MTA Challenged re Social Justice in Long-Range Transportation Plan

310-441-5604 (Environmental Defense)

This letter to the MTA challengs both the substance and the insular, exclusionary decisionmaking process involvded in MTA's Long-Range Transportation Plan. It provides a penetrating examination of what’s wrong and what’s needed in planning the physical future of LA to accomodate the needs of all, including poor and minority communities whose needs are routinely neglected.


September 18, 2000

Bradford W. McAllester
Director, Regional Planning
Metropolitan Transportation Authority
One Gateway Plaza
Mail Stop: 99-23-2
Los Angeles, CA 90012-2952

Dear Mr. McAllester:

We are a group of environmental, social justice and community organizations with a strong interest in MTA's Long-Range Transportation Plan ("LRTP"). We have a stake in MTA's transportation decisions that will affect all of us who live and work in Los Angeles County.

The current work on the LRTP is the first update since the LRTP was developed in 1995. Some of us have been invited to participate in MTA's focus group/public participation process for the update, including the meetings held on August 22-23, 2000. Although we appreciate the opportunity to participate as focus group members, we have serious concerns about MTA's public participation process to date.

1. The General Public, Including Low Income and Minority Populations, Has Been Excluded

Transportation decisions affect the quality of life and the day-to-day lives of thousands of residents and workers in Los Angeles County. Economic vitality, environmental health and quality of life are all directly impacted by the decisions MTA makes about how to spend valuable transportation resources. These decisions are especially important to low-income, minority residents with little or no access to cars who are most dependent on public transportation in Los Angeles County.

For example, low-income residents without cars, who have children in day care, and are transitioning from welfare to work, are most dependent upon the public transportation system operated by MTA. They have the least flexibility and rely on buses, shuttles and friends with cars to get themselves to work and their children to day care and school. As a result, these community members have a vested interest in ensuring their transportation challenges and concerns are heard by MTA and included in the LRTP.

For the most part, low-income minority populations have not been included in MTA's public participation process for the LRTP. Your own summary of the planning process specifically states that MTA is seeking input from three separate stakeholder focus groups (selected by MTA) and "transportation partners, including Southern California Association of Governments, Caltrans, Metrolink, municipal and local transit operators." (Draft - MTA Policy Directions Report, July 2000, p. 5.)

Instead of welcoming greater input, the focus group process created by the MTA seeks to exclude, as exemplified by the division into "stakeholders," "friends of the focus groups," and "guests." This process includes only those organizations selected by MTA to provide input, and specifically excludes the general public. As a result, a vast majority of Los Angeles County residents are unaware of MTA's planning process. Considering that the plan will affect the next 20 years of transportation in Los Angeles County for all of its residents, this failure to include the general population is inexplicable.

2. The Focus Group Process Is Inherently Flawed

We must also question the efficacy of a focus group process to accurately reflect public input on critical transportation issues. Many of the participants felt that the focus groups were convened simply to rubber-stamp or validate what MTA has already decided to do, and not truly engage participants in meaningful public participation to determine their transportation needs and priorities. Aside from this overarching issue, the focus group process is structured around a discussion within small groups. As we witnessed both during the August 22 and August 23 discussions, there is obvious opportunity for the dialogue to be dominated by strong personalities, or for important points to be ignored in the limited time provided.

In addition, the highly structured nature of the process leaves little opportunity for input on matters not on the agenda. Essentially, the focus group process is subject to the whims of whoever attends that particular meeting, and is not necessarily a representative sampling of transportation stakeholders. Focus groups may play a role in the public input process for the LRTP, but focus group recommendations would be highly suspect if they are the sole source of public involvement.

3. Too Much Time Elapsed Between The March and August Focus Group Meetings

Following the March meeting, focus group members were supposed to receive a report summarizing the comments received at that meeting, and another meeting was supposed to have been scheduled soon thereafter. However, the report on the March meeting was not circulated until late June. Further focus group meetings were scheduled, cancelled, and re-scheduled, with no consultation and little notice to the focus group participants. As a result, almost six months elapsed between focus group meetings. Considering that the update to the LRTP is targeted for release before the end of this calendar year, such a long delay, without explanation or discussion with focus group members, cannot be excused.

4. The August Focus Group Meetings Were Inherently Flawed and Confusing

As you know from attending the meetings, many participants in the August focus group meetings were confused and frustrated by the "LRTP Allocation Exercise," which was designed to take up half of the focus group meeting time.

First, participants were not sure of the goals of the exercise partly because they were not explained well, especially at the Thursday evening meeting. At that meeting, the exercise and the overall process deteriorated completely and the resulting discussion was not very useful to either the participants or MTA staff. At the Wednesday afternoon session, MTA staff admitted the exercise was essentially futile, and so the three breakout groups devised three different exercises.

Second, the four categories we could "vote" for did not match the five quantitative criteria articulated by MTA*. As a result, there was not a clear match between the MTA presentation made to participants and the specified voting categories.

Finally, the fact that only focus group "members" received stickers to "vote" was puzzling. This, in itself, is a microcosm of the problem with MTA's focus group planning process. Only certain groups, selected by MTA, were given the power in the form of stickers to offer opinions that MTA would actually consider. Because only a small group of community members were present, "friends of the focus group" should have been allowed to participate in the "voting." Without clear direction and an understanding of MTA's actual goals and expectations from participants, the sticker/voting process indicated flawed planning and was ultimately felt like nothing more than an exercise in futility.

5. Environmental Justice Issues Were Ignored

Environmental justice issues seemed to be left out of MTA's focus group planning equation altogether. With respect to transportation planning, environmental justice demands that all communities, including low-income and minority communities, receive a fair share of the benefits of transportation programs and do not bear an unfair share of the burdens of transportation programs. Equal access to essential services is the key to justice. For example, MTA should ensure that people without cars in Los Angeles have the transportation they need for everyday essentials, such as jobs, markets, schools, and medical facilities. Only after those needs are met, should MTA put additional funds into roads and new freeways for cars

Original: MTA Challenged re Social Justice in Long-Range Transportation Plan