Attorneys for drivers and mechanics of the Southern California Rapid Transit District opened their challenge of the Foothill Transit Zone Tuesday, telling a Superior Court judge that the local bus agency is illegal and should be dismantled.
The unions contend that Foothill Transit, which is scheduled to take control of 14 RTD lines over three years, threatens their jobs and represents an illegal breakup of the massive transit operator. Foothill Transit, which contracts with private bus companies for service, was approved by the county Transportation Commission in December, 1987.
In asking Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Eli Chernow to break up Foothill Transit, union attorneys sought in opening arguments to steer the trial away from the RTD's performance in the San Gabriel Valley.
The trial "is not about whether one likes the RTD or doesn't like the RTD," said Joseph Freitas Jr., representing the RTD's 2,000 mechanics. "The key issue is whether the (Transportation Commission) had the authority to create this zone."
But Foothill Transit attorney Thomas K. Bourke, citing a history of RTD service cutbacks in the San Gabriel Valley, said: "They're accusing us of building a better mousetrap than the RTD."
Last year, Chernow granted the unions a temporary restraining order against the Transportation Commission, barring it from implementing the transit zone until the RTD had given consent. After six months of controversy, the RTD board gave its consent in December in exchange for $9 million in monthly funding the commission had withheld.
Despite Chernow's previous ruling, Foothill officials say they are guardedly optimistic that the judge will rule in their favor.
"It's never certain," Foothill Executive Director William P. Forsythe said. "You never know what will happen when something is in court. This is the same judge who issued (the restraining order). But this is also the judge who lifted it."
Foothill Transit, formed by 20 San Gabriel Valley cities and the county, is intended to be a low-cost alternative to the RTD. Since December, Foothill has contracted with Embree Bus Lines to operate two freeway express routes from Diamond Bar and Glendora to downtown Los Angeles.
Foothill Transit's base cash fare is 85 cents; RTD's base fare is $1.10. Forsythe said ridership has increased up to 20% on one of the express lines, and Foothill has added two buses to help ease the load. Under Foothill's charter, any savings are supposed to be used to expand service.
The transit zone became a crusade for county Supervisor Pete Schabarum, a strident RTD critic who has said the San Gabriel Valley has had a disproportionate share of RTD service cutbacks. Schabarum is also chairman of the Transportation Commission.
In August, Foothill is slated to add five local lines, bringing to seven the number of routes it has taken over from RTD. By 1990, Foothill is planning to operate one-third of the San Gabriel Valley's bus service.
In addition to Foothill Transit and the commission, the RTD is a defendant in the case. But RTD has sought to place itself in a neutral position.
In outlining their case Tuesday, union attorneys argued that the Transportation Commission illegally created a competing bus operator "to dismember" the RTD. Transit zones were intended to augment, not supplant, existing service, Freitas said.
Lawrence Drasin, representing drivers of the United Transportation Union, said state law mandates that all transit zones be local and by operating two long-distance commuter lines, Foothill Transit is illegal.
But Bourke said the two routes originate in the San Gabriel Valley, taking local riders in during the morning and home at night.
The trial is expected to take up to two weeks.