Foothill Transit 'in Limbo' After 2 Legal Setbacks

Times Staff Writer

A month ago, officials from the fledgling Foothill Transit Zone were boasting about how the new transit agency would soon provide better, cheaper bus service for the San Gabriel Valley.

Now, after two court losses have derailed the pioneering project, zone officials are wondering when--and if--the transit agency will get started.

Because of legal challenges by opponents, Foothill Transit has been blocked from picking up two freeway express lines that officials had planned to take over from the Southern California Rapid Transit District on July 1. Officials said it now could be early next year before Foothill Transit Zone, which had planned on assuming 18 other RTD lines over a 2-year period, can begin service.

"Everything has been set back at least six months," said William P. Forsythe, the zone's interim director. "And that's optimistic."

Ruling on Injunction

The latest setback came Tuesday, when a state Court of Appeal rejected a request to remove an injunction that was won by RTD drivers and mechanics who claimed that the new agency threatened their jobs. Foothill officials had hoped that the injunction, which was part of a lawsuit filed by RTD workers, would have been lifted so service could begin while the suit was decided.

Depending on the outcome of the suit and the appeals that would likely follow, it could be six months to a year before Foothill Transit can begin operations, officials said.

El Monte Mayor Don McMillen, who is president of Foothill Transit's governing board, agreed that its future is uncertain.

"We're in limbo," he said. "I think we're all disappointed, but when you're dealing with something like the courts, you just have to live with delays."

The legal tussles have left Foothill Transit with 25 idle buses, purchased for $2.6 million, for which Forsythe said officials were trying to find alternative uses.

Moreover, the legal uncertainty will prevent Foothill Transit from buying 47 additional buses for three lines that the agency originally planned to take over from RTD in January. Noting the lag time between when the buses are ordered, built and delivered, Forsythe said the schedule could be delayed more than six months.

Legal Troubles

Foothill Transit Zone appeared to be speeding toward service start-up until it ran into a morass of litigation at the end of June and early July.

It was approved last year by the Transportation Commission, which controls the purse strings for transit projects within the county. The foothill zone was seen as a low-cost alternative to RTD for 19 San Gabriel Valley cities and the Southeast community of La Habra Heights. It had contracted with Embree Bus Lines to take over express lines from Glendora and Diamond Bar to downtown Los Angeles as part of the first phase.

The commission's approval was a victory for county Supervisor Pete Schabarum, who fought stiff resistance from RTD and its unions. Schabarum, chairman of the Transportation Commission and a frequent RTD critic, has charged that the massive agency pays scant attention to the transit needs of the San Gabriel Valley.

Schabarum has estimated that Foothill Transit Zone, which would become the largest privately operated agency of its type in the nation, would expand bus service and save up to $8.9 million over what it would cost RTD to provide comparable service by 1990.

To demonstrate that it could operate more inexpensively, Foothill Transit's governing board voted in June to keep RTD's old fare structure, which had an 85 cent base fare, as opposed to the RTD's new $1.10 base rate adopted July 1. RTD's base fares on the two disputed freeway express lines increased 11% and 20%.

Foothill officials say a county-run pilot project, which uses Foothill Transit buses to provide local service in Pomona and Claremont and two express lines to downtown Los Angeles, has shown a 19% increase in ridership and a 50% savings over what it cost RTD to operate them. The lines were dropped by RTD last year.

But the brakes were put on foothill transit in June, when RTD mechanics and drivers sued the Transportation Commission.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Eli Chernow granted the union's request for an injunction, barring the Transportation Commission from funding or implementing the zone until the suit is heard. Foothill officials said they do not expect either the union's case or the commission's appeal of the injunction to be heard before January.

In his ruling, Chernow stated that unless the RTD board of directors, which supported the union's position, consents to the zone's formation, the commission cannot arbitrarily take lines from RTD.

The RTD board--which filed a cross-complaint against the Transportation Commission in July to get $4.6 million in funding for the disputed freeway lines--has refused to consider Foothill Transit's request, citing pending litigation.

Foothill officials said the judge erred when he ruled that the zone represented "a major dismemberment" of RTD. After implementing the freeway lines, the zone was scheduled to take over up to 20 local and regional lines and about 7% of the RTD's peak-hour operation.

To get Foothill Transit rolling, Schabarum and the Transportation Commission sought a "writ of supersedeas, " basically an expedited appeal, which would have set aside Chernow's injunction and allowed Foothill Transit to run the disputed lines.

In denying the writ Tuesday, the 2nd District Court of Appeal said the injunction could only be lifted if Chernow had "exceeded the bounds of reason or contravened the uncontradicted evidence."

"It does not appear that the trial court went beyond the bounds of reason," the court's opinion stated.

Foothill officials, who acknowledged that the writ was a long shot, were nonetheless disheartened by the latest ruling.

"Sure we're disappointed," Forsythe said. "How long do we have to wait for good service at a lower price? Probably at least six months."

James C. Powers, the attorney who represented the Transportation Commission in requesting the writ, said six months was an optimistic estimate of when the commission's appeal or the union's challenge against Foothill Transit will be heard. Until then, he said, the zone's future is in doubt.

"It is indefinite," he said. "We're talking many months in the future . . . everything is kind of up in the air."

Forsythe said RTD and its unions, after losing before the Transportation Commission, are trying to tie up the zone with litigation. He said it was "bad faith" for the unions to enter a last-minute challenge, saying the court could have ruled against them on those grounds alone.

"We're probably a year away from starting the service that was going to begin in six months," he said. "We'll continue to pursue it. Meanwhile, money will continue to go down the tubes with RTD."

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