Bus Double Take : Embattled RTD, Foothill Transit Lines Offer Duplicate Service

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here comes a spanking new blue and white Foothill Transit freeway express bus, rolling down Glendora Boulevard near the Plaza de Hacienda Shopping Center in La Puente. It is operating on Line 488 from Glendora to the El Monte busway and, eventually, to downtown Los Angeles.

Right behind comes a familiar red, orange and white Southern California Rapid Transit District bus. It also is operating on Line 488, and will follow the other bus down Glendora Boulevard, along Francisquito Avenue and out Ramona Boulevard to the El Monte busway and downtown Los Angeles.

Commuters waiting at Line 488's bus stops can be forgiven for doing a double take. But they aren't seeing double. They're getting double service. And they're not alone.

San Gabriel Valley residents living along Line 488 and a second express bus route, Line 486 in the City of Industry and Baldwin Park, have enjoyed duplicate tax-subsidized service by the Foothill Transit Zone and the RTD since June 28.

And they are not likely to see it end before a Superior Court judge gets a chance to unknot the situation Aug. 5.

The duplicate service--which costs about $7,900 a day more than a single route, or more than $200,000 since the redundancy began--grew out of an old dispute among Foothill Transit, the RTD and the United Transportation Union, which represents the RTD's drivers.

"It is an intolerable situation and a waste of transit tax money," RTD Board President Marv Holen said. But, he added, it is the result of two state court decisions that did not clearly settle a clash between Los Angeles County Transportation Commission policy and labor union contracts.

Neil Peterson, executive director of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, said he believes the issue was settled earlier this month, when the LACTC canceled funds for the two lines and ordered the district to stop operating them. But, he conceded, a court will have to sort out the legal complexities.

All sides in the dispute concede that the redundant service, while minor compared to service countywide, is acutely embarrassing at a time when inner-city buses are overcrowded and local transit agencies are short of money.

It can be dangerous as well as embarrassing. Rival drivers serving the same routes on identical schedules have been known to weave around one another and race to bus stops to be the first to scoop up waiting passengers.

As with many bureaucratic tangles, the duplicated service--which, depending on what lawyer is asked, could be considered illegal or required by law--is the product of a series of logical events. They began shortly after the Foothill Transit Zone was created in 1987.

Foothill was organized by the LACTC and 20 cities in the San Gabriel and Pomona valleys in an effort to increase service and cut costs on long-haul freeway express routes in eastern Los Angeles County. The routes, when run by RTD, require far higher subsidies than inner-city routes that carry more riders on shorter trips.

Foothill--like other new operations, such as the city of Los Angeles' Commuter Express--saves money by contracting out the work to private bus operators whose employees generally earn less in wages, enjoy fewer fringe benefits and have less say over their working conditions than do RTD's drivers.

These operators also save money because, as new entities, their vehicles are still under warranty and their maintenance costs much lower than those run up by RTD's aging fleet. At the same time, Foothill--unlike the RTD, the officially designated regional carrier--does not have to schedule its routes, establish bus stops, train and pay transit police officers or offer telephone information to passengers.

Because of this, Foothill's savings were instant and impressive. The hourly cost of running each bus was slashed by as much as half. This saved hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in public subsidies even as fares were reduced. Ridership on many routes mushroomed.

Seven lines already have been turned over to Foothill, but the process has not been without its drawbacks. More than 200 riders signed a petition last fall complaining that the service on one Foothill line was worse than when the RTD operated it. Buses were late, they complained, and sometimes never arrived; when buses did come, they were often crowded and their drivers were surly.

Foothill Transit also was criticized for refusing to take passengers downtown at the height of the riots earlier this year. Instead, Foothill left its riders at the El Monte bus terminal and suggested that they transfer to RTD buses to complete their trips.

None of these issues were part of the initial resistance to Foothill. When the LACTC first stripped the RTD of the seven lines and turned them over to Foothill in 1987, the debate was about whether such transfers were allowed by state law and local labor contracts.

The RTD said the new agency was not legal and resisted turning over the lines for more than a year, during which the LACTC withheld $50 million in subsidies. The RTD had to relent in December, 1988, when it ran low on cash and was in danger of having to severely curtail other service in the rest of the county.

When the first two Foothill routes began, unions representing RTD drivers and mechanics--the United Transportation Union and the Amalgamated Transit Union--stepped in and sued to block further transfers. They succeeded only as long as the Superior Court trial lasted, six weeks. When the judge ruled against them, the transfers resumed.

However, after five more lines were switched over to Foothill early in 1989, transfers were again blocked while the transit unions appealed their case. But when the state Supreme Court refused to hear the case last year, the LACTC was free to transfer seven more lines to Foothill from the RTD.

The drivers union, however, stopped the process once again after Foothill began service on lines 486 and 488. They argued that the RTD could not give up the lines, because to do so would violate the union's contract with the transit district. The contract calls for RTD to negotiate with its unions before canceling or transferring bus lines. An arbitrator has agreed with the union, and a state appeals court has affirmed the arbitrator's finding.

The union plans to use this legal point both to prevent future transfers and to roll back past transfers. A trial is scheduled to start Oct. 5, although all parties are seeking a early resolution of the case during hearings Aug. 5.

For now, the net result of the court decisions is that Foothill Transit has the legal right to operate buses on the contested routes, but the RTD has the legal obligation to do so. These two conflicting court mandates were handed down despite the fact that state law forbids government to duplicate service on publicly subsidized bus routes.

Foothill could have chosen to wait for the legal fog to lift. But it already had leased the buses, hired drivers and taken the LACTC's subsidies for the routes, so it elected to start service as planned. Meanwhile, the RTD, believing it is compelled by the state Court of Appeal ruling, keeps running its buses on the line, too.

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