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Assembly Panel Gets On Board Valley Bus Plan

Transportation: The proposal to create a separate area agency passes with an 11-3 vote. Meanwhile, a grassroots effort to persuade the MTA to privatize service is in motion.

April 14, 1998|JEFF LEEDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a sign that state lawmakers may be willing to force the MTA to give up management of its San Fernando Valley bus lines, a bill to create a separate Valley bus agency cleared its first legislative hurdle in Sacramento on Monday night.

The proposal by Assemblyman Tony Cardenas (D-Sylmar) would require the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to turn over control of its Valley bus routes to a semi-autonomous agency with the power to privatize the lines.

Following a marathon hearing by the Assembly Transportation Committee, where representatives of the MTA's transit unions raised concerns about the effect of such a new agency, the bill passed by an 11-3 vote.

It next faces consideration by the Assembly Rules Committee.

MTA officials have remained neutral on Cardenas' bill, although the board opposed legislation by state Sen. Tom Hayden (D--Los Angeles) to divide the MTA, creating a new transit authority to operate in the Valley.

On a parallel track, local supporters are trying to persuade the MTA board to act on its own to create a semi-autonomous agency for the Valley. If that effort fails, they say Cardenas' bill could still force the MTA to take the same action.

Officials from the United Transportation Union and the Amalgamated Transit Union contend such an agency, known as a transit zone, would claim exemption from the MTA's labor contract and run the bus lines with lower-paying private companies. At Monday's hearing the unions also warned the new agency could be riven by internal conflicts.

"My purpose for carrying this bill is not to hurt [the union members], but my primary focus is to make sure the riders and the taxpayers get their transportation needs met," Cardenas said.

Supporters of creating such an agency point to Foothill Transit, established in 1987 by the MTA's predecessor agencies. There, a private management company oversees 26 formerly government-run lines in the San Gabriel Valley, and contracts with two other companies to drive and maintain the buses.

Foothill Transit still reports to the MTA board, but is governed primarily by a board made up of representatives from 21 San Gabriel Valley cities. It runs a lower overhead rate than the MTA, but also pays its drivers about half an MTA driver's salary.

At Monday's hearing, William P. Forsythe, president of the company that manages Foothill, offered evidence that privatization has worked in the San Gabriel Valley, but lawmakers are still waiting for an analysis of whether the Foothill operation can be duplicated elsewhere.

Consultants for the MTA are examining the financial and legal effect of establishing such "transit zones" across the county.

Assemblywoman Sally Havice (D-Cerritos) called Monday's vote "premature" because the MTA's analysis is not yet finished. She voted against the bill.

Cardenas attributed the bill's success Monday to committee members' "disappointment and disbelief with MTA's inability to be definitive about transportation in the San Fernando Valley."

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