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Purchase of 20 Las Vegas Buses OKd by MTA Panel

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Under a federal court order to relieve overcrowding on its troubled bus system, a Metropolitan Transportation Authority committee Wednesday approved buying 20 diesel-powered buses from Las Vegas.

The action came as a “special master” appointed by a federal judge gave the MTA and bus rider advocates until next week to try to agree on whether the agency is complying with a consent decree that requires improvements in bus service.

Donald T. Bliss ruled that under the consent decree the MTA is required to take “all feasible steps” to ensure that the number of riders standing during peak periods does not exceed certain levels.

The bus purchase is part of an urgent effort by the MTA to acquire and put in service more buses to meet requirements that the county transit agency improve bus service.

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Environmental groups and clean-air advocates opposed the acquisition of the buses because of recent findings that diesel exhaust can cause cancer.

Representatives of the Coalition for Clean Air and the South Coast Air Quality Management District accused the MTA of moving away from its commitment to operate new buses powered by cleaner-burning fuels.

But MTA officials said the new diesel buses from a Las Vegas transit operator--to be purchased for no more than $5.5 million--are far cleaner than the 18-year-old MTA buses they will replace.

The MTA board’s operations committee made no recommendation on whether to spend $14 million more to acquire 36 accordion-like buses from Houston’s transit agency pending a report on whether the longer buses can be used on Los Angeles streets. While the longer buses have far more seats than conventional buses, they also have more difficulty negotiating turns on some streets.

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Beyond its own orders for new buses, the MTA has been searching the country for other vehicles to replace its aging and problem-plagued fleet.

The need for new buses was underscored when Bliss affirmed that the MTA must meet strict targets for reducing the number of standees. He said that those targets, known as load factor limits, apply on all bus routes operated by the agency and cannot be averaged across the bus system. And he said compliance can be measured in set 20-minute intervals.

Bliss called on the MTA and the Bus Riders Union to report to him by next Tuesday whether the agency was in compliance with the limit on overcrowding as of the end of last year.

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The special master, appointed by U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr., said the court order does not excuse a failure to meet the overcrowding limit because of equipment malfunctions, traffic, weather and other variables.

The MTA’s ability to put buses on the streets and keep them operating has been hampered by chronic problems with age of the equipment and with buses powered by methanol or ethanol fuel. The agency has just begun the process of converting the 333 alternative fuel buses to diesel.

In addition to questions about its bus system, the MTA is wrestling with communications troubles as well. After a long discussion, the MTA construction committee voted Wednesday to recommend that the full board not award a disputed $6-million contract to upgrade radio communications in the downtown leg of the Metro Rail subway system.

Numerous questions arose about the decision of MTA staff to recommend the contract be awarded to Amelco Electric. At the suggestion of MTA board member Jose Legaspi, the committee agreed on a 3-0 vote to urge that the bidding process be started anew.

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