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MTA approves steep hikes for bus, rail fares

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles County transit leaders Thursday approved the first across-the-board fare increase in more than a decade, despite emotional testimony from hundreds of bus riders who said they could not afford steep price hikes.

The new fares -- which apply to both bus and rail service -- are less than the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s staff had sought but will still increase the amount riders pay significantly over the next two years. The cost of the monthly pass will gradually rise from $52 to $75 by July 1, 2009. The popular day pass will rise from $3 to $6 over the same period.

The decision by the MTA’s Board of Directors marks a stinging defeat for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who had tried to broker a compromise that would have raised most fares only 5% a year. But the board roundly rejected the mayor’s proposal, saying it would leave the agency with a deep operating deficit and would delay future rail projects.

“When you look at so many of them who make the minimum wage, who make less than the poverty level, clearly they are not going to be able to afford it,” Villaraigosa said afterward.

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The 9-4 vote marks a pivotal moment for mass transit in Los Angeles. The MTA had been unable to significantly raise fares for the last decade because of a federal consent decree established after bus riders and civil rights groups sued the agency in a bid to improve bus service.

Even without the added revenues, the agency has pushed forward with an ambitious rail expansion, including the Gold Line that runs from downtown L.A. to Pasadena and two new routes now under construction, one to East L.A., the other to Culver City.

The MTA found itself with a projected $1.8-billion deficit over the next decade, and CEO Roger Snoble said the agency was faced with the choice of raising fares or cutting service. “We are at a crossroads,” he said. “We have a great system. We just can’t pay for it.”

The fares approved Thursday, along with other cost savings, could eliminate the deficit in eight years, he said.

The MTA’s original proposal called for the daily cash fare to rise to $2 per ride from $1.25 and the monthly pass to $120 from $52 over the next two years.

But the 13-member board -- which includes the mayor, all five county supervisors and other officials -- quickly agreed that the proposal was draconian. The majority also agreed, however, that the mayor’s plan was unworkable because it would not raise enough revenue and called for more borrowing to buy buses. The mayor’s proposal was rejected on an 8-5 vote.

Instead, Supervisor Gloria Molina proposed the alternative that won approval.

The new fare schedule is more modest, but it still packs a punch. The single-ride cash fare will rise the least, from $1.25 to $1.50 over the next two years. But most riders use some form of a pass, which will see bigger increases. The costs of a monthly pass will rise 44%, and the cost of the daily pass will double. The monthly pass for senior citizens will rise from $12 to $17 -- a 42% increase but a far cry from the 400% jump (to $60) the MTA originally proposed.

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The first fare increase takes effect July 1.

“It’s a compromise. It does address the deficit, and we don’t have to borrow money,” said Molina, the MTA board chairwoman, after the vote. “It does include a fare increase. But it is much more gradual. It puts us on track to give us the stability we need in the long run.”

Hoping to cushion the blow, the MTA agreed to a special 25-cent fare for senior citizens and the disabled during non-peak hours. The board also discussed another fare increase that would take effect in 2011 -- but would require another MTA vote.

Villaraigosa was hoping to bring the board together on a compromise that would soften the blow for riders. Instead, he drew strong criticism from Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who called the mayor’s stance disingenuous.

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During a heated exchange, Yaroslavsky said Villaraigosa had indicated that he would support a fare increase in a closed session last summer after the MTA board agreed to a new contract with bus drivers and mechanics.

A visibly angry Villaraigosa shot back, accusing Yaroslavsky of mischaracterizing private conversations and then lashing out at the supervisor for sitting in his office while the mayor was in Sacramento on Wednesday trying to get more transportation funding.

Villaraigosa then said Yaroslavsky didn’t have the courage to propose his own fare increases, calling him a “sheep who walks in wolf’s clothing.”

The vote came at the end of five hours of comments from hundreds of bus riders who packed the MTA boardroom, overflowing into four other rooms at the towering downtown headquarters. The turnout, estimated by police at 1,500, was so large that at one point the building’s lobby was closed down by fire officials citing potential danger.

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Hundreds of people who depend on the buses to get to work, school, doctor’s appointments, stores and elsewhere told the board and a standing-room-only crowd that the higher fares would create even starker choices in their daily lives.

Lucy Duran, 62, of Mount Washington told the panel that her family “can’t even get a gallon of milk on our table,” much less afford to pay more to ride the bus. “The fare increase means less food for us, even fewer tortillas on the table,” she said.

South Los Angeles resident Rosa Perez, 35, who has two children and works as housekeeper, said she makes only about $350 a week. After paying for food and rent, she said, she is left with little for transportation. “What am I supposed to do at end of week with $20?” Perez asked in Spanish.

The protests were tinged with charges of racism on the part of the MTA board because the vast majority of riders are Latino and black. Some critics argue that the MTA favors more rail systems aimed at getting commuters out of their cars at the expense of those solely dependent on buses for transportation. An MTA survey showed that the median household income of rail riders is $22,000 a year, compared with $12,000 for bus riders.

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There were a few voices in support of the fare hikes.

Roger Christensen, chairman of the MTA’s Citizens’ Advisory Council and an appointee of MTA board member Richard Katz, dismissed the idea that the fare hikes were racist, denouncing such claims as “vile and disgusting.”

“We do feel this is necessary and very long overdue,” he said. “We have to face the structural deficit.”

After the vote, Snoble said that the MTA might have to slow future rail projects not currently underway and that he would not be surprised if ridership temporarily drops when the new fares take effect.

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Bus riders make up 82% of all MTA boardings. Many have long complained about getting short shrift from the agency. Several groups, including the Bus Riders Union and the NAACP, filed a federal lawsuit against the MTA in 1994 after a major fare increase. Two years later, the agency agreed to enter into a federal consent decree, in which a judge oversaw the way the MTA dealt with bus service.

As part of the settlement, the MTA agreed to increase bus service significantly and not raise fares for seven years. Over the last decade, the MTA bought more than 2,000 new buses.

But it also continued building rail, adding the Gold Line and expanding Blue and Red line operations.

A portion of revenue generated by the half-cent sales taxes county voters approved in 1980 and 1990 must be spent for construction of new rail lines. In some cases, the MTA has also received federal and state funds to build rail projects.

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The consent decree ended last year. But after Thursday’s vote, some activists vowed to seek a new injunction against the MTA.

Dozens of members of the Bus Riders Union began chanting, “Fight transit racism -- and see you in court!” and “Thanks Villaraigosa, you gave a good fight.”

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ron.lin@latimes.com

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jeff.rabin@latimes.com

Times staff writer Megan Garvey contributed to this report.

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Begin text of infobox

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New fares approved by MTA board

Although the rate increases are less than the agency initially sought, bus and rail riders will pay significantly more over the next two years.

MTA fares

*--* Senior Senior Daily Weekly Monthly monthly Cash cash* pass pass pass pass Current $1.25 na $3.00 14.00 $52.00 $12.00 New July 1, 2007 1.25 25 5.00 17.00 62.00 14.00 July 1, 2009 1.50 30 6.00 20.00 75.00 17.00

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* Discount cash fare for seniors and the disabled during non-peak hours

Source: Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority


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