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Accord With MTA a Triumph for Bus Rider Plaintiffs

September 27, 1996|MATEA GOLD and BOB POOL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The bus ride Thursday for four Los Angeles residents couldn't have been smoother--or sweeter.

They are the four plaintiffs named in the class-action lawsuit against the MTA for which a proposed settlement was reached Wednesday to provide less expensive, safer and more convenient bus service that will be of particular benefit to poor and minority riders.

Pensioner Maria Guardado of the Mid-Wilshire district would be guaranteed a monthly travel pass that will let her visit friends at cheaper rates.

Ricardo Zelada, a $500-per-month garment worker who lives in the Westlake area, hopes the day will soon come when additional buses mean he won't have to stand during his 75-minute commute to work.

His wife, Noemy Zelada, hopes the money her family would save with the new fares can be added to the family budget.

And Pearl Daniels, an $18,000-a-year hotel switchboard operator who lives in Koreatown, would be able to continue using her reduced-price pass to get to work on time and visit friends and family she otherwise would never see.

The sweeping plan was endorsed Wednesday by Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials and a coalition of groups representing bus riders who filed the suit. If approved by a federal judge, it will settle a lawsuit that accused transit officials of neglecting poor and minority riders while pumping billions of dollars into construction of rail lines to affluent areas.

The proposed consent decree was sent to U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. on Thursday. He is expected to conduct a public hearing before approving it.

The settlement would preserve the popular monthly bus pass and reduce its price from $49 to $42. It would also establish a new $11 weekly pass and add at least 152 new buses to the MTA system over the next two years.

Additionally, the current cash fare of $1.35 per bus ride would not be increased for two years, and a 75-cent off-peak period fare would be implemented on some lines serving those most dependent on public transit.

All of that could help steer MTA buses toward better service to those who rely on Los Angeles public transit the most, in the view of the lawsuit's four individual plaintiffs.

Daniels, Guardado and the Zeladas are members of the 4-year-old Bus Riders Union, which recruited three civil rights advocacy groups to join in the lawsuit: the Labor/Community Strategy Center, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles County and the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates.

In court documents and in mediation testimony that led to Wednesday's agreement before the case went to trial, the four bus riders were the ones who brought the lawsuit to life, according to some of those involved.

"They didn't just put a human face" on the lawsuit, "they were the case," said Eric Mann, director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center. "I think they were the key. Their lives were unbearable under the existing fare structure."

The concessions by the MTA are designed to soften the blow on low-income bus riders of last year's 25-cent fare increase and, at least for now, end efforts to abolish the passes.

Sixty-one-year-old Ricardo Zelada was peppered with questions from other passengers about the MTA's pledge Thursday morning during his ride to the East Los Angeles children's clothing factory where he works. He walks 10 blocks and catches two buses on his trip.

"Everyone was surprised. They admired that we could get something from MTA," Zelada said in Spanish. "It's going to help a lot. Many people can't afford to buy a monthly pass, and lose a lot of money without having other choices.

"This is a good first victory in a long battle. We want better service and quality for all passengers," he said. "We consider public transportation a vital necessity for our community. It's the only way people can get close to where they need to go."

After 17 years of riding the public buses, Zelada said, he was fed up when he heard MTA was considering eliminating the $49 monthly bus pass. One-fifth of his salary goes to pay for bus passes for himself, his wife and 12-year-old daughter. "Almost enough for payments on a car," he said.

His wife, Noemy, 43, said money spent on fare increases would go for "other things we need--shoes, clothes, fresh food." She takes the bus to computer classes each weekday at the Metro Skills Center near MacArthur Park.

Guardado, 62, does not own a car either. Although she declined to discuss the settlement until she meets this weekend with other Bus Riders Union members, Guardado asserted in the lawsuit that her only source of income is Social Security benefits.

Daniels, 61, said she is pleased to have played a part in the settlement.

"We're doing good, but we have a lot of ways to go still," she said Thursday after getting off work as a switchboard operator at a West Hollywood hotel and taking the bus back to Koreatown.

"I was proud to be involved," Daniels said.

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