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Metro plans to cut L.A. bus service as rail capacity expands

Changes to Metro's bus system come five years after a federal consent decree was lifted. The consent decree arose from a settlement of a suit alleging the transit agency violated civil rights by favoring rail over buses.

March 19, 2011|By Sam Allen, Los Angeles Times

As transit officials push forward on an ambitious plan to expand rail service across L.A. County, they are also proposing significant reductions in bus service aimed at cutting costs and making the system more efficient.

The latest plans, combined with changes last year, mark the most significant overhaul of L.A.'s bus system in more than a decade and would slash overall bus service by 12% and increase the number of passengers on individual buses. Nine routes are set to be eliminated in June and 11 more would be cut back.

The series of reductions by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority comes after a federal judge ended a decade-long consent decree five years ago. The decree gave a court-appointed special master oversight over how the agency managed its bus service, which today accounts for about 80% of Metro's total 1.4 million average weekday boardings.

During the decree, Metro actually increased bus service and reduced fares, and bus ridership steadily rose. But Metro officials say the restrictions forced them to offer an artificially high level of service that they can no longer afford. Metro Chief Executive Arthur Leahy pointed to "astonishingly low" ridership levels on buses headed into downtown L.A. each morning, and noted that the bus system operates at about 42% capacity overall.

Leahy, who began his career as a bus operator, said the decree forced Metro to add buses "without regard to whether it was better service or properly managed." Along with the cuts, his plans also call for enhanced service on more than a dozen lines.

"I like buses; I grew up in the bus system," he added. "But I also grew up in a system that was very efficient, a system where people worked very hard to make sure there was an efficient realization of taxpayer dollars. That's the point here."

If approved, the cuts would drop Metro's peak fleet to about 1,900 buses — 400 fewer than it operated during the height of the decree.

The latest changes also call for an increase in the buses' load factor from 1.2 to 1.3, meaning that a 40-seat bus would carry a maximum of 52 passengers, instead of the 48 it carries now. The plan would cut Metro's net operating costs by an estimated $23 million and allow the agency to better maintain its bus fleet, something Leahy said has been put on the backburner.

Leahy, who was hired as CEO in 2009, emphasized that Metro was "not going back to the bad old days before the decree," which was part of a settlement to a lawsuit that claimed that Metro had violated passengers' civil rights by grossly favoring rail and subway projects over its bus system. One of its key provisions — intended to prevent overcrowding — was a cap on buses' load factors, or the ratio of passengers to seats on the bus. If the load factor on a line exceeded 1.2, Metro had to add buses.

Some bus riders and their advocates are skeptical, saying the plans show the MTA wants to provide less service to bus riders at the same time as it is radically expanding its rail network. The MTA opened an East L.A. rail line in 2009, and transit officials are now working to complete two more, the Expo Line and an extension of the Gold Line in the San Gabriel Valley. Several other lines — most notably the Westside subway — are in the planning stages.

Esperanza Martinez, a lead organizer at the Bus Riders Union, which was one of the groups that brought the lawsuit against Metro in the early 1990s, said agency officials were being "disingenuous" in the defense of their policies.

"The reality is that as soon as the sun set on the consent decree, the MTA went back to business as usual," Martinez said. "They are once again forgetting about the people who are most in need."

The Federal Transit Administration announced last week that it would review whether Metro discriminated against minority and low-income transit riders. Federal officials said the review was in part motivated by the Bus Riders Union's complaints.

Frustration was clear at the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue one evening last month, when a sizeable crowd boarded a bus on the 757 Rapid Line. Two stops later, the bus was packed. Riders spoke of how important the line was to their daily routines.

Dominique Nicholson sat with a group of classmates who commute to culinary school each day on the 757. Next to them, Andre Pittmon described how much he saved in parking costs by taking the 757 to his job on Wilshire Boulevard. And Kaya Dantzler, an AmeriCorps volunteer from South L.A., said the 757 and buses like it were more useful to her than light rail because "this city is so spread out."

Every seat was filled that night, and standing riders swayed in the aisle.

Many were baffled at the news that the line was likely to disappear.

"Obviously the people making the decisions don't ride the bus," Pittmon said.

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