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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2008
Table of Contents
Ice Manliness Cometh
A Six-Dog-Power Engine
I (Heart) Snowshoeing
Skiing Yellowstone
Welcome Back to the World
Rotten Fish Tales
Big Fun in the Green Zone
Hey Mr. Green
Comfort Zone
Mixed Media
Last Words
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Sierra Magazine

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Letters on the Web

As a supplement to the "Letters" section in the magazine, here is a sampling of the diverse reactions to our January/February 2002 article about buses, "All Aboard." Author Jim Motavalli's response follows.

Just when I had about given up trying, I found "All Aboard" in your January/February issue. As the chair of our transit authority, I continually find myself struggling with many of the challenges outlined in the article. Just knowing that the Sierra Club is acknowledging the potential of bus systems gives me the energy to keep pushing for increased service, traffic signal priority, busways, and cleaner fuel buses. Keep an eye on Raleigh, North Carolina, for great things from the CAT bus system!
Helen Tart
Raleigh Transit Authority Chairperson
Raleigh, North Carolina

The issue is not buses versus rail transit. The Sierra Club's National Transportation Committee believes we need much more of both--and fewer cars. We need to promote the priority of transit over private motor vehicles--in traffic and in policy-- and we need to tax fossil fuels and reduce the subsidies for driving in order to fund and promote the true green alternatives. As researchers Peter Newman and Jeffrey Kenworthy have demonstrated in Sustainability and Cities Overcoming Automobile Dependence (Island Press), it is metropolitan areas as systems that determines whether they are energy efficient or inefficient, extremely automobile dependent or relatively balanced in transportation use. The introduction of rail transit, when effectively coordinated with bus services generally leads to increases in rail and bus ridership--as the recent experience in St. Louis, Portland, and many other cities has demonstrated.

Curitiba's success story is one of an energetic and environmentally courageous Mayor who was able to commandeer street space for exclusive bus lane corridors (in a relatively poor city with low car ownership), and then line those corridors with high density development to prevent the sprawl of shanty towns into the surrounding countryside. There is nothing magical about buses, rail vehicles, or dense development in isolation. But taken in well-planned combination, wonders can be worked. (And even Curitiba has recently begun to consider replacing some of its bus routes with rail transit.)
Preston L. Schiller, Ph. D. (Bellingham, WA)
Eric C. Bruun, Ph.D. (Philadelphia, PA)
The Sierra Club's National Transportation Committee

Author Jim Motavalli, acting as a mouthpiece for the Bus Riders Union, claims the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is spending "70 percent of its operating budget on the 6 percent of its passengers who ride light rail." Quite the opposite is true. In the current fiscal year, MTA is spending $1.239 billion, or 45.4 percent of its entire budget, on bus operating and capital expenditures for MTA and the municipal bus operators in Los Angeles County. It is spending $411 million, or 15 percent of its budget, on rail operating and construction expenses. The balance of MTA's budget goes for street and highway improvements, bikeways, paratransit for the disabled, pedestrian amenities, ride-share incentives, other transportation programs, and debt service.

It is also not true that only 6 percent of MTA's transit users ride Metro Rail. We carry nearly 250,000 average weekday boarding passengers on Metro Rail and 1.2 million on the buses. As Metro Rail expands (it covers only 59 miles of track today), it will carry a far greater percentage of transit riders. The Metro bus system covers more than 3,000 route miles. Motavalli claims that "overcrowding of 140 percent is typical on MTA bus lines." Wrong again. Many of our buses are not full by any means. Some run virtually empty. During rush hours on our busiest lines, there is some overcrowding but even Eric Mann, chief of the Bus Riders Union, has acknowledged MTA is in compliance with the consent decree which today sets a limit on 11 passengers (will decline to 9 in June) who can stand on a bus that seats 43 people.

The writer wrongly states that overcrowding "is unknown on the light rail routes that link middle class suburbs to downtown." I can only conclude Motavalli has never ridden on the Metro Rail system. Overcrowding is so bad on the Metro Blue and Green light rail lines that MTA recently extended the station platforms on the Blue Line and added longer trains on both the Blue and Green lines. Middle class suburbs? Is that what Motavalli calls Watts, Compton, and other minority communities served by Metro Rail?

