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Mayor's Lonely Samba for Brazilian Buses

California and the West | THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION
/ RICHARD SIMON

January 19, 1999|RICHARD SIMON

Mayor Richard Riordan wants to take some members of Congress for a bus ride--in Brazil.

The mayor, working to build political support for a network of busways in Los Angeles, invited about a dozen Congress members to join him on a trip to Curitiba, Brazil, later this week to see its celebrated bus system.

But no one from Washington is going. It's tough to compete with the impeachment trial of a president.

"The timing is terrible," Riordan conceded.

And a 12-hour plane trip to look at buses isn't quite as appealing as, say, riding a bullet train in Japan. Therein lies the mayor's real problem: He must persuade a group of influential legislators that buses are as good as trains.

Riordan is going to Brazil anyway, with about two dozen local and state officials.

But the mayor needs the support of Congress members--from the Eastside, Mid-City and San Fernando Valley--if he hopes to build busways in their districts.

Those legislators were bitterly disappointed after the Metropolitan Transportation Authority dropped long-promised subway extensions to their districts--especially after they supported funding to take the Metro Rail to other neighborhoods.

Now, they are being urged to consider a far less glamorous--though far less expensive--transit system. It's like having your dad give your brother a Ferrari, then offer you a Chevy.

Riordan must persuade these legislators--and car-loving Los Angeles residents--that what he is promoting is not a Chevy but a "subway on tires," to use his words.

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"You have to attack the image that most Americans have about riding buses," said Gordon Linton, the federal transit administrator, acknowledging that buses are often viewed as being slow and unreliable. Linton joined Los Angeles officials on a trip to Brazil last year and came back an enthusiastic supporter of rapid bus systems.

Proponents say that those systems have many of the same features as rail lines--except for the rails--and can be created more quickly and more cheaply.

Riordan has proposed a system of high-capacity busways--perhaps using double- or triple-length vehicles. They would run in bus-only lanes on city streets and on old railroad corridors, such as Exposition Boulevard from USC to the Westside and Chandler Boulevard across the San Fernando Valley.

Buses would make limited stops and have devices capable of holding green lights until they pass, to give them priority at intersections. Bus loading "tubes," like those used in Curitiba, where passengers pay their fare before boarding, might be used to speed up loading.

Painfully aware of the image of bus riding in congested Los Angeles as a Job-like ordeal, officials at the MTA--which Riordan heads--have talked about painting the rapid buses gold to reflect a new "gold standard" of service.

But advocates of the system will need more than paint to win over key members of Congress. Asked about the Curitiba model, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles) said, "I think it's kind of an unproven system with regard to Los Angeles.

"You know how narrow the streets are in East Los Angeles?" she said, noting that taking a lane for buses could reduce street parking and hurt local businesses.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) added: "Anything we can do to improve bus service, we should do. But if we are trying to meet the . . . needs of the county, it doesn't seem that anything on the table now does that, at least for the Eastside.

"If indeed you can go forward with a Curitiba [bus system] in Mid-City and the Valley," he said, "then what may end up happening is that those two corridors get relief while the corridor that has the heaviest transit-dependent ridership will be left out."

Rep. Julian Dixon (D-Los Angeles) added: "I am open to hearing out any new ideas to improve mass transit in Los Angeles. But just as we made the mistake of putting all our eggs in the subway basket, we should be careful not to assume that a Curitiba-type bus system is the panacea for our transit problems."

Roybal-Allard said a subway must remain an option on the Eastside, notwithstanding a voter-approved measure cutting off local sales tax funding for new construction. But she said she is open to a pilot bus project.

Still, Riordan's proposal could face opposition from another powerful group--automobile drivers. They may object to giving up a lane to buses and having to wait--even if only for a few seconds--at traffic lights to let buses pass.

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Martha Welborne, a Los Angeles architect who organized the Curitiba trip with funding from the Virginia-based W. Alton Jones conservation organization, hopes the visit will cause people to rethink their views of buses.

"It's not just a slightly fancier bus system," she said. "It's a different mode of transit. . . . Seeing it helps enormously."

The MTA is expected to decide in March whether to fund three pilot bus projects.

Boardings on MTA buses in Los Angeles have declined from a record 1.7 million a day in the mid-1980s to about 1 million today. Only about 5% of the county's commuters use public transit.

Riordan, who likes to fund his travels himself and is paying his own way to Curitiba, lamented the perceived lack of sex appeal in traveling thousands of miles to look at buses.

"Maybe we should have invited [the lawmakers] to Lanai to look at their transportation system."

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