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MTA Buses in Reverse

July 26, 1998

There was considerable relief in September 1996 when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority reached an agreement with lawyers representing riders of the nation's most overcrowded bus system. The riders had filed an unprecedented class action lawsuit against the MTA in 1994 contending that the woeful bus system had been neglected in favor of costly and inefficient rail projects.

Many observers had argued with good reason that it was in the best interests of the MTA to settle rather than take its chances in court. An indication of the weakness of the MTA position was that the plaintiffs got much of what they wanted in negotiations that led to a consent decree, and that included a clearly defined agreement to reduce bus overcrowding.

Well, here's what happened. In the months leading up to the first MTA deadline for reducing crowding, Dec. 31, 1997, the agency's performance was demonstrably worse in several ways, according to the MTA's own reports and the Federal Transit Administration.

Take the MTA bus system's on-time pullout performance. That's the percentage of buses that embark on their routes within 10 minutes of the scheduled time. The MTA has lately crowed in its reports about a major improvement since December of 1997. Problem is, that month was the bottom of the pit. The MTA remained below its fiscal 1996 and 1997 marks.

Take maintenance performance, the average number of bus miles traveled before a mechanical service interruption of more than 10 minutes. By April of this year, the MTA had managed only to climb back to where it was in December 1997/January 1998 and wasn't close to its fiscal 1996 performance.

The average annual mileage on its buses declined to the worst point in at least eight years, and those miles were interrupted more frequently for repairs than at any other time since fiscal 1989. The fleet in July 1997 was the smallest in nine years.

The MTA's methanol/ethanol buses often don't work because of mechanical problems. Now, the MTA irritates even the plaintiffs in the bus riders' lawsuit by converting cleaner-fuel buses to diesel to return them to service and by buying more diesel buses just as diesel's carcinogenic impact becomes a public policy issue.

The MTA had time to get its act in order, but the agency's late and desperate scramble toward compliance did not really begin until after chief executive Julian Burke arrived last year. Now, it's far more likely that the patience of the court monitoring the consent decree will run out. If the court decides to call the shots itself on bus improvements, the MTA and its board will have no one to blame but themselves for their lethargic start.

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