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Garcetti Prioritizes Rails for the Rich Over Accessible Public Transportation

Metro is talking about further cuts to bus service, making life even more difficult for Angelenos.

(Original image from Wikimedia Commons, by The Port of Authority. Edited by Kendall Kaufmann)

Information on how to get involved and call into the Board Meeting Thursday January 28 at 10 AM is at the bottom of this article.

For decades, organizers in LA have been demanding city and county officials for more transit investments in poor, Black, and Latinx neighborhoods. Most of their common-sense demands have fallen on deaf ears and false tongues. This Thursday, January 28, the Metro Board will be meeting to discuss receiving an extra $300 million over their budget in sales tax revenue, with staff recommending most of the money go toward maintenance, infrastructure and recruitment. None of that money is being directed toward restoring service despite the enormous cuts to bus service in the past 10 years.

In 1996, the Bus Riders Union and Strategy Center won a Civil Rights Consent Decree settlement, the largest ever civil rights settlement. In the words of Eric Mann, the founder and Director of the Community Strategy Center, and founder and co-chair of the Bus Riders Union,“We sued the MTA for civil rights violations in 1994. In 1996, we signed a consent decree which is a federal contract imposed by the federal courts because you violated somebody’s civil rights.” Metro agreed to make a $2 billion investment in the bus system over ten years, with federal oversight. The MTA bought “a whole lot of new buses, [lowered] the bus fare… We got 2,500 new compressed natural gas buses instead of diesel, we got a million extra hours of service… it was great! The buses got less overcrowded, the buses came on time. Guess what? Ridership went up 20% right away, because, duh! If the bus comes sooner and the bus costs less, you’re gonna ride the bus.”

After the Consent Decree (and federal oversight) expired in 2006, Metro cut over a million hours in bus service over the next few years (as of 2011). In October, the Metro Board voted to cut service by another 20% (below pre-pandemic levels) and to cut the budget by $1.2 billion.

Decreasing bus service is fundamentally classist, ableist, and racist, and Metro has a long history of doing it. In LA Metro’s jurisdiction, ridership is majority Latinx and lower income, and disproportionately Black. Older people and people with disabilities also heavily rely on transit, especially those who can’t drive. As of 2015, there was a 108% increase in wheelchair boardings on fixed routes, and a 66% increase in paratransit trips.

Not to mention, the people that rely on transit and the people that are most affected by COVID overlap heavily. Roughly 76% of lower income workers cannot do their job through telework. Meanwhile, nearly 35% of rail riders and 60% of Metro’s bus riders have an annual income under $20k. In Los Angeles County as of 2015, Black people make up 8% of the population, and 18% of transit riders. Yet only 8% of Black people in the County live near a bus stop. Black and Latinx people are twice as likely to die from COVID than white people. Hawai’ian and Pacific Islander people are five times as likely to die from COVID than white people, and ride transit at rates relatively proportionate to their population.

Image: The Venn diagram of those most affected by COVID and those who rely on transit feels like it would be a flat circle. Credit: Kendall Kaufmann)

Transit is a public service, yet Metro treats it like a for-profit business. Metro gets $860 million a year through Measure M, yet they push projects which cater to richer white communities and even tourists who, shocker, don’t live in LA, nor rely on Metro’s transit service in their daily lives. The services that people need today are continually pushed away seemingly in favor of decisions that pad Garcetti’s pocket and favor his electability (or pride) — i.e. rail for the 2028 Olympics.

“The rail system is very expensive, it’s mainly digging tunnels. And the rail has no flexibility, it’s a straight shot. If you’re going from Point A to Point B, that’s great. But if you’re not, and you get off the train, where are you going? You need a bus,” Mann said. “And we could do the whole thing with a great bus, with bus-only lanes, right now. You don’t even have to dig the hole. [They] say, ‘Well actually, we like digging the hole, because we get contracts and it’s billions of dollars and the construction workers get to build a hole, and my friend gets to build a hole, and developers get to build a hole, and the steel manufacturers… and we all have a great time building the hole, then we get to buy these very expensive rail lines. Then, we’re finished, 3 to 5 years later. And in order to pay for it we gotta kill the bus system.’ […] Ridership is down on the MTA.

Channing Martinez, the Director of Organizing at the Strategy Center and Bus Riders Union member for years, spoke in an interview about the need for a moratorium on rail and highway transit. “So the Bus Riders Union’s been calling for a moratorium for the last 15 to 20 years. And that is a lot of what the original Consent Decree was about,” said Martinez. “We sued the Metro in the ‘90s because they were and are building a separate unequal system. In the ‘90s when we sued them, they were stealing money from the buses — and they’re still doing this today — in order to build their rail system.”

Garcetti was named Chair of the Board of Metro Directors last July, taking over for Inglewood Mayor Butts, who also has a history of weaponizing transit-oriented development paired with mega developments — such as the SoFi and Clippers stadiums — against poor Black and Brown communities. Garcetti controls four total seats, with three appointees, so he influences many of the Metro Board’s decisions.

