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Almost Aboard

Photos by Slobodan Dimitrov

It’s a classic L.A. debate: Buses or light rail? It used to be that the working-class Eastside could be counted on to come down solidly on the side of buses, but it’s not so simple anymore. More are backing the proposed $759 million Eastside Light Rail Transit Project, even if it means less money for buses to serve the city’s poorest residents.

The issue has split the community between those who support the Metropolitan Transportation Authority plan for trains, and the Bus Riders Union (BRU), which believes that 350 more buses would help solve the congestion. This is a popular topic in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles, where 19 percent of the working population ride buses; in some neighborhoods, as many as half the residents take the bus to work.

Often called the home of Los Angeles’ labor force, the Eastside area has 403,000 residents within a 40-square-mile area. According to an MTA study, the population will grow by one-fourth and 105,000 jobs will be created by 2020.

In the morning rush hour, on traffic-clogged Cesar Chavez Boulevard, it’s hard to figure where everyone will fit. East L.A. resident Norma Gudiño has been riding buses for 20 years, and wants to see the light-rail project built. She and a dozen other Eastside bus riders interviewed for this story say light rail sounds like a great alternative to buses. “I think that people are going to fill those trains,” Gudiño says. “People will still use the bus, but the trains will be a great way to get to downtown and to go to other areas of the Eastside.”

Seventy-four-year-old Francisco Bernal says buses have proved to be a good transportation system for the working poor and senior citizens. A Boyle Heights native who used the original Los Angeles trolley cars during the 1940s, he believes that buses are more flexible and avoid the problems of fixed tracks, including the threat to pedestrians.

He lives next to the Pico Aliso housing projects, where one of the train stations is proposed. But Bernal says that more buses will be of greater help to senior citizens who will gather at a center being built on First Street. “I liked the trolley cars, but I know that the buses are better,” Bernal says.

The project still faces hurdles. The MTA recently approved a final environmental study and will seek federal funding. If all goes according to plan, the trains could be rolling in 2007.

The Eastside Light-Rail project will prove to be one of the engineering marvels of East Los Angeles, MTA spokesman Ed Scannell says. Its six-mile route would start at Union Station and end at the intersection of Beverly and Atlantic boulevards. The line would run through First and Third streets.

Eight stations are planned, including a stop at Little Tokyo’s First and Alameda streets. A First-and-Utah station would benefit the residents of Pico Aliso and Aliso Village, two of the largest and poorest housing projects in Los Angeles.

Formerly a designated stop for the ill-fated Eastside subway, the First-and-Boyle stop would begin a 1.7-mile underground journey through Boyle Heights’ narrowest and busiest streets. The trek would include stations at Soto and Lorena streets, home to large strips of picturesque businesses and restaurants.

The train would resurface and swerve along Third Street, with stops on the county’s residential Mednik and Rowan avenues. It would end at Atlantic Boulevard, which is one of the biggest commercial areas in East Los Angeles.

The Bus Riders Union sees the project as a way to undermine its federal consent decree with the MTA. The consent decree came about from a 1994 lawsuit filed over the MTA’s doing away with monthly bus passes. The lawsuit alleged that the MTA discriminated against mostly low-income and minority bus riders by allocating more money for subway and light-rail projects that favored mainstream and middle-class riders.

In 1996, the MTA signed the consent decree and pledged to establish a $42 monthly bus pass and to buy more buses to reduce overcrowding. That same year, the court appointed a special master to negotiate differences between the Bus Riders Union and the MTA. In 1999, the special master ordered the MTA to buy 350 buses, a decision the MTA appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In April, before the court decided the case, the Supreme Court ruled in an Alabama case that agencies getting federal money could not be sued for discrimination unless plaintiffs could prove it was intentional. Now, the circuit court has asked the two sides to submit written comments explaining how the Supreme Court ruling might change the consent decree. A three-member panel is expected to decide by July 1. It is likely the court will rule in favor of the MTA.

Tensions between pro- and anti-light-rail forces reached new levels last month when about 125 BRU members and sympathizers showed up to testify before the MTA board. They encountered a like number of Eastside supporters of the light-rail project.

After the board voted to proceed with the final environmental review, which could secure federal funding for the project, a group of bus riders participated in a raucous act of civil disobedience. Guards tried to separate BRU members who locked arms and fell limp to the ground, while others held signs as they chanted, “This is how racism looks today, MTA, MTA.”

The idea of a light-rail system is popular among bus riders and business owners in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles, says Father John Moretta, who belongs to a coalition that favors rail over more buses. The Eastside has yearned for a train system since the MTA promised it a subway in the late 1980s.

The MTA bought about 100 Boyle Heights homes and razed them to make way for storage areas and subway sites. While the subway went to other parts of the city, the MTA never was able to find money for the hyped Eastside subway. The project was called off in 1998, after voters approved Proposition A, which prohibited spending local money on subway systems.

Light rail is the second most preferred choice after the subway in the Eastside, says Moretta, who is the pastor of Boyle Heights Resurrection Catholic Church. Though there are safety concerns, residents feel that electric trains would work well with the bus system. “The community has decided that they don’t want to be disrespected,” Moretta says. “We feel that it is all right to put a subway to Universal Studios and into the Valley but that somehow when it comes to the Eastside, to the worker and the backbone of labor, these people should be given more buses. We feel that is very prejudicial.”

The MTA owes the Eastside at least a light-rail system, say Councilman Nick Pacheco and Supervisor Gloria Molina, an MTA board member. When constructed, the trains would run through both of their districts.

Hopes for the subway are high in Mariachi Plaza, where a beautifully sculpted dome from Mexico was installed in a formerly rundown area of Boyle Heights. Home to the city’s mariachi community, the plaza would receive a boost with light rail. “I think that the light-rail project would help us all,” says Armando Salazar, the owner of Santa Cecilia’s Restaurant. “The trains are faster and can carry more people.”

Though he sides with the BRU in saying that more buses are needed, Councilman Pacheco also believes that the light-rail trains would be a plus for his district. He says that there is no reason not to have both. “They are not mutually exclusive,” Pacheco says.

The incident at the MTA board meeting was just the beginning of a yearlong campaign to rally community leaders to put pressure on the MTA to publicly admit that it is against the consent decree, BRU organizer Manuel Criollo says. Whether in churches or restaurants, activists and community leaders will be asked to take a stand. “A lot of people look at history and look at Alabama, Mississippi, but for us right now the central issue around civil rights lies here in Los Angeles around the multinational MTA board,” Criollo says. “Elected and community leaders, this is the line on the sand where you stand on civil rights.”

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