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Buses Could Double Number of Transit Riders: MTA’s $8 Billion in Rail

Los Angeles officials will hold a major event [July 30, 2010] near Staples Center to mark the 20-year expansion of urban rail service in the county and what they see as a dynamic shift that will transform the nation’s car capital into a model for mass transit.

But although the region now has a gleaming system of subways and light-rail trains, some transportation experts say the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s $8-billion effort — less operating costs — has done little to reduce traffic congestion or increase the use of mass transit much beyond the level in 1985, when planning for the Metro Blue Line began.

Rather than bolster ridership, these experts say, the emphasis on rail has come at the expense of the MTA’s vast network of buses and may have cost the agency at least 1.5 billion passenger boardings from 1986 to 2006.

“Overall, the push for rail has forced transit ridership down,” said Tom Rubin, a veteran transit consultant and former chief financial officer for the MTA’s predecessor. “Had they run a lot of buses at low fares, they could have doubled the number of riders.” . . .

Read the rest of this article in the Los Angeles Times . . .

Kevin Starr writes in Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003:

Organized as the Bus Riders Union, a project of the Labor/Community Strategy Center, and backed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Bus Riders Union filed suit in September 1994 in federal court charging that the MTA was violating the civil rights of hundreds of thousands of minority plaintiffs by operating separate and unequal bus and rail systems that discriminated against low-income people of color in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The suit had been precipitated when the MTA attempted to raise fares and eliminate monthly passes on its dilapidated and inefficient bus system, which served an overwhelmingly minority and poor ridership, while simultaneously spending billions on a rail system that served a disproportionately affluent white ridership.

Meanwhile, as the suit was being argued in court, the MTA showed no signs of pulling back. As construction continued on the Red Line tunnel, now nearing Hollywood, the MTA . . . was pushing its Union Station Gateway Intermodal Transit Center toward a September 1995 opening. Connected to Union Station . . . the transit center brought together in one terminal the Amtrack line, running north from San Diego along the coast, the commuter trains of Metrolink, the light rail Blue Line from Long Beach, the Red Line subway, and the regional and local bus lines using the El Monte Busway that extended eighteen miles to the east. These all terminated at the Gateway Center, which was also intended to serve a convergent network of van pools, taxis, and shuttle services.

The investment of hundred of millions of dollars in the MTA headquarters high-rise and the Gateway Center (the headquarters alone, financed and refinanced through the rest of the decade, would eventually cost $480 million over a thirty-year period) testified, if anything, to the power of the vision of metropolitan Los Angeles reshaped by rail-oriented public transit, as advocated . . . at the MTA. Yet national and local trends were pointing in the other direction. Voters in Los Angeles, for example, were being forced to acknowledge by 1993 that the $900 million light rail Blue Line to and from Long Beach was carrying 35,000 passengers each weekday, but one of the bus lines running parallel to the light rail had nearly the same amount of people at the fraction of the cost. The Blue Line, moreover, was making the trip more slowly than the express bus service it had replaced. Add all this to the fact that the Blue Line had originally been estimated to cost $200 million, and one had the makings of a disturbing situation.

In October 1996, buses won with a court-approved consent decree in which MTA agreed to invest approximately $1.3 billion over the next ten years to improve its bus system. In terms of the dollar value of the settlement, it was the largest civil rights case in American history. [NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund] attorney Robert Garcia made extensive use of the statistics and arguments compiled by the anti-rail group. This was one immediate and telling effect of their work. Yet in other ways as well, the academic critique has been devastating. The very integrity of the MTA has been questioned. “Whether they’re building subways or office towers,” USC planning professor Peter Gordon told Forbes, “what the MTA does had very little to do with transportation. It has everything to do with giving out money and letting contracts.”

Beyond such academic critiques, an even more powerful indictment was surfacing. The MTA, it was claimed, was a runaway, even rogue agency: a colossus for tax consumption, a program of public works long since devoid of social meaning, a bureaucracy bedeviled by more than one thousand lobbyists (more on duty than in Sacramento) out to get their share of the pork. The MTA played to and reinforced this developing anti-identity with a growing crescendo of accidents, indictments of officials for bribery and kickbacks, and other fiscal faux pas. On June 22, 1995, most scandalously, tunnelers under Hollywood Boulevard created a sinkhole, seventy feet deep and a half a block in diameter. For Mike Davis, the Hollywood Sinkhole, as it was called, “has become the taunting symbol of the biggest transportation fiasco in modern American History.” After the expenditure of billions of dollars, Davis pointed out, the Los Angeles subway was carrying less than a quarter of the 61,000 daily riders using the 204 Vermont line alone, which served a fifteen-mile corridor between Gardena and Hollywood.

