Appelate Courts vs. Reality

(Originally written as an op-ed article for the Daily News but unpublished due to the World Trade Center disaster.)

The Bus Riders Union must be in ecstasy. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has reaffirmed their precious consent decree between themselves and the MTA, and most importantly (to them) upheld the order by special master Donald Bliss for the beleaguered transit agency to purchase 250 additional buses to relieve perceived overcrowding.

I wrote about that order in the Daily News on March 14, 1999, shortly after Bliss issued it. What I said then has not changed: Simply ordering MTA to acquire more new equipment does not mean the agency can actually do so; the manufacturers of transit coaches suitable for MTA operation have a finite capacity for supplying equipment. And that doesn't even take into consideration the larger question of how MTA is supposed to pay for the operation of those coaches. A court victory does not magically create funding, as many who have won court decisions but were unable to collect from the other party will sadly attest.

The BRU keeps saying that MTA must shift funding from rail to buses, but that oft-repeated mantra ignores completely the legal restrictions placed upon it. By voter-passed ballot proposition in the 1980s, a certain percentage of sales tax revenue provided to the MTA must be spent on rail. That is not discretionary funding that can be redirected to buses, and no amount of rhetoric from the BRU's "organizers" (as their spokespeople call themselves) will change that.

The Court's dissenting opinion came much closer to reality than the majority opinion, leading me to wonder if the two majority judges know anything more about transit than the special master. It is painfully obvious that the BRU knows little, if anything, about the subject.

The reality is that there are more ways to relieve overcrowding than simply buying more buses when there aren't funds to operate them. Any transit scheduler worth their paycheck -- and MTA employs an entire department full of them -- can find ways to reallocate running time away from lines with lower ridership to add trips on high ridership lines needing the assistance. But the BRU won't settle for that fix, because then they couldn't keep screaming "buy more buses" at every turn.

Sadly, it is their bus-centric attitude that gives credibility to the ill-conceived busway project; but to work like Curitiba the passenger loads would be so high that the BRU would immediately run back to the court demanding relief. Of course, they also paradoxically oppose the busway, fearing it will divert funds from their precious 250 more "regular" buses demand. (Spend that bus money on buses!?!) How about the BRU donating some of the million-plus dollars they receive each year in grant funding?

The bottom line is that the consent decree was, is, and will always be unworkable, because it attempts to make a large metropolitan transit authority operate like a small-town bus company. In an area as large as Los Angeles County, there is no viable way to prevent standees on buses in the way the BRU demands, and to continue to stand in the way of the real solution -- rail -- makes them far less credible a voice for transit users (most of whom love Metro Rail once they try it).

Facts about the BRU have been available for as long as they have been in the public eye ... but don't be surprised if the BRU calls those facts "lies". It's their defense against anything that contradicts their view. But that's okay, because they don't represent the majority of transit users, and they never will.

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