Derailed Dreams 

Bus Riders Union is bad for L.A.'s transit future

Wednesday, Mar 27 2002

Just by sitting on its robes, the U.S. Supreme Court last week condemned public transit in Los Angeles to a fractious and uncertain future.

The justices voted unanimously not to hear an appeal by the Metropolitan Transit Authority to overturn the binding agreement it signed six years ago with the Bus Riders Union. That deal barred a planned increase in bus fares and raised the standard for bus service countywide.

There‘s nothing wrong with striving to improve bus service, of course. But now the Bus Riders Union has an unassailable seat at the table and will henceforth sit as an equal partner with the MTA in a broad range of decisions on how to design and build public transit in Los Angeles. That’s terrible news for a city already on the verge of gridlock.

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In its nine years of existence, the Bus Riders Union has gone through a series of changes, from an intriguing idea to an exciting example of the potential for grassroots political organizing, finally becoming what it is today -- an example of how fanatic, single-issue ideology can turn even the best intentions into dead-end politics verging on a public hazard. Far from being part of the solution, the BRU is one more in the maddening array of reasons why, for all the forward-thinking people and heavily funded agencies in Southern California, we still have no meaningful answer to traffic and transit problems that threaten to overwhelm the entire region.

Consider, for example, the BRU‘s official response to last week’s court ruling. As it was written in 1996, the consent decree set modest targets for the addition of 50 to 100 new buses to the MTA fleet. The BRU is now demanding more than 700 new buses, on top of the more than 1,500 already purchased by the MTA since the decree went into effect.

It‘s the politics of triumph. The BRU scored a victory in court, and they’re a drunk with it. Forget the actual state of traffic in L.A., where the new buses sit in the same no-exit traffic jams as the old ones. And forget the cost of all the new buses -- it‘s just government money. Besides, the bus riders know where to find an extra few hundred million dollars.

The easy answer is rail. To fund its sky-high projections for new bus service, the BRU is calling for a halt to all work on new train projects, especially the Gold Line, the light-rail line that’s already under construction between Pasadena and Union Station, and which is to run from there out to East Los Angeles in the next few years. ”The MTA must agree to a moratorium on all rail projects,“ BRU leaders declared at a news conference March 19, the day after the Supreme Court ruling was announced.

It‘s on the question of rail that the BRU really starts to lose touch with any sense of purpose and proportion. It’s as if the bus riders are jealous -- the trains are bigger, faster and sleeker, and the bus riders can‘t look at them without seething. Never mind that bus riders can ride the train for the same fare as a bus, and that thousands do so every day. That would be missing the point. At the center of the BRU’s legal strategy, and at the center of the group‘s identity, is race.

From the outset, the Bus Riders Union perceived the lousy transit service in Los Angeles as a racial issue, where poor minorities were ignored by well-heeled bureaucrats seeking to curry favor with politicians beholden to the county’s wealthy white suburbs.

To some degree, certainly, that was true, as was borne out in briefs filed with the court by the NAACP and other friends of the bus riders, which detailed decisions going back 30 years to fund bus service to the outlying valleys while ignoring South Los Angeles. Metrolink in particular, a rail system designed to serve affluent commuters, was attacked for draining scarce transit dollars from inner-city riders.

But the BRU and its allies in the civil-rights community -- along with the NAACP, the ACLU, the Southern Christian Leadership Council and the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates -- lose any credibility when they apply their racial critique to the current state of rail transit in Los Angeles. Check with anyone who has ridden the Blue Line or the Green. Day and night, the trains are crowded with exactly the people the BRU says it speaks for -- working people of color. Or check with the MTA: More than 85 percent of the people riding light rail or the subway are minorities. Even the Red Line, the Cadillac subway that proved a sinkhole for federal construction funds, gets steady use by people from all walks of life and is contributing to an economic renaissance in Hollywood.

None of this figures in the rhetoric of the BRU. The complaint that led to the consent decree borrows charged language from the nation‘s troubled racial history to describe the subway and light-rail system as ”a discriminatory two-tier, separate and unequal system of public transportation -- one for poor minority bus riders and another designed to serve predominantly white and relatively wealthy rail riders.“

Anyone who disagrees with that critique is promptly branded racist by the BRU. ”Most of our critics are not black, Latino or Asian,“ said Eric Mann, the white political activist who is the leader of the BRU. ”They’re from the white middle class, people for whom this whole debate is very theoretical.“

The BRU highlighted the absurdity of its position when it turned out scores of protesters to recent meetings of the MTA board in an effort to block approval of the Gold Line extension to Boyle Heights. There they squared off with an equal throng of Latinos from East L.A., all of them demanding the train.

Mann dismissed that show of support as a handful of dupes. ”The Eastside constituency for rail is a function of the Eastside corporate elite, represented by Gloria Molina and a few churches that can turn people out,“ Mann said in an interview. ”Do you really think the average Latino in L.A. wants to ride the train to Union Station?“

Judging by from the turnout at the MTA board, the answer is a resounding yes. But there‘s more at stake with rail than simply providing a faster, more comfortable alternative to the bus. There’s the question of how Los Angeles is going to deal with steady population growth when freeways and surface streets are already approaching capacity.

”When you talk about the consent decree, you have to grasp that everybody in the county, whether you use the bus or the train, or if you never use public transit, you‘re still one of our customers,“ said Mark Littman, a spokesman for the MTA. That means developing alternative modes of transit -- including carpool lanes, rail lines or even bicycle trails as well as buses -- that will help keep passenger cars off the streets.

With its history of boondoggles, the MTA seems a poor choice to build the transit system of the future. Indeed, it was the MTA that made the BRU the force it is today, first by signing off on the consent decree, and then by spending more than a million dollars on fruitless appeals to overturn it.

But at least its board understands the scope of its mission. And the MTA remains the only regional transit agency we’ve got. ”The BRU is very good at advocating for one cause,“ Littman said. ”The danger and the damage come when you don‘t have somebody keeping an eye on the big picture.“

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