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CTA riders have long grumbled about getting a raw deal with high fares and skimpy service, and a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday argues that the complaint is not just real but fueled by policies that favor white commuters over blacks and Hispanics.

At stake is more than $1 billion in tax dollars split each year among the CTA and the suburban-based commuter railroad and bus lines, Metra and Pace.

Most of the aid goes to the CTA, which serves a far larger share of minority riders than Metra and Pace. But the suit contends that cut is still too low and seeks to remedy things by shifting resources away from the suburban transit agencies. It blames chronic racism for shortchanging the CTA, disproportionately harming black and Hispanic riders.

A controversial contention, to be sure, and one that some experts think is legally shaky. Even so, the lawsuit, filed by public-interest lawyers, serves to highlight long-standing tensions over how to divvy scarce transit resources in an equitable and smart way among agencies that cater to very different customer bases.

The split of sales tax and state subsidies targeted to Chicago-area mass-transit systems over the last 26 years has “grossly and disparately favored white mass-transit riders … by over-funding Metra,” alleged the proposed class-action lawsuit, filed on behalf of Hispanic and black CTA passengers.

The allegation was swiftly rejected by Metra. Judy Pardonnet, a spokeswoman for the agency, said it “categorically denies any type of racial discrimination” and questions the validity of ridership statistics cited in the lawsuit. “From our preliminary review, there’s a lot of information stated in the lawsuit that’s not true,” Pardonnet said.

CTA officials have lobbied state lawmakers for years to gain a bigger share of the mass-transit funding pot but have never invoked discrimination as an argument. The lawsuit, on the other hand, frames the CTA’s chronic funding woes in starkly racial terms while seeking to remedy them by forcing a shift of public resources away from Metra and Pace.

All of this is playing out at a time when the state treasury is mired in a record sea of red ink that has left officials struggling to simply keep funding commitments at existing levels.

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