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Self-Inflicted MTA Wounds

August 25, 2000

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has had some good news recently: Passenger numbers for the Red Line subway extension to North Hollywood are ahead of revised projections, the Metro Rapid buses are a big hit and other new buses are making life for transit riders more comfortable. Even delegate transport at the Democratic convention went well. All of this makes a double whammy of bad news harder to take.

First, and most serious, is the threat of a looming strike that could paralyze the transit system, with effects spilling over to surrounding counties. Second, and most embarrassing, is the document approved by the agency's board to get 10 public restrooms in Metro stations and at major bus transfer points in exchange for an estimated $50 million in advertising space. With some side deals, it comes down to between $4 million and $5 million per restroom, and it's turned the MTA into the laughingstock of old.

The strike issue is a tough one. Gov. Gray Davis, protecting the convention transit deal, last month exercised his onetime option of a 60-day cooling-off period; it runs out Sept. 4, and state law forbids any extension. That leaves the MTA and three unions little more than a week to reach agreement. The MTA could help by putting concrete proposals on the table, which, puzzlingly, it has not done. For their part, the unions will have to acknowledge the MTA's crippled finances.

A strike authorization, which the unions representing bus and rail drivers and mechanics have in hand, of course does not mean a strike must occur at the Labor Day deadline. For one thing, the unions claim they will give residents ample warning. Also, negotiations can and should continue past the deadline, even though a later strike deadline may be set.

The state's Mediation and Conciliation Service, part of the California Department of Industrial Relations, also can help keep talks going.

Unfortunately, there is little agreement on any of the major sticking points. The MTA is primarily concerned with cutting its large operating deficit and workers' compensation costs. The unions, in response, say that they will not allow their members to bear the brunt of the MTA's cost-cutting.

Even if the unions involved walk out, the MTA's worst-case scenario is unlikely: zero light-rail or subway services; 100 buses on the streets instead of 2,000 or more; just four or five bus lines with infrequent service rather than the normal 200 bus lines in full operations.

However, even if only half of the MTA's transit service is lost, the costs to the local economy and the hardships to commuters will be enormous. Hundreds of thousands of transit-dependent employees won't be able to get to work, a situation that will resonate not only among regional businesses but in schools--where both aides and high school students will be without transport--and in homes and on jammed freeways.

A transit strike is something Los Angeles County and its environs simply cannot afford. The MTA and the unions need to get down to some real bargaining.

Those multimillion-dollar restrooms are probably going to cost the MTA at the bargaining table, though. The MTA, begging unionized employees to aid in solving operating deficit problems, won't help itself by simultaneously entering into the kind of cockamamie contract scheme on which the worst of the agency's reputation has been based.

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