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MTA in Denial

As recently as last week, there was clear evidence that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and its board still didn’t get it. There was the agency at a meeting Sunday trying to defend to riders a decision to cancel or shorten 18 bus lines when the Hollywood leg of the Red Line subway opens later this year.

This was simple logic by MTA standards. Riders won’t need buses once the subway opens, the board insisted, so shut down the lines. That might have made sense anywhere else in the country, but not here, not when an officer of the federal court is about to pass judgment on the MTA for neglecting bus service in favor of rail.

Last month, TA board members tried to make it easier to create a so-called San Fernando Valley transit zone that would usurp authority from the MTA, as if this idea had a chance of going anywhere with a federal special master about to tell the MTA just how it was going to have to find and spend several hundreds of millions of dollars.

Are these people locked in some sort of salad days time warp? Only that could explain why they expressed surprise at Special Master Donald T. Bliss’ recent ruling that the MTA had not come even remotely close to meeting the terms of an October 1996 court consent decree to vastly improve bus service for the MTA transit riders who depend on it. Bliss demanded that the authority buy 532 more clean-fuel buses, on top of the 2,095 such buses the MTA had already agreed to buy.

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The MTA did not have to be in this situation. In the initial months after it agreed to settle the bus riders’ case, the MTA did nothing and bus service deteriorated. The authority behaved like a wayward student who had been given a five-day extension on a school report and then goofed off for four days.

By the time that current chief executive Julian Burke reined in the MTA’s finances and started moving on buses, it was already too late. MTA spokesmen claimed recent progress on bus crowding and dependability, but how much longer were the bus riders supposed to wait?

The special master’s ruling has far-reaching implications for every project that depends on MTA funding, from the Pasadena Blue Line to Metrolink and beyond. As a victorious lawyer, Constance Rice, said Monday, “The bus riders have a lien on MTA resources.”

The MTA could appeal to the federal judge in this case, Terrance J. Hatter, but that would involve further risks. Better that it quickly determine how it will come up with the money to fulfill Bliss’ order and somehow manage to complete the subway to North Hollywood, lest the big hole in the ground become a lasting monument to the most embarrassing transit debacle in the nation’s history.

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