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Earlier this month, the Amalgamated Transit Union submitted a strongly worded formal complaint to the Regional Transit Authority, accusing them of both racism and discrimination in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Regional Transit Authority issued a highly detailed response to that complaint 10 days later, presenting numerous reasons – accompanied by supporting attachments and documentation – why they believe such accusations are wildly inaccurate.

It is hard to imagine that the ATU fabricated their complaints out of thin air just for entertainment value. No doubt something triggered the discontent that prompted ATU Local 26 President Fred Westbrook to sign the letter representing his union membership plus all those 843 Detroit residents who signed the petition to take the action they did. And certainly the RTA must always remain cognizant of the needs of Detroit’s black majority population when making their decisions.

However.

Based on the content of the written complaint from ATU, when held up against the thorough response presented by the RTA, it is difficult at best to assert that ATU’s Title VI complaint, as it is written, has much merit. Whatever the strength of the reasons ATU might have for filing the complaint, it appears RTA did a much stronger job of rebuffing those complaints. Once again, this is not to say that ATU members have nothing at all to complain about, only that the listed complaints in the document filed don’t appear to be quite so strong when viewed under the light of scrutiny.

“For me this is a labor issue, which is best addressed by the administration, but I am a strong supporter of the RTA,” said Detroit City Councilman Scott Benson. “I’m hoping that we can come to an agreement, a resolution, on any labor issues and issues presented by the ATU prior to the implementation by the Regional Transit Authority. I also want to make it clear that I am a strong supporter of ATU and I want to make sure their concerns are addressed, but I also want to make sure that our region gets a strong transportation authority.”

Fred Westbrooke, President of the ATU and the one who signed and dated the complaint on August 5, was unable to be reached by the Michigan Chronicle as of press time after several attempts, however the complaint itself is fairly explicit in describing ATU’s charges.

“This Complaint is brought by the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 26 and 843 individual Detroit-area residents who signed the attached petition …protesting decisions by the RTA to divert funding from Detroit and create unneeded bus routes to serve suburban communities, while perpetuating inferior service for Detroit residents.

“The population in Detroit, which is served by DDOT, is predominately minority and low-income, whereas, the surrounding suburban areas serviced by SMART are majority Caucasian and relatively higher income. Detroit residents are heavily dependent on public transit, with ridership levels averaging nearly three times the ridership on SMART. Nonetheless, DDOT has increasingly seen funding diverted away from its system to SMART’s service for the more affluent majority-White suburban communities.

“Specifically, RTA has changed the allocation of federal funds, shifting funds away from Detroit and to SMART. This re-allocation of funds has been continued for the past several years, providing more and more resources to the suburban areas to the detriment of Detroit residents, who have seen major erosion to the bus system on which they are heavily dependent. The most recent example of this can be seen in the addition of the so-called “Reflex” routes from the suburbs into Detroit, an unneeded additional service for the benefit suburban commuters, while Detroit residents continue to suffer long waits for inner city service.

“These actions by RTA violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and RTA’s own stated commitment to ensuring that “efforts will be made to prevent discrimination through the impacts of its programs, policies, and activities on minority and low income populations.” (RTA Title VI Non Discrimination Policy and Procedures).

“We also note that African-Americans make up only two out of ten members of the RTA Board of Directors, and that Detroit has only one representative on the RTA board.”

When read as a stand-alone document, the accusations made by the ATU create significant reasons for concern, especially in light of the long-standing friction between Detroit and the suburbs. For example, it has long been suspected that the primary unspoken roadblock that has prevented the pursuit of better public transportation linking all of Southeast Michigan has been blatant racism. More specifically, the suburbs don’t want to make it any easier for black Detroiters to enter and exit their territory.

But the lengthy written response to the complaint delivered by Tiffany J. Gunter, who is the Title VI Officer, Deputy CEO and COO for the RTA, makes it hard for any of ATU’s accusations to stick. According to Gunter, the reallocation of federal funds is now closer to a 50-50 split (52% SMART, 48% DDOT) resulting from action taken by SEMCOG (Southeast Michigan Council of Governments) in April, 2013. The former 65-35 split favoring DDOT is what existed under the Regional Transit Coordinating Council which no longer exists. Given the rapidly decreasing population of Detroit in recent decades, it’s not surprising that this formula had to be revisited.

But even more importantly, Gunter pointed out that Detroit customers rely heavily on both DDOT and SMART, so to try and say that they are being disenfranchised by providing more money to SMART – which isn’t true to begin with – still doesn’t quite deliver the intended impact given that context of near equal usage.

Says Gunter:
“The most recent SMART On Board Passenger Survey conducted in 2008 illustrates that Detroit residents rely on both transit systems and is attached as Exhibit L. The onboard survey is conducted every ten years. A few key findings from this survey were:

  • 38% of ALL SMART Ridership comes from Detroit residents, which is an opt-out community.
    • SMART Riders in Opt-Out Communities come from:
      • Wayne County, including Detroit 88.4%
      • Wayne County, not Detroit 2.9%
      • Oakland County, 3.4%
      • Macomb County, 0%
      • Other Counties, 5.4%
    • 56.3% of Wayne county SMART riders have an income of less than $25,000. (53.4% all SMART riders)
    • 44.9% of Wayne county SMART riders do not have a valid driver’s license. (44.7% all SMART riders)
    • 63.9% of Wayne county SMART riders do not own a vehicle. (62.3% all SMART riders)
    • 57.9% of Wayne county SMART riders also use the DDOT system. (41.6% all SMART riders)

The RTA conducted its business concerning the issue of the federal formula allocation in public meetings. These meetings were held on the following dates and followed all Open Meeting Act requirements.

 

June 11, 2015               RTA Planning and Service Coordination Committee Meeting

June 18, 2015              RTA Board of Directors Meeting

July 9, 2015                           RTA Planning and Service Coordination Committee Meeting

July 16, 2015                         RTA Board of Directors Meeting

September 10, 2015              RTA Planning and Service Coordination Committee Meeting

September 11, 2015              RTA Board of Directors Meeting

October 22, 2015                   RTA Planning and Service Coordination Committee Meeting

October 22, 2015                  RTA Board of Directors Meeting

 

The RTA maintains that our organization is in compliance with Title VI and that there is no intentional or unintentional discriminatory acts that have resulted in a disparate impact to Detroit residents.”

Added RTA CEO Michael Ford:

“I just know that the representatives of the four counties met on these issues in a series of meetings over several months to come to a reasonable conclusion.

“We’ve always been working with the unions to talk about opportunities and working together and providing more service for people. I mean, 52 percent of the people in Detroit work outside of Detroit. They need good transportation. They don’t own cars and they need help getting to those jobs. You look at those areas where they live now, for every thousand people within the neighborhoods of Detroit, there’s only about 200 jobs. So our regional master plan really focuses on getting people to and from jobs. Or to educational institutions, or just to have freedom and flexibility and quality of life. Same goes for the suburbs. The regional master plan is about improving quality of life for the whole region.”

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