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Mayor Smooths Transit Path With Bus Riders Union

Villaraigosa promises that his rail expansion plans will not jeopardize the city's bus service.

July 29, 2005|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

In his first meeting as chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Thursday reiterated his campaign pledge to expand rail service in the Los Angeles area.

But the new mayor made an equally strong commitment to bus service, one of several moves that appeared to mollify the Bus Riders Union, the most vocal opponent of expanded commuter rail lines.

Villaraigosa's comments, made in a meeting room packed with scores of Bus Riders Union members, underlined the challenges he will face as he pushes to make new rail service part of a "long-term plan for the future."

For years, transportation officials have chosen between rail and bus lines in an atmosphere charged with class tension and legal threats.

The Bus Riders Union has previously accused the MTA of "transit racism" and failing to meet the needs of the transit-dependent working class, in part by spending too much on rail. In 1996, the agency settled a union-led lawsuit by agreeing to a consent decree that calls for improved bus service.

Before Thursday's meeting, union members held a noisy protest. Over a din of drums and whistles, organizer Manuel Criollo said he didn't know what to expect from Villaraigosa's first meeting. The mayor's campaign talk about rail had made the union nervous, he said. But in the past, he said, "he's been a very good ally to bus riders."

Villaraigosa has had a complicated relationship with the Bus Riders Union. Although sympathetic to their concerns, he also broke with the group as early as 1999, when, as speaker of the California Assembly, he backed construction of light rail between downtown and Pasadena.

On Thursday, the mayor made a number of statements the bus riders liked.

He told them the MTA "must maintain its commitment to a first-class bus system."

He told them it was premature to discuss a fare increase, an idea other MTA board members had mentioned recently as a way to deal with a projected budget shortfall. He even won plaudits for moving the public comment period from the end of meetings to the beginning.

But he also said he hoped to build more light-rail and subway lines. "We must have a vision and a long-term plan for the future, including investment in new rail lines," he said. "This does not mean that we will open a subway to the sea during my term.

"But it means that we have to start planning for this and other sensible projects.... We must build projects like the Exposition Line all the way to Santa Monica, the Gold Line extension into the San Gabriel Valley and a connection to LAX."

The mention of rail drew a few hisses and snorts. At one point, transit advocate John Walsh put on a red clown nose and called the proceedings a circus.

But a number of observers said they appreciated Villaraigosa's enthusiasm. Among them was Arthur Sohikian, who lobbies the MTA on behalf of home builders. But Sohikian also wondered if the mayor could find the money to please both the Bus Riders Union and the voters who expect him to build them a subway to the beach.

"The question will be, with limited transportation dollars, how will he stretch each dollar for buses, roads, highways and trains?" Sohikian said.

Villaraigosa said lobbying for state and federal funds would be crucial. Last week he traveled to Washington to ask for more transportation money.

He appeared to score a victory Thursday afternoon, when the office of Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village) announced the inclusion in a transportation bill of $130 million that would partially fund a carpool lane on the 405 Freeway between the 10 and the 101 freeways.

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