In a sweeping decision with far-reaching implications for mass transit throughout the Los Angeles area, a court-appointed special master Monday ordered the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to buy 532 new natural gas-powered buses and to hire additional drivers and mechanics to relieve the chronic overcrowding plaguing the nation's second-largest bus system.
The 62-page ruling by Special Master Donald T. Bliss was a major victory for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Labor Community Strategy Center and the Bus Riders Union, which have argued in federal court for years that the bus system used by the poor, who must rely on public transportation, has been allowed to deteriorate while MTA focuses on building costly subway and light rail lines.
The special master oversees implementation of the consent decree that the MTA signed to avoid a trial on civil rights claims alleging that the transit agency discriminated against poor and minority bus riders by emphasizing subway and rail projects instead of the bus system used by more than 91% of the MTA's passengers.
"All transportation officials are now on notice: The buses come first," said attorney Constance Rice, who filed the civil rights case against MTA in 1994. "The bus riders have a lien on MTA's resources."
In fact, Bliss concluded that the MTA's bus fleet is simply too small. Moreover, he wrote, solving the persistent overcrowding problem will be "costly and complex."
His written decision, which has the force of a federal court order, removes much of the MTA board of directors' discretion over the sprawling county's mass transit priorities.
And the requirement that MTA buy more buses to relieve overcrowding and improve service places in doubt its ability to participate in construction of a light rail line between Union Station and Pasadena. Without that participation the fate of that project is uncertain.
After an initial reading, MTA chief executive Julian Burke issued a statement calling the decision "excessive."
Buying and operating the additional buses would cost the transit agency in excess of $400 million over the next five years, according to the MTA.
"Given all the demands on MTA for public transportation improvements, the MTA board must weigh whether or not this is a wise expenditure of public funds," Burke said. "We have the option of appealing the special master's ruling, although no decision has been made on how to proceed until we have had an opportunity to carefully analyze the ruling and its impact."
Such an appeal to U.S. District Judge Terrence J. Hatter would be risky for the MTA, since the transit agency and the bus riders' group jointly selected Bliss, with Hatter's approval, to oversee compliance with the consent decree, which was signed in October 1996.
The ruling was a stunning rebuke for the MTA, which sought to head off just such a decision last fall by pledging to spend $1 billion to buy and equip 2,095 new clean-fuel buses over the next five years.
But even that massive investment fell short in the eyes of the special master, who expressed disappointment that a joint working group of representatives from the MTA and the Bus Riders Union had been unable to fashion a solution.
"This is unfortunate because it requires the special master to step in and substitute his judgment for the expertise of the MTA staff, the [Bus Riders Union] staff and their expert consultants, who are very knowledgeable about the bus system and are capable of designing solutions to problems arising under the consent decree," Bliss wrote.
"Nonetheless, all of the MTA's 'horses' and all of the BRU's 'men' [and women] have not been able to put together an agreed-upon remedial plan, which was clearly the desired course under the consent decree. Consequently, the obligation to resolve these areas of conflict under the decree is now thrust upon . . . the special master."
Bliss, a Washington lawyer, said the issue presented was fairly straightforward:
"What steps are necessary to bring the MTA into compliance with the load factor requirements of the consent decree? The resolution of this issue, however, is costly and complex," he said.
The special master found that the transit agency failed to comply with the consent decree's requirements to reduce the number of passengers forced to stand in buses during peak periods.
The agency was forced to admit last year that it was in massive violation of the requirement that no more than 15 people be standing during any 20-minute period. The requirement gets progressively tougher over time. No more than 11 standees are permitted by June 30, 2000, and the limit drops to nine on June 30, 2002.
Undertaking an intricate analysis of the number of buses needed on each route that was in noncompliance, Bliss found the MTA must purchase 532 additional buses powered by clean-burning compressed natural gas to meet the strict standard and make up for its undersized fleet.