Final MTA Appeal of Bus Accord Fails
Transportation: U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to hear case means the agency probably will be forced to buy hundreds of vehicles.
By KURT STREETER
LA TIMES STAFF WRITER
Tuesday, March 19, 2002
An action Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court will force the MTA to improve service to Los Angeles County's mostly poor, urban bus riders, while jeopardizing other programs, including some light rail service to the suburbs.
The high court declined to review a 5 1/2-year-old court order requiring the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to buy more buses.
The MTA's failed appeal was the last in a string of defeats that cost more than $1 million in legal fees and angered many bus riders, who make up the bulk of the agency's customers. Now the MTA will be forced to live by the terms of a court agreement it made in 1996 to avoid trial on a lawsuit, which charged that it willfully failed to provide adequate service to poor and minority riders.
The court's action throws the dispute back to the MTA and the Bus Riders Union, the lead plaintiff in the civil rights case, to work out an agreement that will reduce overcrowding. In the next phase of the plan, the agency probably will have to buy hundreds of buses to improve service to work sites, schools and health centers, legal experts say.
If the two sides still can't agree on solutions, the matter will be mediated by a special court master. Faced with a series of five straight court decisions in favor of riders, the MTA is unlikely to prevail with its continuing insistence that it has already bought enough buses.
Administrators at the agency conceded Monday that the increased spending on buses will probably hamper at least some of its most ambitious expansion projects--including a proposed light rail line from near downtown to Santa Monica.
Construction of freeway carpool lanes and some special services for the disabled may also be curtailed as money is diverted to bus purchases, said Roger Snoble, the MTA's chief executive.
On Monday, bus advocates were elated with the Supreme Court's decision.
"They didn't even want to see the case," said Eric Mann, head of the Bus Riders Union. "The courts have certainly said all along that these appeals are frivolous." He noted that the MTA had already lost before a special master, a federal judge and, twice, before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The mood was more downcast at MTA headquarters downtown. The agency's officials have tried to put a positive face on their appeals, saying they have simply sought "clarification" from the courts. But the legal briefs filed by the agency's lawyers made much more substantial objections--that the federal judiciary had overstepped its bounds and that the MTA could not fulfill its responsibilities, if hamstrung by the agreement.
"It's disappointing," said Snoble, who insisted again Monday that his agency is doing all it can to follow the agreement. He defended the appeal to the high court, which most legal experts had predicted stood little chance. "We were within our legal rights," Snoble said.
The repeated appeals have created ill will among many bus riders, fostering the impression that the MTA was blocking efforts to improve service, even as it advertised widely about its purchases of new buses.
"It looks to people as if the MTA was going back on its word," Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn said Monday. "People feel the MTA made promises and hasn't lived up to them." Although Hahn voted against the continuing legal appeals, he could persuade only his appointees on the agency board to go along. In January, the board voted 8-4 (with one abstention) to make the final appeal.
"It's hard to imagine their public relations could be much worse, and for them to continue with a very public fight over the [court order], it's baffling," said Raphael Sonenshein, a Cal State Fullerton political science professor and expert on Los Angeles politics.
Sonenshein wondered how great the public's dismay might have been if the city of Los Angeles had continued to fight the federal court order, known as a consent decree, that now governs reforms in the Police Department. "Imagine if the LAPD had gone this way and appealed all the way to the Supreme Court," Sonenshein said.
The MTA signed the court agreement in 1996, but quickly found itself chafing under orders from Washington, D.C., lawyer Donald Bliss, the court-appointed mediator, to expand its fleet of about 2,100 buses.
Each time the MTA would move ahead with plans for more rail lines or other construction projects, totaling more than $1 billion, the Bus Riders Union and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund would grow more restive. They argued that the court agreement obliges the transit agency to first spend money on more buses.
But the two sides have never been able to agree on exactly how many buses--which cost $325,000 each and $200,000 per year to operate--should be purchased. At issue is an element of the federal agreement calling on the agency to add to its bus fleet, in order to reduce the number of people forced to stand during rush hours. The agreement calls on the agency eventually to reduce its number of rush hour standees to an average of about eight by June 30.
The Bus Riders Union believes the contract requires the standard to be strictly enforced. By this interpretation, they argue, at least 235 more buses must be bought. The MTA, in contrast, believes such standards should be treated simply as planning goals. By this interpretation far fewer, if any, buses need be bought. "We feel we may already be in compliance," Snoble said Monday.
If the disparity about the meaning of the court order continues, Bliss, the court-appointed mediator, will probably be forced to play an increasing role in MTA management decisions.
Bliss has tended to take a middle ground, clearly viewing the limits on the number of standing passengers as hard goals that must be considered when purchasing new buses. By that standard, observers close to the case say, Bliss would probably call for more buses, but fewer than the Bus Riders Union wants.
In contending with a second phase of the court agreement, the parties and Bliss face perhaps even more intractable disagreements. That part of the order requires the MTA to increase bus service to medical centers, hospitals, schools and job centers throughout Los Angeles County.
Many transit experts say the agency will have to purchase hundreds more buses to be able to deliver riders to those far-flung locations. On Monday, Mann said he thinks it will take about 500 more buses to meet those objectives.
The bus rider advocate also said the agency, which portrayed itself as under financial duress in its brief to the Supreme Court, should stop current plans to build more rail lines.
"We are calling for a moratorium on rail, until they finish the [court] decree," Mann said. The MTA is preparing in the summer of 2003 to take over operation of a light rail line from downtown to Pasadena.
It plans to spend $329 million on a fixed roadway for buses in the San Fernando Valley. Another $760 million is intended for a rail line serving the Eastside of Los Angeles. Snoble said that nothing in the federal agreement prevents his agency from pursuing such projects, many of which are funded by federal and state dollars that he said can be spent only on rail.
He did say that the plan to create a route from the neighborhood around USC to Santa Monica via Exposition Boulevard may be quashed or delayed. Snoble added that service to physically challenged passengers, construction of highway carpool lanes and other big-ticket expenditures could also suffer.
"I'm relieved [the Bus Riders Union] is talking about hundreds of buses and not thousands," said Snoble, who accused the advocates of being "anti-transit" because they focused solely on buses. "If we go by what the BRU wants, we are never going to be able to serve the needs of the people here.... We still believe we will not be able to be successful if we are going to rely on 40-foot buses to do the job."