By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
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.
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.“