proceed, and Levin said he could not offer specific legal advice to city officials at a public hearing. But his talk seemed to indicate that it would be in Beavercreek’s interest to comply with the FHWA ruling.
Nevertheless, another council member offered a resolution, tabled until further discussion, that would place a six-month moratorium on issuing permits for construction until the city revises its design review process. Beavercreek was told by the FHWA to begin complying with its order within 90 days.
The majority of residents who offered comments at the meeting favored an end to the fight with RTA and a desire to welcome Dayton residents to their community.
“We are not an island,” said resident Jane Henry, “I don’t want to live in a gated community. Let’s welcome people in, not keep people out.”
Local control amendment in Ohio budget bill removed
Beavercreek is in Greene County; Dayton is in Montgomery County. Some opponents of bus expansion said a Montgomery county sales tax should not be used to expand into an area where voters had not approved RTA funds.
Before the federal ruling on Beavercreek was issued, Sen. Chris Widener, R-Springfield, added language to an amendment in the state budget bill while it was before the Senate Finance Committee. It would have required RTAs to receive approval from local municipalities before expanding services or facilities outside the RTA’s “territorial boundaries.” The language was removed in a Senate conference committee.
Widener, whose district includes Greene County, said the language was not related to the Beavercreek case. In a written response to questions from Eye on Ohio about his support for the amendment, Widener said “the language is in response to unlimited authority given to RTAs in Ohio law. It is not in response to any incident anywhere in the state.”
Moreover, he wrote, “the language is needed because it is absolutely unfair for RTAs to ask the taxpayers of their communities to pass levies and then take the funds and pay for transit into other counties.”
“If the RTAs intend to do that, they at a minimum should be required to get an agreement with any community outside their taxing district they intend to travel on, on the terms and conditions of the extended service and make those terms and conditions available to their voters who pass their levies,” wrote Widener.
Ohio law gives RTAs some flexibility in expanding transit service beyond territorial boundaries. OPTA, writing in May to members of the Ohio Senate in opposition to the transit amendment, said it represented “a solution to which there is no problem” and that transit authorities often work out agreements with local governments when they wish to, for example, run a bus line to a veteran’s hospital.
The proposed amendment language bore similarities to a bill passed by lawmakers in 2011. The so-called “opt-out” bill allows cities around Toledo to vote to remove themselves from the local transit authority’s jurisdiction. The suburb of Perrysburg did just that last year and in May voted to start up its own “on-demand” service. The bill applied only to the Toledo area, which has a transit funding system based on property taxes.
Jason Reece, research director at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Equality at Ohio State University , sees the Beavercreek case as another example of the “not-in-my-backyard” syndrome that can occur whenever public services are expanded.
Reece said issues of race and civil rights usually occur over what types of public transit to support. The Cincinnati NAACP several years ago opposed the development of a trolley system, saying money would be better spent on buses and other transportation that serve more city residents. Similar conflicts have come up in northern California when proposals have been made to expand light rail.
Reece said that in Ohio, the larger issue blocking expansion of public transportation is scarce funding. Various studies show Ohio consistently ranks among the lowest of all states in state funding for public transit. State law prohibits the state’s gas tax and motor vehicle fees to be spent on anything other than roads and highways.
Efforts by Cafaro and others to adopt new funding mechanisms for public transit have been unsuccessful; local sales taxes and rider fares still pay for most transportation costs.
New perspectives, attitudes needed
Joe Calabrese, chief executive officer and general manager of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, said Ohio is unlike most states in its local approach to funding and decision-making.
“In most states, RTAs are much larger than single-county borders,” he said. “The state needs to provide incentives for regionalism.”
“For whatever reason, people in other areas (outside of Greater Cleveland) have tried to put walls up to try to restrain travel,” he said, “ but if I’m looking for work, I don’t stop looking at the county borders.”
Calabrese noted that RTA passengers coming into downtown Cleveland for work are arriving from as far away as Lake, Summit, Portage, and Lorain counties. He added that 60% of RTA’s riders are people traveling to and from work.
Proponents of public transit – though dismayed at the lack of state support – are hoping that in the end, numbers will help their cause.
Drops in revenue from sales taxes have led to severe public transit cutbacks in some rural and smaller urban areas such as Lorain in the last decade. But larger RTAs in Ohio – including Cleveland, Dayton and Columbus - have seen steady and significant increases in ridership.
These increases mirror national trends that show people of all races and income categories are riding buses and trains and leaving their cars at home; overall driving miles peaked in 2004 and have been declining ever since, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
A U.S. PIRG study also noted that younger generations have much more positive attitudes toward public transit, and those between the ages of 16 and 34 especially are driving fewer and fewer miles each year.
Calabrese sees hope in the new generation of transit riders.
“The younger generation is very transit-oriented and willing to move to where they can use public transportation,” said Calabrese.
“And they don’t have the stereotypes” that older generations may have, he added.