The Federal Transit Administration is requiring the MBTA to revise portions of its civil rights policies, including aspects of how the agency judges whether fare hikes or service cuts will impact low-income and minority communities more than other riders.
The FTA said in an April 8 letter that to remain compliant with transit guidelines, the MBTA must revise portions of its policies for how it conducts the equity analyses, as the impact tests are known. The MBTA also must gather and submit up-to-date demographic data about its riders (which the T had already begun to collect through a system-wide ridership census).
The requirements are based on a federal review of a broad MBTA civil rights policy submission to the FTA in 2014. In the letter, the FTA said it had only just completed its review, and that it found “areas that need attention” in order for the T stay compliant with federal guidelines.
MBTA Chief Administrator Brian Shortsleeve signed an agreement with the FTA on May 9, saying the agency would take steps to satisfy the requirements within the next several months.
The MBTA will revise its definition for what constitutes a major service change and update its policies for determining whether the service changes or fare hikes have an overly burdensome effect on the populations. The T must also submit documentation of equity analyses it has conducted in the last three years and a working plan for gathering the new ridership demographic data that guide the analyses.
“We are actively conducting a major system-wide ridership survey to refresh the data used for equity analyses,” MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said. “We are also revisiting the protocols and substantive requirements for equity analyses, with an eye toward public participation to better ensure that the perspectives of all stakeholders are considered. The MBTA has established a team and a work plan to address all elements of FTA’s request within the next 90 days.”
The requirements come after the T’s approach to an equity analysis prior to trimming weekend late-night hours proved controversial and ultimately produced muddled results.
In an email to Boston.com, the FTA said that its demands drew from the 2014 submission and were not connected to the T’s procedure around the late-night cut.
However, the FTA did conduct a separate review this spring of the T’s equity analysis for that service cut. While the review ultimately found that the T properly followed procedures before ending the service, the FTA said the process exposed “limitations” in ridership data that required policy adjustments.
As the T sought to end the late-night bus and subway service in March, it ran into complications with the equity analysis.
In January, MBTA Assistant General Manager Charles Planck said an equity analysis for canceling the service would likely show a disparate impact on the low-income and minority communities. Agencies are allowed to cancel services that show such an impact, but only if they can demonstrate a good reason for doing so and after considering (though not necessarily adopting) other service adjustments that would offset the impact.
But the next month, the T’s board voted to cancel the late-night service without considering an analysis. Officials believed the equity analysis was unnecessary, and that it had requested a waiver from the FTA.
Days later, the FTA sternly rebuked the T’s waiver request, and ordered the agency to complete the analysis or risk falling out of compliance with federal regulations.
Once completed, the analysis showed mixed results. By one metric, which was based on U.S. Census data, cutting the service would not have a disproportionate impact on low-income or minority riders, the analysis said. An analysis using past ridership surveys, however, showed there would be a disproportionate impact.
T officials said that since the ridership data came from 2008 and 2009, and did not specifically account for late-night ridership, the more recent census-based analysis that showed no impact was more valid.
But in recognition of the impact shown by the ridership survey, the MBTA said it would consider changes to increase frequency on some bus routes that primarily serve minority and low-income riders in order. (Those ideas have since been tabled as the T’s board contemplates a potential all-night, every-night hourly bus service instead.)
After reviewing the late-night equity analysis, the FTA on May 9 gave the T the all-clear. Since the T had demonstrated “a substantial legitimate justification for cutting the late-night service,” and since it considered ways to offset the cut, it had ultimately handled the process properly, the FTA wrote.
But there was still room for more clarity, and the FTA reiterated its demands that the T update its equity analysis policy and ridership data.
“Going forward, however, FTA will require MBTA to review and update its policies and procedures for conducting a service or fare equity analysis to address the identified limitations, and MBTA must conduct a ridership survey,” the FTA wrote.
In addition to the equity analysis policies and rider census, the FTA is also requiring the MBTA to revisit its language assistance policies for riders who speak limited English, such as its strategy for translating documents.