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.

Robertson, like many members in the Bus Riders Union, wants the MTA to cut back on its rail projects and use that money to meet the drivers’ demands and increase the number of bus routes.

Contracts for the United Transportation Union, the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Transportation Communications International Union expired June 30.

Work rules are the major issue in the contract dispute, and the two sides also disagree on wage and benefits increases. The MTA offered 2.7 percent raises per year for three years; the unions wanted 4 percent per year.

Striking bus driver Maria Avila says the drivers want to get back to work as soon as possible.

“We know our public, we’re the ones out there. We know them by name, we know their kids, and we want to get out there and serve the public again as soon as possible,” she said.

Customers Change Routine

For some area residents who usually depend on mass transit, getting around today meant getting started a bit earlier.

Jacqueline Campos, 19, a sophomore at California State University at Northridge, said she would have to hitch a ride with her aunt to get to class. But for both of them to be at their 8 a.m. appointments on time, they would have to leave at 5 a.m., she said.

Donna Packard, 34, was stranded at Union Station after taking a MetroLink train to the Civic Center. She usually takes the subway to Hollywood. MetroLink trains were not affected by the MTA strike. ”It affects me big time. I don’t drive downtown,” Packard said.

“My boss is on the way to pick me up. I may have to take vacation time without pay if this continues,” added the AT&T sales representative.

Outside Union Station, she waited with about a dozen other commuters waiting for rides from co-workers. Bus driver pickets were nearby, hooting at commuters as they marched outside the landmark transportation center.

Twenty-two small shuttles and eight full-sized buses were operating to help some subway passengers but Jager conceded it was a fraction of what a subway would normally carry.

Hellish Commutes

Los Angeles drivers should be accustomed to a hellish commute. The Texas Transportation Institute estimates the city’s motorists spend more time in traffic than their counterparts elsewhere in the nation: an average of 82 hours a year.

Los Angeles relies on mass transit less than some of the nation’s other largest cities. In New York, 4.3 million ride the city’s subways on an average weekday and another 2.2 million ride buses.

In Chicago, 1.5 million trips are taken on mass transit on an average weekday.

In Philadelphia, where 435,000 commuters rely on bus and rail, 5,500 transit workers walked off the job in 1998. The dispute lasted 40 days.

ABCNEWS Radio and The Associated Press contributed to this report.