Kevin Starr, Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003 at pages 553-54 (2004) (citing Tom Rubin and James Moore at pages 710-11).

Edward W. Soja writes in the book Seeking Spatial Justice (2010):

A remarkable moment in American urban history – and geography – occurred in October 1996 in a courtroom in downtown Los Angeles.  A class action lawsuit brought against the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) by a coalition of grassroots organizations on behalf of those who depend on public transit for their basic needs was resolved in an unprecedented and momentous consent decree. It was decided that, for at least the next ten years, past decades of discrimination against transit-depended urban poor, those who could not afford to run a car, would be remedied by making the MTA give their highest budget priority to improving the quality of bus service and guaranteeing equitable access to all forms of public mass transit.

The direct outcome of the case of Labor/Community Strategy Center et al. v. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority, also described as the Bus Riders Union (BRU) decision, was no simple slap on the hand. . . .

In specific legal terms, it violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the generative act that defined and propelled the civil rights movement.

The two key organizations behind the successful class action lawsuit were the Bus Riders Union itself and the lead plaintiffs in the case, the Labor/Community Strategy Center (L/CSC), which initiated the court action and spearheaded the creation of the larger coalition. . . .

The opposing coalition led by the BRU and the Strategy Center also included the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates (KIWA), a nonprofit community services organization that played a key role in improving relations between African American and Korean communities after the conflicts of 1992 and in continuing struggles for immigrant and worker’s rights; the Southern California Leadership Council of Greater Los Angeles County, the national civil rights organization that supported Rosa Parks in her efforts to stop racial segregation in buses and other public facilities; and thousands of individual plaintiffs representing the “class” of transit-dependent bus riders. The chief attorneys for the case came from the Western Regional Office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF), with some support also from the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California, [the law offices of Paul Hoffman,] and the Environmental Defense Fund. . . .

[I]t is hard to imagine a stronger team of advocates for the lawsuit that was formally initiated in 1994. . . .

According to the BRU Web site, more than $2.5 billion were redistributed to serve bus riders in the ten-year period 1996-2006. The largest clean-fuel fleet in the country was created, replacing more than 1,800 diesel buses. At least a million annual bus service hour were added, more than eight hundred “green” and unionized jobs were created, bus ridership increased by 12 percent, and many rapid bus lanes were added to major surface streets. There are probably no other metropolitan areas in the country where bus services have improved more significantly over the past fifteen years. . . .

There is a great deal to learn from the accomplishments of the strategic coalition behind the BRU decision and its continuing struggles. For social movement activists and progressive scholars everywhere, it stands out as an exemplary model of successful urban insurgency in the search for racial, environmental, and spatial justice. With some degree of strategic optimism, one can see the possibility that the BRU along with the other resurgent coalitions that have been developing in Los Angeles over the past two decades can become effective springboards for a much larger movement seeking to erase injustices wherever they may be found.

Edward W. Soja, Seeking Spatial Justice (2010) at pages vii, ix, x, xii-xiii, xvii-xviii.

Summary of the MTA Case

Plaintiffs and the class documented transit disparities in the historic Title VI environmental justice class action, Labor Community Strategy Center v. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The parties settled the case in 1996 through a court-ordered Consent Decree in which MTA agreed to make investments in the bus system that would total over $2 billion. MTA agreed to improve transportation for all the people of Los Angeles by reducing overcrowding on buses, lowering transit fares, and enhancing county-wide mobility. Access to justice through the courts enabled the plaintiff class to present a well-documented story about MTA’s pattern and history of inequitable, inefficient, and environmentally destructive allocation of resources. The legal team documented the transit disparities in a massive 211-page legal memo in opposition to MTA’s motion for summary judgment, and in support of the Consent Decree signed by the Court. The evidence was largely undisputed and is summarized below.

(This summary is based on two sources: (1) Plaintiffs’ Revised Statement of Contentions of Facts and Law, Case No. CV 94-5936 TJH (Mcx) (Oct. 24, 1996), and (2) the chapter by Robert García and Thomas A. Rubin, Crossroad blues: the MTA Consent Decree and just transportation, in the book Running on Empty (Karen Lucas, ed., 2004).

