Lowest income communities get oldest buses, sparking demand for oversight

March 18, 2019 Paul Stremple
Eric Adams demanded hearings into alleged racial and class disparities in bus service on Monday. Eagle photo by Paul Stremple.

Borough President Eric Adams called on both the City Council and the state legislature Monday to hold oversight hearings into recent reports that the MTA disproportionately uses older, higher-polluting buses in poorer Brooklyn neighborhoods.

Seeking a “forensic analysis” into whether or not the inequality was deliberate, Adams said that the hearings should investigate how the problem occurred and hold accountable those who may have been responsible.

“This should not have happened” said Adams. “The MTA and the [Transit Authority] need to do better.”

Reporting from the New York Daily News found that a disproportionate number of buses operating on routes in poorer neighborhoods were the 21-year-old diesel RTS-06 models. While these decades-old buses make up only four percent of the NYC Transit fleet, they account for 20 percent of the buses operating out of the East New York and Flatbush bus depots.

According to Transportation Alternatives, a transit advocacy group, the B15 bus line, which runs through Brownsville and East New York, serves nearly 20,000 riders each day and operates with buses that are on average 11 years old.

In contrast, the B69, running through Park Slope, Prospect Heights and Fort Greene, serves less than 5,000 riders each day, but uses buses with an average age of 5.5 years.

The borough president said he wants to see an extensive overhaul of bus infrastructure. That would mean fully funding the MTA and implementing the proposed “Fast Forward” plan for modernizing New York City’s transit, he said. The Fast Forward plan would begin the transition to a zero-emissions bus fleet, including the introduction of 60 all-electric buses to complement the 10 currently being piloted.

If that transition occurs, Adams wants to see the neediest communities be given priority in rolling out new buses and improved services. Currently, he said, many of the more affluent communities in Brooklyn benefit from improvements first, a practice he called “unacceptable and intolerable.”

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Adams said oversight hearings are a way to ensure that no matter what changes or investments come to New York City transit, the neediest New Yorkers won’t suffer from the same structural inequalities as it has in the past.

“We must start in the areas with the higher needs,” said Adams, who said that these issues feed into a narrative in poorer communities of color that the government doesn’t care about them.

“Brownsville would like to have WiFi, just like Park Slope,” he said, referencing the amenities available on the newest buses in the MTA fleet, which are more likely to run routes in the affluent parts of Brooklyn.

Support for hearings is gaining steam at the state level.

“The recent news that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority runs older and more rundown buses in disadvantaged neighborhoods is unacceptable,” Assemblymember Félix W. Ortiz, the assistant speaker, said in a statement. “All New Yorkers deserve equal quality service. I am requesting that the Assembly Corporations Committee and Oversight Committee look into this unfair imbalance and conduct hearings into this situation. Transparency is critical as the legislature looks for ways to better finance mass transit in the new state budget.”

Brooklyn politicians echoed Adams in criticizing the MTA through a statement.

“It’s not a surprise the MTA would place the oldest buses in the poorest neighborhoods of Brooklyn,” said Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuels in the statement, in which she accused the MTA of disrespecting poorer communities of color with outdated equipment. The MTA replaces a quarter of its fleet every three years, but the average bus is more than nine years old.

The disparity in transportation infrastructure has a health and environmental impact as well. In East New York, the emergency department visit rate for asthma cases among children ages five to 17 is much higher than the Brooklyn average, and pollution from outdated diesel buses may be part of the problem.

Update (March 20 at 11:15 a.m.): The MTA will send new bus models to communities currently served by a disproportionate number of older, higher polluting buses by the end of the year following reports of service disparities, the agency told the Brooklyn Eagle. “There is zero truth to any accusations that the deployment of buses is influenced by any consideration of income, race, or any other demographic measure, and the facts clearly show that,” said MTA Chief External Affairs Officer Max Young.

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