Los Angeles transit officials Wednesday approved a sweeping plan to make bus travel safer, cheaper and more convenient, paving the way for settlement of a lawsuit accusing the MTA of neglecting poor and minority bus riders in order to build rail lines for more affluent commuters.
The proposed consent decree, which must be approved by a federal judge, would preserve the popular monthly pass, reduce its price from $49 to $42, establish a new $11 weekly pass and put at least 152 more buses on the streets in the next two years.
Under the agreement in the civil rights lawsuit, the current cash fare of $1.35 would not be changed for two years and more transit police would be assigned to patrol the bus system. It also calls for lowering the cash fare from $1.35 to 75 cents during off-peak periods on some yet-to-be-selected lines serving those most dependent on public transit.
The steps are designed to soften the blow of last year’s 25-cent fare increase on low-income bus riders and improve service on the nation’s most crowded bus system.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority board unanimously approved the settlement in a closed-door session, after which the longtime adversaries in the lawsuit joined together to celebrate the end of the two-year fight.
The nationally watched class-action suit, filed in 1994 by a coalition of groups representing bus riders, accused the MTA of spending a disproportionate share of transit dollars on the rail system at the expense of low-income and minority bus riders.
“This decree should serve as an end to discriminatory policies that favored white suburbanite riders over poor people whose fares have supported the public transit system for years,” said E. Richard Larson, an attorney for the ACLU Foundation of Southern California who assisted the plaintiffs.
Standing side by side with MTA officials, Constance L. Rice, western regional counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said that “the proposed settlement is a victory for the bus riders of Los Angeles who will enjoy lower fares, more buses and safer rides.”
Mayor Richard Riordan acknowledged the plight of bus riders. “We’ve put way too many of the resources into fixed rail and at the same time ignoring buses,” he said.
The settlement also was hailed at bus stops.
“Cheaper bus fare sounds good to me,” Maria Segala, 46, a file clerk at the Los Angeles Superior Court, said as she watched buses stream down Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. “These buses are always packed with people using bus passes. A lot of people will be saving a lot of money now.”
Pointing to the passes that the MTA had wanted to abolish before the suit was filed, Bob Shaban, an El Monte mall security guard, said he will now have “extra weekend money for me . . . a nightclub, a nice dinner with my girlfriend.”
Jose Reyes, an East Los Angeles resident whose only source of income is a monthly $594 welfare check, said the reduction in bus fares will help him and his family--a wife and two children--who are struggling to make ends meet.
“There is little money in our family,” said the Spanish-speaking Reyes. The 39-year-old man has been relying on his $49 monthly bus pass to get around. “Times are difficult for me and my family. Every dollar counts. The extra money will help buy food, clothes and new shoes for the children.”
The 28-page proposed consent decree was expected to be filed today with U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr., who must approve it after scheduling a public hearing.
It was not immediately clear how the agreement would affect the MTA’s $2.9-billion budget. One official said the agency would have to spend nearly $100 million on new buses, plus $25 million a year in increased operating costs, while losing $10 million a year in revenues. The agency is already looking at cutting back its rail construction because of cost overruns and less federal money than expected for the Los Angeles subway project.
But MTA Chief Executive Officer Joseph E. Drew said that there would be “no anticipated impact on the rail program.” Transit officials spent more than $1 million on legal bills preparing for the case, which was to go to court in two weeks. Plaintiffs said they will seek to recover their unspecified attorney fees from the MTA.
In an attempt to avoid going to court, attorneys for both sides negotiated through a mediator.
Each side won concessions.
The transit authority got to keep the cash fare at $1.35. Bus rider advocates wanted it cut back to $1 with no transfer charge, and eventually dropped to 50 cents. But the plaintiffs won a commitment from the MTA not to increase the fare for two years.
Although bus riders had sought to increase MTA’s fleet of 2,000 buses by another 1,000, the agreement calls for putting 51 more vehicles on the street by the end of this year and another 51 by June 1997. In addition, the MTA will add 50 buses over the next two years to improve access by those who must use public transit to reach educational, employment and health centers.
The agreement also establishes a schedule for the MTA to put even more vehicles on the street, if necessary, to bring down the number of passengers forced to stand. Now, as many as 18 riders can be found standing on many 42-seat buses. The two sides want to cut that number in half by 2002.
By making the concessions, MTA board members put behind them a politically troublesome civil rights lawsuit.
The plaintiffs, led by the Labor/Community Strategy Center and its Bus Riders Union, got to preserve the monthly pass--a major goal--and drop its price for three years. They also got the MTA to lower the cost of a 15-day pass, from $26.50 to $21, and establish a new $11 weekly pass.
About 42% of MTA bus riders buy passes. The passes are popular because they allow unlimited rides and save passengers from fumbling for change.
Other passengers drop $1.35 in change or a 90-cent token into the fare box every time they board a bus, plus 25 cents for each transfer. So for low-income riders who depend on the bus to get around--making more than a dozen trips in a week--an $11 weekly pass could also yield big savings.
The suit took the MTA to task for assigning more transit police to lesser-used trains. Officials said the agreement requires the MTA to provide “equitable security” on buses and trains.
Eric Mann, director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center, caught MTA officials by surprise during their celebratory news conference when he said he was still concerned about a provision in the agreement that could lead to a special bus pass for low-income riders. He said that such a pass could stigmatize poor riders and require them to present documentation.
Rice noted that both parties will talk about the low-income pass. “This is going to move forward,” she said. “It is the beginning of a journey.”
Bus rider activists have argued that improved bus service and lower fares could improve the commute for all county residents by increasing ridership on public transit.
Indeed, when the old Southern California Rapid Transit District lowered the fare to 50 cents between 1983 and 1986, boardings rose to 1.7 million on a weekday. Today, there are 1.07 million daily boardings.
Correspondent Monica Valencia contributed to this story.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
MTA Settlement at a Glance
Under a proposed settlement worked out Wednesday between the MTA and a coalition of groups representing bus riders, the transit authority agreed to:
* Maintain the current cash fare of $1.35 and 90-cent token for two years.
* Put more transit police on buses to increase security.
* Continue the sale of monthly passes for three years, cutting the price from $49 to $42. Sell 15-day passes for $21 and a weekly pass for $11.
* Cut off-peak fares to 75 cents on some lines used chiefly by those dependent on public transit.
* Add 102 buses by the end of June.
* Add 50 buses on heavily used lines in the next two years to improve access by those dependent on public transit to travel to destinations such as medical facilities, job sites and vocational schools.