Pinned between a federal judge and a possible public vote of no-confidence in its management of subway construction, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's board voted Thursday to take steps it hopes will boost the agency's standing at bus stops and on Wall Street.
Faced with the prospect of being ordered by a federal court to buy buses, the board unanimously approved a plan to spend $817 million over the next six years to purchase 2,095 new buses to replace the transit agency's aged and problem-plagued fleet. The condition of that fleet prompted a federal civil rights lawsuit, which the MTA settled by agreeing to a consent degree directing improvements in the system.
The purchase is a belated effort to resuscitate the nation's second-largest bus system, which has been crippled by the agency's preoccupation with building the subway and light rail lines.
After amassing $7 billion in debt building the rail lines and a lavish high-rise headquarters, the board also agreed to adopt the MTA's first-ever debt policy to restrict its future borrowing.
In one way, it was a new day at the MTA, as the usually critical Bus Riders Union, a plaintiff in the civil rights suit, praised the board of directors after its approval of the accelerated bus purchase plan.
But in a sign of business as usual, MTA Chief Executive Julian Burke revealed that agency officials are studying ways to continue building subway lines, even if voters approve a November ballot measure to cut off the local sales tax funding for underground construction.
Burke said his staff is considering a slimmed down Eastside subway extension funded solely with money from Washington and Sacramento, where the area's influential group of Latino office-holders wields increasing clout.
The decision to commit $817 million to buy buses was not an accident. The MTA board is trying to head off a federal court order forcing the agency to buy more buses because of the transit agency's repeated violations of the consent decree's requirements to reduce overcrowding.
The accelerated purchase plan includes almost 800 more buses than the MTA had expected to buy between now and 2004. Many, but not necessarily all, of the new buses will be powered by low-polluting compressed natural gas.
The vote was hailed by the Bus Riders Union. "Si, Se Puede!" (Yes, it's possible), members of the Bus Riders Union, dressed in yellow shirts, chanted outside the board room after the vote. "This is a tremendous victory for us," said one of the group's members, Norma Henry.
Eric Mann, the Bus Riders Union leader, said the bus purchases will give riders a "chance to have a 2,000-bus fleet that will show up on time."
He said the agency needs another 2,000 buses to expand service and said his group will continue to oppose construction of the Alameda Corridor freight rail line and the Los Angeles-to-Pasadena light rail line to free up money for buses.
But he added: "We think for the board to learn to say the B-word is an important step in the right direction."
Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who is chairman of the MTA board, predicted that "the public will see dramatically improved bus service in the years ahead."
The bus riders group and the MTA, however, continue to debate what needs to be done more immediately to meet court-ordered limits on passenger loads on buses. Both face deadlines to report back to a court-appointed special master on how the MTA should remedy the chronic overcrowding.
Thursday's board meeting was rife with tension over Proposition A on the county ballot, which would cut off all local sales tax money for future subway extensions, require annual audits of MTA spending and create a citizens oversight panel.
The proposition would mean no local funds could be used to construct long-planned subway lines to the Eastside, the Mid-City area or any other part of the county.
The measure's author, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, and one of its backers, Supervisor Mike Antonovich, both MTA board members, demanded to know whether Burke and his staff are examining other ways to finance construction of future subways.
Burke said MTA officials are examining all alternatives, including the use of state and federal money for subway expansion.
The debate over Proposition A, the anti-subway measure, also gained attention outside of the MTA boardroom, when Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden lay down on abandoned railroad tracks in the San Fernando Valley to protest the measure.
Proposition A "will defraud the voters and taxpayers of this city because they were promised . . . that they would have a subway," he said. Holden's district includes the Mid-City area, which was to receive a subway extension.
After the subway debate and approval of an additional $25 million in short-term borrowing, the board adopted the agency's first debt policy. Such a step was proposed after The Times reported last June that the MTA has amassed $7 billion in debt when principal, interest and fees all are accounted for.
The MTA board and those of its predecessor agencies financed construction of the subway and light rail lines by engaging in nearly nonstop borrowing beginning in the mid-1980s.
As a result, debt service has become the MTA's largest single operating expense, more than the salaries of all of the transit agency's employees.
A state auditor's report issued this week concluded that the MTA's plan for managing its debt is reasonable, if the agency adheres to the financial recovery plan submitted to federal officials and continues to rely on more conservative sales tax projections. The report did not include the agency's short-term borrowing, debt issued by benefit assessment districts or borrowing committed after the study was concluded.
"We have a manageable debt," said MTA chief Burke, adding that doesn't mean that "we don't have to cautiously watch what we are doing with debt."