Six days a week, Blanca Iniguez boards two buses for a journey of about two hours from her South-Central residence to Santa Monica, where she is a maid in the home of a Westside doctor.
For Iniguez and tens of thousands of other Central Los Angeles residents, the bus system is a transportation lifeline. Unable to afford a car, they depend on the buses for everything from shuttling to work to going to the grocery store.
"With no buses, I would not be able to survive," said Iniguez, a Mexican immigrant who takes home about $550 a month for cleaning, cooking and washing clothes at the doctor's residence.
But she and other central city residents, who make up about half of the four-county bus system's 1.2 million daily riders, could be drastically affected by proposed fare hikes and cutbacks in service. Faced with a $126-million deficit, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is considering a variety of options to make up the shortfall.
The options include raising bus fares from $1.10 to $1.50, canceling weekend service on more than 120 lines, reducing weekday service by 25% on selected routes, eliminating 55 school lines and ending late-night service on selected lines between 1 and 5 a.m.
"I think everybody in the agency, including the board of directors, hates to do it, but we have to do something to try to correct the (budget) situation," said MTA spokesman Rick Jager.
The MTA, which recently conducted 14 public hearings citywide, is preparing a staff report with recommendations for the agency's board of directors, which is expected to make a decision by July 1, the beginning of the fiscal year.
Jager said the MTA is trying to spread the cutbacks around. By July, the agency will eliminate 515 administrative positions and cut in half the number of outside service contracts for a savings of more than $55.5 million, he said. The overall MTA budget for the current fiscal year is $3.4 billion.
But MTA critics say the current proposals will still adversely affect bus riders, especially in bus-dependent Central Los Angeles.
On a recent afternoon, as buses and cars whizzed by, about 25 Echo Park residents protested the proposed fare hikes and service cutbacks at Sunset Boulevard near Echo Park Avenue. The demonstrators were members of Grupo Latino de Echo Park, a community organization that has been critical of bus service in the area.
"I've been riding the buses for 10 years. We need better service, not higher fares," said Gloria Hernandez, who uses the bus to get to her security guard job in Glendale.
Hernandez said she lost her last job because her bus was late on three occasions. "When (buses) don't show up, we have to wait another half hour. Our bosses get mad," she said.
Said group president Barbara Gonzalez: "Most of the people who ride buses are low-income. They make $4.25 an hour. If you have five kids and a husband, how can you pay more for the bus?"
A 1993 MTA survey indicated that 62% of bus riders earn less than $15,000 a year. Latinos comprised 47% of the riders, African Americans 23%, whites 19%, Asians 9% and Native Americans 1%, the survey found.
Others charge the agency is subsidizing more glamorous rail lines at the expense of the bus system, even though the buses carry about 20 times as many daily passengers.
In the current fiscal year, according to MTA figures, $681 million is being spent for operating and upgrading the buses, compared with $938.6 million to operate and build new rail lines.
"The (MTA) board is saving money by way of bus service cuts," said Martin Hernandez, a transportation organizer with the Labor/Community Watch Dog, an advocacy group. "It's practically criminal what they're doing."
Proposed Changes in Bus Service
Central City residents, who make up about half of the four-county MTA bus system's 1.2 million daily riders, could be drastically affected by proposed fare hikes and cutbacks in service. Here are some of those proposed changes:
* Cancellation of service between 1 and 5 a.m. on MTA bus lines 10, 18, 28/83/84, 38, 76, 92, 105, 111, 180, 424 and 446.
* Reduction or cancellation of service on lines 114 and 130.
* Cancellation of lines 56, 410, 457 and 497, which largely parallel Metro Blue Line and Metrolink rail service.
* Cancellation of holiday service.
* Cancellation, modification or transfer of portions of 60 lines to municipal transit operators.
* Cancellation of all school-related service, affecting 55 lines.
* Cancellation or reassignment to another operator of 18 peak-hour express lines: 402, 406, 407, 410, 412, 418, 426, 427, 429, 442, 443, 457, 466, 489, 497 and 576.
* Cancellation or reassignment to another operator of the following lightly used lines: daily service on lines 56, 168, 202 and 250; Saturday service on lines 209, 225/226 and 254; Sunday service on lines 107, 124, 161, 167, 236 and 245.
* Rerouting of 24 Downtown lines and restructuring of service on the El Monte Busway and the future Harbor Freeway Transitway.
* Reduction of service frequency on selected lines by 25%, and reductions in train service frequency.
Source: Metropolitan Transportation Authority
Times correspondent Jake Doherty contributed to this report.