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MTA OKs $568 Million for Projects--With a Big ‘If’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A week after top Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials told a federal judge there is no money available to operate more buses, the transit agency’s directors Thursday approved spending $568 million over the next four years on improvements to highways, bikeways and pedestrian walkways.

The mega-package, approved 8 to 0 with no public debate, includes $189 million in freeway and carpool lane projects, $71 million to upgrade traffic signals, almost $41 million for transit capital projects including new shuttle buses for Los Angeles and Glendale, and $33 million for bikeways and pedestrian walkways.

The approval for the projects came with a big caveat: that the MTA may have to divert funds from some of the improvement projects and spend it on bus purchases or operations if a federal judge orders the agency to do so.

MTA Chief Executive Officer Julian Burke warned the board to be cautious about making commitments to other transportation projects when Chief U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. has indicated he intends to order the agency to buy more buses.

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“We may have a very aggressive order that . . . could put into question what our other obligations are,” Burke said.

Burke served notice to all parties that rely on the MTA funding that money earmarked for other transportation programs that could be available to pay for bus purchases or operations may be subject to the court’s jurisdiction.

After hearing six hours of testimony and argument over two days last week, Hatter said he is not convinced that court-appointed Special Master Donald T. Bliss Jr. acted erroneously in ruling that the MTA must purchase 481 new buses to relieve overcrowding and improve service.

The judge said he will issue a formal ruling in the near future.

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The MTA appealed to Hatter for relief from Bliss’ directive and in so doing challenged the authority of both the judge and the special master he appointed to oversee MTA’s compliance with a consent decree requiring the agency to reduce overcrowding and improve bus service.

Hatter pointedly rejected MTA’s challenge to his authority last week. And his remarks from the bench overshadowed the MTA board’s monthly meeting Thursday and made for an awkward start to the day’s proceedings.

County Supervisor Gloria Molina, an MTA board member, proposed--and the board ultimately agreed--that its actions are subject to review once Hatter makes his ruling.

Again and again, the board struggled with placing that condition on its approval of everything from a garbage collection contract to payments for subway contractors.

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The massive program of improvements to highways, bikeways and pedestrian walkways is viewed by some as the MTA’s own form of pork barrel politics. And the board room--packed with lobbyists, attorneys, representatives of cities and municipal bus companies--underscored the breadth of projects involved.

After a closed-door discussion with its attorneys about the MTA’s court fight with the Bus Riders Union and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the board returned and swiftly approved the package of projects in all areas of the county.

“Pork tastes better than responsibility,” said an aide to an MTA board member, who wished to remain anonymous.

What was not said publicly, but was told privately to the staff of MTA board members, is that much of the money involved in the package can be used to pay for buying more buses and a lesser amount could be used to operate them.

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In arguments to Hatter, MTA officials and its attorneys said there was no more money available to pay for operating additional buses. MTA Chief Operating Officer Alan Lipsky said Thursday: “What we were saying was there was no uncommitted money available.”

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, an MTA board member, did not vote to approve the highway, bikeway and pedestrian projects. “People need to be on notice that everything is up in the air right now,” he said. “The argument that was made in court that every dollar is earmarked is technically true, but it can be deprogrammed.”

But Burke said the agency has many other obligations that it must meet, including operating subway and rail lines, paying for the tow trucks that patrol freeways, providing subsidies to municipal bus operators, and funding for highway and road improvements.


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