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Raucous Protesters Denounce Proposal to Raise Bus Fares

Transit: More than 200 show up at meeting attended by half the MTA board. CEO defends 'modest increase.'


A boisterous crowd of more than 200 people turned out Saturday to protest the MTA's plans for the first fare increase in four years, but barely half of the board members who will ultimately decide the issue showed up to hear the concerns.

After a raucous 2 1/2 hours that was part street theater and part pep rally for the Bus Riders Union, the four board members who were left--out of the seven who attended--recessed the hearing in time for lunch and the Women's World Cup soccer final.

By that point, the number of sheriff's deputies and MTA security officers far surpassed the number of board members they were there to protect.

With few exceptions, everyone who spoke at the hearing opposed the plan to increase the basic bus and rail fare by a dime to $1.45, raise the cost of discount tokens by a nickel to 95 cents, and hike the price of popular weekly, semimonthly and monthly passes by amounts ranging from $1 to $3.

No decision on whether to proceed with the fare increase will be made until late August, although the 13-member MTA board has adopted a $2.5-billion budget for the fiscal year just started that assumes income from higher fares beginning Nov. 1.

"This isn't right. This isn't fair," said bus rider Deleesa Carr of Los Angeles. "Most low-income people ride the bus. Listen to what we say: We don't make a lot of money."

Bus rider Desiree Gastow also called the fare increase unfair. "We can't afford it," she said. Gastow said she recently had to spend her last $9 to buy a bag of bus tokens after losing her bus pass.

Numerous speakers complained about the quality of bus service. They said buses are often late, overcrowded, dirty and marred by graffiti.

Senior citizen Ada B. Queen, who used a cane when walking to the microphone, said board members who do not ride the bus have no idea what passengers face. "Don't have us sitting out there for an hour and a half waiting for a bus," she pleaded.

Much of the turnout and testimony was organized by the Bus Riders Union, which is locked in a bitter fight with the MTA in federal court. The two sides are battling over compliance with a 1996 consent decree, which requires a reduction in overcrowding and improvements in bus service.

To underscore its demands for lower fares, the Bus Riders Union is calling on MTA riders to stage a general fare strike this Monday through Friday to protest the proposed increase. Over and over throughout the hearing, group members broke into shouts of "You say fare hike. We say fare strike."

One of the group's organizers, Shawn McDougal, said he is "sick and tired of a bus system that treats me as a second-class citizen." He said the agency "expects us to be like good little sardines" crowding into its buses. And he complained that the MTA board "doesn't take us seriously. Half the board is here. Where is Mayor Riordan?" he asked.

An aide said the mayor was on vacation. In addition to Riordan, the MTA directors who did not attend any part of the hearing were county Supervisor Mike Antonovich, Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson, former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre, Long Beach Councilwoman Jenny Oropeza and Lancaster Mayor Frank Roberts.

Not everyone opposed the increases. "Transit is not about solving society's problems," said Kymberleigh Richards of Southern California Transit Advocates, a group of riders often critical of the MTA but also frequently at odds with the Bus Riders Union. Richards said the MTA board doesn't have the luxury of recovering even less of its operating costs from the fare box.

Thomas Rubin, former treasurer of the Southern California Rapid Transit District (a forerunner of the MTA) and now a consultant to bus rider advocates, said an increase in fares would result in lower ridership. But a reduction in fares would have the opposite effect, he said, increasing the use of transit because most MTA riders are poor.

MTA Chief Executive Julian Burke said at the outset of the hearing that he is proposing the "modest increase" to offset the higher cost of providing bus and rail service. Under the consent decree, the agency can raise fares up to 6.5% overall, consistent with the projected increase in Los Angeles consumer prices during the four years beginning in October 1995.

Even with the increase, Burke observed that the MTA's basic fare would be lower than the $1.50 charged by the New York City, Chicago and Atlanta transit systems or the $1.75 in San Diego.

He said fares cover only 29% of the MTA's operating costs, with the vast majority of the expense borne by local, state and federal taxpayers.

In a memo to the Board of Directors, Burke has pointed out that the MTA is increasing bus service, will receive 437 new buses this fiscal year, opened the subway to Hollywood in June and plans to start Metro Rail service to North Hollywood next year.

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