Civil Rights Advocates Use Landmark Law to Fight for Transportation Equity in Baltimore and Alabama

By Ellen Hense and Julie Faust

Since the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, transportation access and civil rights have been indelibly linked for those seeking equal opportunity for all Americans. Now civil rights advocates in Alabama and Maryland are holding local leaders accountable for providing access to affordable, reliable transportation to all residents based on the protections of the Civil Rights Act.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides Americans with a legal mechanism to prevent discrimination based on race, color, and national origin in programs that receive federal financial assistance. Today, more than 50 years after the landmark legislation became law, advocates are turning to Title VI to combat discriminatory policies restricting access to transportation that have disproportionately harmed African-American communities in Baltimore and Alabama.

In August 2009, then-Governor of Maryland Martin O’Malley announced a plan to create the Red Line, a light rail system to connect thousands of low- and middle-income African-American Baltimore residents to better employment, health care, and educational opportunities. The Red Line would have expanded economic opportunity in a city that has struggled for decades with poverty and unemployment, but the project was brought to a screeching halt in June 2015 when Governor Larry Hogan announced that construction on the rail line would be permanently cancelled. Hogan contended that halting construction on the Red Line was the best financial decision for the state, even though the state and federal government had already invested $300 million in the project. In addition, Hogan reallocated the money pledged to the Red Line to a series of other transportation projects, all of which are outside of Baltimore.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) and the ACLU of Maryland have filed a complaint under Title VI with the U.S. Department of Transportation arguing that the diversion of funds away from a project that would have helped a majority of African Americans to projects that largely help White residents has a discriminatory impact. “This is a critical civil rights issue,” LDF President Sherrilyn Ifill, told the Washington Post. “Everyone who knows this city knows that the lack of rapid transit restricts access to jobs and housing for low- and middle-income African-American residents living along the city’s east-west corridor.”

Ajmel Quershi of LDF told the Transportation Equity Caucus that the Department of Transportation opened an investigation into LDF’s Red Line complaint within three weeks of their filing it. However, it could take up to two years for the Department to render a decision.

In Alabama, the inaccessibility of transit is not just cutting residents off from opportunity, it’s blocking their ability to vote.

After the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder, Alabama lawmakers moved to begin enforcing a restrictive and discriminatory voter ID law. The premise behind such voter ID laws is that they prevent fraud by ensuring that voters are not impersonating others when the go to the polls, despite the fact that this type of voting fraud is essentially non-existent. These laws keep people who don’t have the time, money, or resources to get one of the accepted forms of identification from casting their votes, disproportionately hurting elderly, low-income, and minority communities. In Alabama, an estimated half a million people—or 20 percent of registered voters—lack a driver’s license or other accepted DMV-issued voter ID.

Since driver’s licenses are the most commonly accepted form of voter identification, access to DMV offices is absolutely critical to the voting process in states like Alabama. However, last September, Alabama restricted access to the ballot even further when the state announced the closure of 31 DMV offices located primarily in rural areas with large African-American populations, effectively making it impossible for people living in these communities to obtain the identification they need to vote. Not only do these closures restrict access to the ballot, they make it significantly harder for residents to get the driver’s licenses they need to drive to jobs, schools, grocery stores, and health care. LDF filed a lawsuit against Alabama in December, and the Department of Transportation is now investigating whether the DMV closures violate Title VI.

During the Transportation Equity Caucus’s March meeting, Duel Ross, Assistant Counsel at LDF, gave the caucus some more background on transportation in Alabama. Ross told the caucus that Alabama spends no state money on transportation, and solely relies on a paltry amount of federal funds. Ross also told the caucus that it will take a few years for the case to be resolved.

Access to transportation is crucial for those seeking to build better lives for themselves and their families. Equitable transportation policy is an important civil rights issue that can and should expand opportunity. The policies seen in Maryland and Alabama are eroding it.

Join the Transportation Equity Caucus, which is working to foster more equitable outcomes in communities.

Ellen Hense is a spring 2016 Leadership Conference Education Fund intern.

Julie Faust is the communications assistant at the Leadership Conference Education Fund.