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Small Victory for L.A. Bus Riders: Metropolitan Transit Authority to Be Probed by Feds

The Bus Riders Union hasn't been able to file a civil-rights lawsuit against the Los Angeles MTA since 2001 -- when the Supreme Court decided private orgs shouldn't be able to sue public agencies using the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The group actually won such a lawsuit in the '90s -- but ever since it expired five years ago, MTA officials have been free to chip away at the bus system as they please.

What do buses have to do with civil rights? Well, besides the obvious Rosa Parks connect, when drastic cuts are made to routes as fares skyrocket -- as the Bus Riders Union argues -- low-income minority residents, who rely on the bus for their livelihood, are the ones who feel it worst.

Amid MTA plans to cut around 300,000 more bus hours this June, the Bus Riders Union was panicking. But a letter that arrived March 9 was the next best thing to a lawsuit:

The Federal Transit Administration has agreed to get all up in the MTA offices and conduct a full-blown investigation of its practices. The letter from Washington, D.C. to the BRU reads:

"FTA plans to conduct an on-site compliance review of Los Angeles MTA this year. The decision to perform this compliance review was based, in part, on your complaint submitted to the FTA Office of Civil Rights. A copy of your complaint will be provided to the review team prior to the review."

The BRU is understandably jazzed on the announcement, calling it a "significant step [that] comes at a critical time."

BRU organizer Eric Roman emphasized to the Weekly once again this morning that blacks and Latinos make up 92 percent of bus riders, and have an average income of $12,000 per year. Though MTA is forward-thinking about changes like bike lanes and rail transit, the bus system has undergone nothing but shrinkage since the BRU's civil-rights lawsuit was lifted.

However, MTA officials told the Los Angeles Times that they have nothing to worry about, because "all the service cuts have complied with federal requirements":

Proposed reductions, they said, are analyzed and adjusted if necessary to avoid disproportionate effects on minority groups.

"In no way does the FTA letter or the scheduling of a review pass judgment on anything Metro has done or is doing," said Marc Littman, an MTA spokesman. "On the June service changes, we believe we are in compliance, and we plan to bring that out when we meet with the feds."

In the past, MTA officials have argued to the Weekly that faster, stealthier subway options will eliminate the need for so many bus routes.

In contrast, Roman points out that -- for example -- an Angeleno looking to travel from South Central to Union Station won't be able to do so on a proposed rail alternative, and would be forced into paying (and waiting) for two bus transfers after the June cuts.

The FTA letter does show some restraint, making it clear that "the specific issues in [the BRU] complaint will be addressed from a broader perspective by this compliance review, with the intent of resolving any issues of non-compliance identified."

But it's the best news possible in a moment of desperation.

The BRU will be holding a press conference to announce the good news at 10 a.m., right outside enemy territory: the MTA offices at 1 Gateway Plaza.

[@simone_electra/swilson@laweekly.com]