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Let’s start with a provocation: Washington State’s 18th Amendment violates the United States Civil Rights Act of 1964, perpetuating discrimination in the state’s transportation system.

Passed in the post-War era, the 18th Amendment is focused tightly on how Washington state will allocate it’s gas taxes. It states:

“All fees collected by the State of Washington as license fees for motor vehicles and all excise taxes collected by the State of Washington on the sale, distribution or use of motor vehicle fuel and all other state revenue intended to be used for highway purposes.”

Rosa Parks: The Original Fighter for Civil Rights in our Transportation System

While environmentalists have decried the constraints of the 18th Amendment for many years, we’ve heard relatively little from the social justice community. How does the state’s transportation expenditures create the types of inequities that the Civil Rights Act was designed to avert? Looking back to the history of the Civil Rights Act provides us with some answers.

Passed during the Johnson administration, the Civil Rights Act is surely one of the high-points of the post-War Congress. In addition to outlawing racist voter-registration laws and creating parity in states’ education systems, the law also stated that there could not be un-equal treatment in “public accommodations,” essentially abolishing the infamous separate but equal approach to public facilities in the South.

Divided into 10 Titles, there are two sections of the Civil Rights Act that seem to have the most bearing on this discussion. As an armchair attorney, please allow me to lift their descriptions from Wikipedia:

  • Title III: Prohibited state and municipal governments from denying access to public facilities on grounds of race, religion, gender, or ethnicity, and
  • Title VI:  Prevents discrimination by government agencies that receive federal funding. If an agency is found in violation of Title VI, that agency can lose its federal funding.

While the 18th Amendment was not enacted to be discriminatory, it appears that in practice it violates both of the above titles by promoting a system that is prejudiced against a number of protected classes.

For example, a skilled litigator could argue that the 18th discriminates against people based upon race. We know, for example, that nationally only 7% of white Americans do not own cars, while for latinos and blacks, those numbers are 17% and 24% respectively; since Washington State does not fund alternatives to driving, it is discriminatory against both of these minority groups. Or, as Deron Lovass at the Natural Resources Defense Council notes:

Clearly, a public investment program that caters to the automobile also caters, largely, to white people, and that’s a huge problem.

Race is but one example of “highway discrimination;” we could easily argue investments in auto-centric infrastructure also discriminates against the poor, the elderly and those with both mental and physical disabilities. None of these protected classes are able to drive in the same numbers (or the same percentages) as white Americans. Public dollars should be used to erase inequities, not perpetuate or exacerbate them, bringing up the question that if 18th Amendment is unconstitutional, so too might be the Federal Highway Act and next year’s transportation re-authorization bill?

Remember that when Rosa Parks did not get up from her seat in Montgomery, AL in 1955, she was taking a stand against a transportation system—a “public accommodation”—that was fundamentally unjust. 55 years later, is Washington State’s 18th Amendment still enforcing an entrenched practice of discrimination by asking our state’s protected classes to get to the back of the transportation funding bus? And if so, how do we fix it?

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