1. Ridership disparities

While over 80% of the people riding MTA’s bus and rail lines were minorities, most people of color rode only buses. On the other hand, only 28% of riders on Metrolink were people of color. Metrolink is the six-county Southern California commuter rail line, for which MTA provided over 60% of the local subsidy funding, even though the line provided services for only a 28% minority ridership and an even lower percentage of the passenger-miles. Thus, the percentage of minorities riding Metrolink varied by 173 standard deviations from the expected 80%. The likelihood that such a substantial departure from the expected value would occur by chance is infinitesimal (see Castaneda v Partida, 430 US 482, 496 n.17 (1977)).

2. Subsidy disparities

While 94% of MTA’s riders rode buses, MTA customarily spent 60-70% of its budget on rail. Data in 1992 revealed a $1.17 subsidy per boarding for an MTA bus rider. The subsidy for a Metrolink commuter rail rider was 18 times higher, however ($21.02). For a suburban light-rail streetcar passenger, the subsidy was more than nine times higher ($11.34); and for a subway passenger, it was projected to be two-and-a-half times higher ($2.92). (The actual figures, after operations began, were far higher.) For three years during the mid-1980s, MTA reduced the bus fare from $0.85 to $0.50. Ridership increased 40% during the period, making this the most successful mass transit experiment in the post-war era. Despite this increase in demand, MTA subsequently raised bus fares and reduced its peak-hour bus fleet from 2,200 to 1,750 buses.

3. Security disparities

While MTA spent only $0.03 for the security of each bus passenger in fiscal year 1993, it spent 43 times as much ($1.29), for the security of each passenger on the Metrolink commuter rail and the light rail, and 19 times as much ($0.57), for each passenger on the Red Line subway.

4. Crowding disparities

MTA customarily targeted peak period loads of 145% of seated capacity on its buses and that ‘target’ was very commonly exceeded. In contrast, there was no overcrowding for riders on Metrolink and MTA-operated rail lines. Metrolink was operated to have three passengers for every four seats so that passengers could ride comfortably and use the empty seat for their briefcases or laptop computers.

5. The history and pattern of transit discrimination

The disparate impacts are themselves evidence of intentional discrimination, as is the history of transit discrimination. Such disparate treatment has devastating social consequences. The Governor’s Commission on the 1964 Los Angeles riots and rebellion found that transportation agencies “handicap[ped minority residents] in seeking and holding jobs, attending schools, shopping, and fulfilling other needs,” and that the inadequate and prohibitively expensive bus service contributed to the isolation that led to the civil unrest in Watts. Thirty years later, following the riots and rebellion in the wake of the acquittals of the police officers involved in the Rodney King beating, MTA commissioned a new study on inner-city transit needs that echoed the recommendations of the Governor’s Commission. MTA, however, did not comply with the recommendations of either report.  (Governor’s Commission on the Los Angeles Riots (1965) Violence in the city: An end or a beginning? A report by the Governor’s Commission on the Los Angeles riots (“McCone Commission”).)


Access to public transportation is also important to increase
access to our natural lands and public spaces. A very good
example is access to Southern California’s four national forests.
According to a study by students
in the USC Department of Geography
(1.6 MB [PDF]),
there is virtually no good way to reach the four forests of
Southern California by public transportation. Access to parks,
forests, beaches, and other green spaces is important for the
benefit of all Southern California residents. Public transportation
to these areas is especially vital in this region because Los
Angeles is park-poor with fewer acres of parks than any major
city in the United States. Residents cannot simply walk to
neighborhood parks like people in other cities because they
often do not exist.

A good model for transportation to public lands can be found in Good Practice Guide:
Integrated Transport Measures in National Parks
(1MB PDF),
a report released by England’s Department
of Transport. This report examines the vital role transportation
plays in maintaining the economic and social vitality of the National
Parks in England and Wales. Integrated transportation measures,
including public transportation services, play a key role in offering
a sustainable way for local communities and visitors to access
the National Parks in England.

While The City Project supports public transit, we oppose the high speed
train proposal that would disproportionately hurt low-income
communities and communities of color. The City Project has submitted public
comments to oppose the high speed train
(414 KB [PDF]).

Visit the California
High Speed Rail Land Impact
website for more