Lawyers for the Bus Riders Union on Tuesday filed a stinging reply to the MTA's challenge of a court order to relieve overcrowding by buying 532 new buses.
The lengthy legal brief argues that after signing a federal consent decree, agreeing to reduce overcrowding and to improve bus service, and approving the selection of Special Master Donald T. Bliss, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority cannot now claim he has no power to oversee and remedy violations of the pact.
The brief filed by attorneys for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Bus Riders Union urges Bliss to promptly and decisively reject the MTA's "belated and wholly unjustified attack on the legitimacy of the special master's powers."
The bus rider advocates argued that Bliss was correct, even conservative, in ordering the MTA to buy the new natural gas-powered buses and to hire the drivers and mechanics needed to operate them.
Civil rights attorney Constance L. Rice said it is outrageous that after participating in proceedings before Bliss for more than 2 1/2 years, the MTA is now challenging his position.
"He's an officer of the court. This isn't someone just plucked off the street," she said. "He was appointed by the District Court" with the MTA's blessing.
In signing the consent decree in October 1996, Rice said, "the MTA agreed to a procedure for resolving disputes in determining what is necessary to comply with the decree."
Indeed, she said, the MTA went to Bliss and for a short time received a temporary restraining order to stop the Bus Riders Union's "No Seat, No Fare" campaign last year. Bliss later withdrew the order.
Rice said the agency now is attacking the validity of the decree itself. She said reliance on a court-appointed special master to oversee compliance with such an agreement is "a perfectly legal process" recognized by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
But the MTA board of directors, angered by what it regards as Bliss' usurpation of its power to determine the county's mass transit priorities, earlier this month launched a legal counterattack.
The agency's strongly worded brief argues that Bliss exceeded his authority in ordering the MTA to buy the 532 new buses.
With a new team of lawyers on board, the MTA also said the $431-million cost of buying and operating the new buses over the next six years would threaten other transit and highway projects.
And the MTA contends that its plan to put 2,095 new buses on the streets during the next six years, coupled with efforts to convert its troubled ethanol-methanol fleet to diesel, should dramatically improve the bus service used by more than 90% of its riders.
At issue is the MTA's admitted failure to comply with the consent decree's requirement that by the end of 1997 no more than 15 people be standing on any MTA bus during a peak period. The "load factor target" drops to 11 standing passengers by June 30, 2000, and nine by June 30, 2002.
Bus rider advocates say the agency is in massive violation of the requirements on virtually all of its heavily traveled bus lines.
The MTA's chief attorney, Assistant County Counsel Steve Carnevale, rejected that contention. He said the overcrowding violations occur during less than 3% of the 20-minute periods checked.
"We're not trying to get out of what we agreed to," he said. "MTA recognizes they agreed to load factors as a goal, not as a hard-and-fast, never-to-be-violated law. . . . You can't be perfect. The argument ought to be over what's a reasonable leeway."
Carnevale drew a sharp distinction between Bliss' previous procedural rulings and his order to buy new buses. He questioned the special master's authority to determine how many buses the MTA must buy, what type of buses they should be and where those buses must go.
Bliss now must weigh the sharply divergent arguments and issue a decision, which almost certainly will be appealed to U.S. District Judge Terrence Hatter.