The arbitrary 2028 deadline for many of these rail projects has put excessive amounts of money and energy on speeding up projects that were next to impossible to finish in time pre-COVID, let alone after COVID. Tourists who might be in LA for two weeks in 2028 are being prioritized and will be spent lavishly on for the greater part of a decade. For example, Metro is pushing the East Side Gold Line Extension project for the Olympics, a $6 billion project that even Metro staff admits wouldn’t serve enough people to justify the cost. Garcetti has chosen to invest in tourist traps like the Dodgers gondola and stunt projects like tunnel projects with Elon Musk (Yes, that Elon Musk) at the expense of minoritized Angelenos.

A lot of these billion-dollar Metro rail projects take so long to build, some become outdated before they’re done. The choice Garcetti and the Metro Board continue to make is clear: profit over people. As Martinez puts it, “they have a $7.5 billion budget. A lot more of that budget is discretionary than they actually let everyone know. And that can be used for free public transportation, and for things that we actually need, not for more rail construction, and not for more buying-up of property to then sell to developers so that they can gentrify the hell out of our communities.”

Additionally, Metro’s rail projects have been a catalyst for market-rate real-estate development that have been displacing people. In Downey, Metro’s idea to fund highway expansion has opened up the possibility of hundreds of homes being destroyed (which the city of Downey has itself opposed). Not even mentioning that expanding freeways does nothing but worsen traffic, investing in freeways is bad. Many low-income people are forced to live next to freeways by virtue of being pushed out everywhere else, and those people in turn are subject to severe health effects. Once their freeway-adjacent house is bulldozed, where can they go?

With Metro, service cuts aren’t necessarily paired with budget cuts. Currently, they have $300 million extra during a pandemic-recession and are still choosing to keep service cuts. The disinvestment almost always targets poor, Black, and Spanish-speaking communities — under the guise of reinvesting in “public safety.” Black people are 18% of public transportation riders, but are given over 50% of fare evasion citations — and the process for challenging a ticket does not benefit people who have low incomes. As Martinez puts it, “you get your ticket, [and] you have to pay your ticket in order to be able to challenge it. You have no right to any legal representation. And you’re guilty until proven innocent. […] like it’s an obvious violation of the federal Constitution.”

The City of Los Angeles and Garcetti fund Metro’s security as well as the LAPD. Metro spent $111 million on security in 2018 (within their huge contract of $645,675,758 over five years) and Garcetti has committed to spending $1.86 billion on police overall. The data supports the idea that fewer cops mean a decrease in crime. In 2015, one in 14 passengers on Metro were sexually harassed. Supposedly in response, Metro approved a security plan worth nearly $800 million in 2017. Almost as if directly in response, sexual harassment of riders reached a five-year peak from when Metro started recording this data. Close to 30% of passengers experienced inappropriate touching and groping in 2018 (from a 2019 report, p. 99). Many white men feel emboldened by police rather than deterred from being violent.

Meanwhile, it would cost around $250–300 million to provide free transit, a fraction of these security costs. It’s something that Metro and Garcetti have considered after years of organizer pressure, but only to increase ridership, not serve the people who need it and who already ride. Service cuts — and correlated speed and efficiency decreases — directly led to a 25% ridership fall BEFORE the pandemic this year. If we’re talking about racist policies that push Black people out of this unaffordable city, the MTA is at full efficiency.

Funding more bus service is the most accessible and affordable option that will benefit the most Angelenos. Yet billions still go to rail projects and ineffective or poorly executed improvements to the bus system. As Martinez puts it, “They set themselves up for failure, because they knew they didn’t want to implement it right. And it’s the same thing that’s happening with the Rapid system is that they cut so much service that they’ve set it up for failure so that they can later on, down the line, depend on what I call historical amnesia and say see? It’s not working. As if we’ve forgotten the history of all this shit.”

Want to tell Metro how they should spend your tax dollars? You can take action by emailing Metro CEO the Metro Board Secretary (email hidden; JavaScript is required) today for item 11 and cc Metro CEO Phil Washington (email hidden; JavaScript is required) and provide public comment Thursday Jan 28th 10 AM (more info here). Here is a PowerPoint from Investing in Place with more info on what Metro is considering doing with this specific money and this is a toolkit by ACT-LA for talking points and Tweets.

How to make public comment on Item 11 at Thursday 1/28/21 Metro Board Meeting:

  • Live public comment can only be given by telephone.
  • The Board Meeting begins at 10:00 AM Pacific Time on January 28, 2021; you may join the call 5 minutes prior to the start of the meeting.
  • Dial-in: 888–251–2949 and enter
  • English Access Code: 8231160#
  • Spanish Access Code: 4544724#
  • To give public comment on an item, enter #2 (pound two) when that item is taken up by the Board. Please note that the live video feed lags about 30 seconds behind the actual meeting. There is no lag on the public comment dial-in.

Contacts for emailing Metro Directors and Senior Leadership