After three hours of contentious debate, a sharply divided Southern California Rapid Transit District board passed a compromise plan Thursday that would allow sheriff's deputies to provide security on the Metro Rail Blue Line for another year while the Transit Police gear up to take over.
But the board's vote--which also calls for the Transit Police to get more money and officers to patrol buses--does not mean an end to the long-running battle over who will police Los Angeles County's burgeoning mass rail system.
The RTD plan must still be approved by the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, and officials there say it will probably face tough opposition.
"It is probably not going to receive a very positive reaction on the commission," said LACTC Executive Director Neil Peterson. "The commission's desire very clearly is that the (sheriff's) contract be extended at a minimum two years and hopefully five years so that there is not this year-to-year concern that there is going to be a change with something that is working very, very well."
The vote is a partial victory for the beleaguered RTD police force, which is struggling to erase its image as an unprofessional agency. During the meeting, board member after board member praised the performance of the force under its new chief, Sharon Papa.
But as Papa began to see that the board was not going to give Transit Police the authority to patrol the line right away, she grew frustrated.
"You're going to do what you're going to do," she said. "We don't need another year."
Thursday's vote came two years after the RTD board snubbed its own police force and awarded a $12-million contract for the deputies to patrol the Blue Line. The new proposal, approved by a 6-4 vote with one abstention, would extend that contract, giving the Sheriff's Department $13.8 million to police the Blue Line during the 1992-1993 fiscal year.
The RTD police maintained that they could do the job for $8.2 million--a figure the Sheriff's Department disputed.
The plan also calls for expanding the size of the RTD police force by 50, for a total of 242 officers, and increasing the budget of the force by $8.5 million. The additional officers and money would enable the force to expand service on the district's 2,500 buses. Its current budget is $12.1 million to patrol the buses, as well as 19,668 bus stops, warehouses, maintenance yards and the district headquarters.
In addition, the plan stipulates that the RTD officers will begin training to take over patrol of the Blue Line on Jan. 1, 1993, six months before the contract with the Sheriff's Department would expire.
But LACTC Executive Director Peterson said his commission--which funds the Blue Line and would be required to pay for the RTD plan--believes the transit police should be used to enhance security on the buses, rather than to patrol rail lines.
Before Thursday's vote, there was heated debate among RTD board members, some of whom complained they had been subjected to heavy lobbying in favor of the Sheriff's Department. One board member said the Board of Supervisors was putting pressure on the RTD, while another said he had received numerous phone calls from city officials who contract with the Sheriff's Department for services.
"I'm not a babe in the woods," said board member Antonio Villaraigosa. "I know that politics generates a lot of what we do. But it can't consume what we do."
Others, like board member James Tolbert, said the issue was safety--not politics. They feared that ridership would decline on the Blue Line if passengers did not feel safe, and he said the success of future rail lines depends on the Blue Line's performance.
"The Blue Line is our calling card," Tolbert said. "It's too much of a risk for us to make a change at this point. . . . The Blue Line is safe, clean and on time. The safety comes first."
The approved proposal was an unexpected spinoff of a plan previously worked out by board members Mas Fukai, chief deputy to county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, and Don Knabe, chief deputy to Supervisor Deane Dana. Fukai denied that there had been any pressure from Hahn or the supervisors, but acknowledged that he and Knabe had come up with a package based on conversations with Peterson before Thursday's meeting.
Under the Fukai-Knabe plan, the sheriff's contract would have been extended for two years and the LACTC would have provided an additional $5.5 million to maintain the Transit Police at its current 192 officers. Fukai said after the meeting that Peterson promised the extra money if the sheriff's contract were renewed.
The plan that was ultimately approved was proposed by board member Richard Alatorre, who strongly advocated giving the Blue Line job to the RTD police. Fukai and Knabe voted against it.