Victory for Clean Air, Public Transit in Bay Area

By Cat Lazaroff

SAN FRANCISCO, California, November 13, 2001 (ENS) - U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson has ordered the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, with the cooperation of the San Francisco Bay Area's six major transit operators, must increase Bay Area public transit use by 15 percent above 1983 levels.

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Thousands of commuters cross the San Francisco Bay Area's bridges each day - and many of the cars carry only a single passenger (Photo courtesy San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau)
The court found that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is not complying with a transportation control measure designed to increase ridership on public transit and help clean the region's air. The MTC admitted that it adopted a 15 percent ridership increase target - a transportation control measure known as TCM 2 - but denied having any responsibility for actually reaching it, an argument the court called "disingenuous."

The court "rejects defendants' argument that TCM 2 requires only adoption of the target but not the target's achievement," Judge Henderson said. The transit operators were required to attract additional riders by making improvements to transit service and reliability.

This ruling was in response to a lawsuit brought against MTC in February of this year by Bayview Hunters Point Advocates, Communities for a Better Environment, Latino Issues Forum, Our Children's Earth Foundation, the Sierra Club, the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund, and the Urban Habitat Program.

The groups sued the San Francisco Municipal Railroad (MUNI) and AC Transit - the Alameda Contra Costa Transit District. While AC Transit promptly settled, and has already completed a draft plan for increasing ridership, MUNI refused to settle.

"We know how to clean up the Bay Area's air, and that is to offer clean, reliable transit alternatives so people can get out of their vehicles," said Earthjustice attorney Deborah Reames, who represented the coalition in court last Tuesday. "Now the court has ordered MTC to make good on its commitment to improving and increasing transit use in the region."

Motor vehicle emissions account for about one half of the San Francisco region's ground level ozone, or smog. Transportation control measures, required by the federal Clean Air Act, are an essential part of the Bay Area's ozone pollution control strategy.

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Increasing mass transit ridership could reduce the smog blanketing San Francisco (Photo courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
Ozone can cause permanent lung damage, wheezing, respiratory disease, and greatly exacerbate asthma attacks. The Bay Area has exceeded federal health based standards for ozone pollution in 29 of the past 30 years.

"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."

"Having access to clean, reliable transit can make a huge difference for a community, especially for Latinos in the Bay Area who rely on these services for getting to work and school," agreed Enrique Gallardo, project manager for the Latino Issues Forum.

In order to reduce ozone pollution levels, MTC committed in 1982 to increasing the number of people using transit in the Bay Area by 15 percent. Nearly 30 years later, despite a 30 percent increase in population, the number of transit riders today remains close to 1982 levels.

The court ruled that "while MTC bears the greatest responsibility in ensuring that the region achieves the target increase, the region's six major transit operators also share collective responsibility under TCM 2."

Judge Henderson referred the parties to a magistrate conducted settlement conference to determine implementation of the court order.

"Expanding and improving MUNI and AC Transit service are the cheapest way of quickly getting people into transit, by offering better alternatives to driving, pollution and congestion," said John Holtzclaw, chair of the Sierra Club transportation committee.

In September, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rejected the Bay Area's most recent plan for improving air quality, in response to a suit brought by Earthjustice on behalf of the same coalition of environmental and citizens groups.

As a result, the region is prohibited from adding any new highway projects to current transportation plans, and local agencies, including MTC, are scrambling to submit an approvable plan to the EPA. If the agencies do not have an EPA approved plan in place by April 22, 2002, the Bay Area will lose all of its federal highway funds. Projects designed to increase transit ridership will receive funding.

Richard Drury, legal director for Communities for a Better Environment, said, "Thanks to today's order, the Bay Area will finally get serious about making public transportation a vehicle for cleaner air."