Continuing, Motavalli claims that the Bus Riders Union won a victory in court with a consent decree that "ordered MTA to spend more than $1 billion over 10 years to improve its bus system." First, it wasn't a court victory. There was no ruling. It was an out-of-court settlement that MTA entered into voluntarily with the Bus Riders Union and other plaintiffs. Second, the consent decrees doesn't order MTA to spend any specific dollar amount on improving bus service. Yet, MTA probably has spent more than $1 billion improving the Metro bus system , a fact that Motavalli completely ignored, preferring to give Sierra readers the distinct impression that MTA "is still appealing ‘the ruling' five years later."

He fails to mention that MTA has purchased more than 2,000 clean fuel compressed natural gas buses and will have its entire fleet running on CNG by 2004. He fails to mention MTA has added nearly 400 peak hour buses. He does mention later in the article that MTA is running Metro Rapid buses similar to those in Curitiba, Brazil, but makes no mention of the planned busways and other bus improvements MTA continues to make. Nor any mention of the sharp dip in complaints as bus service steadily improves. You owe it to your readers to give them the full story. They can go to our Web site at and click on "press room" to find bus-related press releases and look at our budget. There are no secrets.
Marc Littman
MTA Public Relations Director
Los Angeles, California

Jim Motavalli replies: When I wrote that 70 percent of the MTA's operating budget is spent on the six percent of its passengers who ride light rail--a fact that was the basis of the union's successful 1994 civil rights suit against the agency--I should have indicated that the figure referred to conditions before the consent decree was imposed. Reluctantly, and under court supervision, MTA has made some improvements for bus riders. According to Environmental Defense attorney Robert Garcia, one of the lead lawyers for the plantiffs in the case, "[T]he MTA agreed to the largest settlement in civil rights history, committing to invest over one billion dollars in bus system improvements over the next 10 years." Littman admits that the agency has spent at least that much complying with the decree, though the number may not have been specified in the decree.

Mr. Littman is shocked that I wrote, "Five years later, the MTA is still trying to appeal the ruling." And yet the agency has never stopped fighting the consent decree it agreed to in 1996, with disastrous results. Last September, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the MTA's appeal of a federal judge's order to buy 248 additional buses and reduce overcrowding to certain specified limits in compliance with the consent decree. When it failed to comply with those limits, the agency tried to find legal remedies. The sharply worded 2-1 decision called the MTA's arguments "quite disingenuous."

The agency's response: more appeals, this time to the U.S. Supreme Court. "The MTA Board feels it is a misuse of taxpayer money for the courts to order the MTA to keep adding buses on lines where there's already plenty of service scheduled, at the expense of areas that are underserved by buses," MTA said in a January 9, 2002, statement. In an editorial shortly after the ruling entitled, "Wise Up, Give In, MTA," the Los Angeles Times opined, "The agency is squandering money on appeals that could be used to buy buses."

It cannot be disputed that overcrowding is still a fact of life on MTA buses. In 1998, the Joint Working Group set up by the consent decree found that MTA had failed to meet ridership limits on 75 out of the 79 bus lines measured. According to the Bus Riders Union, the MTA missed the 1997 deadline for having "only" 15 people standing on the buses, "is already in clear violation of the June 2000 overcrowding deadline, and will be in massive violation of the June 30, 2002, deadline."

It's also worth pointing out that, I am no enemy of the Los Angeles subway. I visited the city with the express purpose of riding the Metro Rail trains, and took both the Red and Blue lines.

In an e-mail to me, Mr. Littman emphasized some of the MTA's positive achievements: 472 peak hour buses (360 to reduce overcrowding and 112 for new service); 956,000 expanded annual bus service hours); and 1,500 new compressed natural gas buses. I applaud these steps, and--as the story says--I'm solidly behind MTA's natural gas buses and its innovative "signal priority" system for speeding up a dismally slow ride.

It's also worth pointing out that, I am no enemy of the Los Angeles subway. I visited the city with the express purpose of riding the Metro Rail trains, and took both the Red and Blue lines.

I firmly believe there can be both an efficient bus system and a useful subway in Los Angeles. But for that to happen the parties will have to start working together and stop fighting costly battles in court.
Jim Motavalli
Norwalk, Connecticut

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