ECHO PARK : Hunger Strike Staged Over Bus Hike Plan

In the wake of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's recent proposal to hike bus fares by 25 cents, members of a Latino activist group have staged a hunger strike at a local bus stop.

"Someone has to do it for those who can't defend themselves," said Jose Mendoza, 37, a member of Grupo Latino Echo Park. "Someone has to say, 'No way,' to the fare increases."

Mendoza and Eustasio Castro, 48, began their fast last week as part of Grupo Latino's effort to protest the proposed cutbacks in bus service and fare hikes to meet a $126-million shortfall in a proposed $647.4-million operating budget.

From Monday through Wednesday, they sat at Sunset Boulevard and Echo Park Avenue, near an MTA bus stop, and surrounded themselves with signs that read, "Hunger Strike, Down With the MTA." They spent their evenings inside a tent at Echo Park but were asked to leave Wednesday morning by park rangers. Mendoza said Wednesday afternoon that they plan to pitch a tent on the sidewalk.

MTA spokesman Rick Jager declined to comment on the hunger strike, but said that people can present their concerns to the MTA board. Meetings have tentatively been scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday at an undetermined site, and 10 a.m. June 18 at the County Board of Supervisors' hearing room, 500 W. Temple St.

"We believe that the modest fare increase that the budget is proposing merely catches up with other major metropolitan agencies across the nation as well as here in California," Jager said. "The MTA has not raised fares in six years."

Barbara Gonzales, founder and president of Grupo Latino, organized the bus stop protest and also staged marches last week around the bus stop during the evening rush hour. She said she plans daily protests until the MTA revokes its plans to raise bus fares.

"We think that MTA didn't listen to us . . . the people who ride the buses," Gonzales said.

She also contends that the increase to $1.35 per ride would be especially unfair to low-income families, most of whom earn less than minimum wage.

"They have to ride a bus like three to four times a day--it's too much," she said.

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