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MTA Pledges Better Bus Service in Suit Accord

Transit: Proposed consent decree would cut price of monthly passes and freeze the fares for two years.

September 26, 1996|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles transit officials Wednesday approved a sweeping plan to make bus travel safer, cheaper and more convenient, paving the way for settlement of a lawsuit accusing the MTA of neglecting poor and minority bus riders in order to build rail lines for more affluent commuters.

The proposed consent decree, which must be approved by a federal judge, would preserve the popular monthly pass, reduce its price from $49 to $42, establish a new $11 weekly pass and put at least 152 more buses on the streets in the next two years.

Under the agreement in the civil rights lawsuit, the current cash fare of $1.35 would not be changed for two years and more transit police would be assigned to patrol the bus system. It also calls for lowering the cash fare from $1.35 to 75 cents during off-peak periods on some yet-to-be-selected lines serving those most dependent on public transit.

The steps are designed to soften the blow of last year's 25-cent fare increase on low-income bus riders and improve service on the nation's most crowded bus system.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority board unanimously approved the settlement in a closed-door session, after which the longtime adversaries in the lawsuit joined together to celebrate the end of the two-year fight.

The nationally watched class-action suit, filed in 1994 by a coalition of groups representing bus riders, accused the MTA of spending a disproportionate share of transit dollars on the rail system at the expense of low-income and minority bus riders.

"This decree should serve as an end to discriminatory policies that favored white suburbanite riders over poor people whose fares have supported the public transit system for years," said E. Richard Larson, an attorney for the ACLU Foundation of Southern California who assisted the plaintiffs.

Standing side by side with MTA officials, Constance L. Rice, western regional counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said that "the proposed settlement is a victory for the bus riders of Los Angeles who will enjoy lower fares, more buses and safer rides."

Mayor Richard Riordan acknowledged the plight of bus riders. "We've put way too many of the resources into fixed rail and at the same time ignoring buses," he said.

The settlement also was hailed at bus stops.

"Cheaper bus fare sounds good to me," Maria Segala, 46, a file clerk at the Los Angeles Superior Court, said as she watched buses stream down Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. "These buses are always packed with people using bus passes. A lot of people will be saving a lot of money now."

Pointing to the passes that the MTA had wanted to abolish before the suit was filed, Bob Shaban, an El Monte mall security guard, said he will now have "extra weekend money for me . . . a nightclub, a nice dinner with my girlfriend."

Jose Reyes, an East Los Angeles resident whose only source of income is a monthly $594 welfare check, said the reduction in bus fares will help him and his family--a wife and two children--who are struggling to make ends meet.

"There is little money in our family," said the Spanish-speaking Reyes. The 39-year-old man has been relying on his $49 monthly bus pass to get around. "Times are difficult for me and my family. Every dollar counts. The extra money will help buy food, clothes and new shoes for the children."

The 28-page proposed consent decree was expected to be filed today with U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr., who must approve it after scheduling a public hearing.

It was not immediately clear how the agreement would affect the MTA's $2.9-billion budget. One official said the agency would have to spend nearly $100 million on new buses, plus $25 million a year in increased operating costs, while losing $10 million a year in revenues. The agency is already looking at cutting back its rail construction because of cost overruns and less federal money than expected for the Los Angeles subway project.

But MTA Chief Executive Officer Joseph E. Drew said that there would be "no anticipated impact on the rail program." Transit officials spent more than $1 million on legal bills preparing for the case, which was to go to court in two weeks. Plaintiffs said they will seek to recover their unspecified attorney fees from the MTA.

In an attempt to avoid going to court, attorneys for both sides negotiated through a mediator.

Each side won concessions.

The transit authority got to keep the cash fare at $1.35. Bus rider advocates wanted it cut back to $1 with no transfer charge, and eventually dropped to 50 cents. But the plaintiffs won a commitment from the MTA not to increase the fare for two years.

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