Bus, Rail Drivers Strike in L.A.

Los Angeles officials issued health warnings as thousands of commuters — including many of the city’s poorest residents — were forced to walk or ride bikes to work today during a transit strike that coincided with a blistering Southern California heat wave.

While commuter traffic increased slightly, temperatures climbed over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in parts of Southern California over the weekend and were not expected to drop before the end of the week.

Almost a half-million bus and rail riders were trying to figure out how to get about town as 2,000 buses and light rail and subway lines serving a 1,400-square-mile area remained idle. Today was the first work day after 4,400 transit drivers in Los Angeles County walked off the job at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. And end to the strike did not appear to be near. A state mediator is scheduled to meet with both sides at 10 a.m. local time Tuesday to set a date to resume negotiations.

Some residents who rely on public transportation in the nation’s second largest city found themselves out of luck. Student Cesar Marroquin nervously stood near a bus stop, hoping one would show up to take him to the East Los Angeles Occupational School. He didn’t hear about the strike until today.

“I just don’t know what else to do. I called my friend but I don’t see him. I have a major test at 8 a.m.,” the 34-year-old man said 15 minutes before test time.

The California Highway Patrol had predicted a half-hour could be added to freeway rides to work and school, but officials said roadway sensors showed a 5 percent increase in traffic during the morning rush.

On the snarled city streets, bumper-to-bumper cars snaked through downtown with workers complaining their commute times had been doubled.

Most Riders Poor, Minority

No negotiations are scheduled between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the unions representing its drivers, clerks and mechanics. At issue in the dispute is a city proposal to reduce overtime paid to bus and rail operators, forcing them to work longer shifts for regular pay. The plan would also require the workers to split their shifts by driving during rush hours and going off the clock during off-peak hours.

MTA officials say they must cut costs, increase fares or face a $430 million operating deficit over the next 10 years.

About 450,000 of Los Angeles County’s 9.9 million residents use mass transit, and riders are mostly poor and minority. Sixty-eight percent have household incomes under $15,000 per year, and nearly three-quarters of bus riders are black or Hispanic, according to the MTA.

County Board Supervisor and MTA board member Yvonne Brathwaite Burke is calling on the unions to return to the table and “stop holding our city’s poor and middle-class residents hostage.” City officials have tried to contrast the economic profiles of drivers and riders in their attempts to portray transit workers as overpaid.

The average MTA bus driver earns about $50,000 a year, but are in other ways similar to their riding population. Almost a third are Latino men and half are African-American men and women.

Many Riders Supportive

Many mass transit advocates and users are, in fact, supportive of the striking unions. Ted Robertson, an organizer with the Bus Riders Union, said he opposes cost-saving measures made at the expense of drivers, who are among the highest paid in the nation. And raising fares to meet increased demand would be “out of the question,” he added.

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