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Riding Momentum

After helping force reductions in fares and additional buses for the MTA's fleet, coalition has become a strong voice for minority and low-income commuters.

December 31, 1996|PETER Y. HONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

December has been a month of blessings for Los Angeles' 350,000 bus riders.

Off-peak fares have been reduced to 75 cents from $1.35 on some lines, the price of a monthly pass is down to $42 from $49 and 53 new buses have been added to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's fleet in the largest expansion in bus service in 20 years.

The changes are not only welcome improvements for those who depend on buses for transportation, they also are an important victory for the Bus Riders Union, the Los Angeles-based group that sued the MTA for the reforms.

When it began in 1992 as the brainchild of labor and environmental activist Eric Mann, the Bus Riders Union was seen by some as a gadfly group whose members had been escorted out of MTA meetings by transit police.

Now, the group has won official recognition and a place at the decision-making table. With the October settlement of its lawsuit against the MTA, the Bus Riders Union is included in a joint working group with MTA officials that will oversee the implementation of future bus improvements.

But the group's recent success is just one part of its broader goals.

"Building a first-class bus system is part of building a social movement," organizer Kikanza Ramsey said. To the Bus Riders Union, better buses are an important improvement--along with better wages and working conditions and a cleaner environment--to the quality of life of poor and minority Los Angeles residents.

The union contends that improving the bus system is a civil rights issue because most bus riders are minorities and have low incomes. Forty-seven percent of bus riders are Latinos, 23% are African American, 19% are white and 8% are Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders.

Its suit alleged that massive spending on rail projects diverted funds from poor and minority bus riders.

Following the initial fare cuts and added buses brought about by the court settlement, the Bus Riders Union is working to see that other provisions of the consent decree, including a 50% decrease in bus overcrowding by 2002 and improved security on buses, are realized.

"We're going to push the MTA to [ensure] implementation. We want to see them put 152 new buses on the streets, not just extend the use of old buses," Ramsey said.

The Bus Riders Union began in 1992 as a project of the Labor/Community Strategy Center, a labor, civil rights and environmental organization founded by Mann in 1989. The Strategy Center began as a group working to keep the General Motors plant in Van Nuys from shutting down. Although the plant eventually closed, the Strategy Center took up other causes, including the transit issues that brought about the Bus Riders Union.

The group proudly states its ideology. "We're a leftist think tank and act-tank trying to change the terms of the debate to focus on the concerns of the low-income and communities of color," said Ramsey, who has been a Bus Riders Union organizer for the last two years and has worked for the Strategy Center for five years.

Ramsey is one of four organizers who make up the group's full-time staff. The Bus Riders Union numbers more than 1,000 and is composed of people who were recruited on buses or at bus stops. They pay between $10 and $50 a year in dues, depending on income, Ramsey said. Those short on cash also can become members by making a donation that can be applied to the eventual payment of their dues.

The union's annual budget is about $200,000, which comes mostly from grants from activist-oriented foundations.

Ramsey said her interest in improving the bus system comes from her experiences growing up in a family without a car in South Los Angeles. "I remember what it was like having to get up at 5:45 a.m. to get to school in the San Fernando Valley on days that I missed the school bus. I also remember how difficult it was for my mother to buy monthly bus passes," she said.

After returning from Middlebury College in Vermont, where she majored in Spanish and political science, she joined the Labor/Community Strategy Center because she found that the group's emphasis on social justice matched her concerns.

Along with Ramsey, the Bus Riders Union staff includes Rita Burgos, who grew up near the group's Wilshire Boulevard office above the Wiltern theater and joined the coalition after graduating from Swarthmore College. Organizer Chris Mathis was an auto worker at the GM Van Nuys plant before joining the group, and Martin Hernandez was introduced to the organization by friends who also were politically active in Eastside Latino politics.

Although it has fought the MTA's top priorities by advocating buses over rail construction, the Bus Riders Union has come a long way from the days of being escorted out of meetings, and has gained the respect of many in the transportation establishment.

*

"They're not a gadfly group. They're a serious, articulate spokes-organization for a constituency that has consistently been abused within the transportation framework," said Marvin Holen, a lawyer who served for 20 years on the MTA board and its predecessor agency, the Southern California Rapid Transit District.

Following the initial fare cuts and addition of buses brought about by the court settlement, the Bus Riders Union is working to ensure that other provisions of the consent decree, including a 50% decrease in bus overcrowding by 2002 and improved security on buses, are realized.

Four members of the Union--two staff members and two rank-and-file members--serve with four MTA officials on a Joint Working Group created by the lawsuit that will oversee the implementation of the settlement.

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