In a major acknowledgment of the MTA’s efforts to improve bus service, a court-appointed overseer said Wednesday that he has approved the latest bus expansion plan and credited the agency with making “substantial” progress – a critical decision that could lead to ending a 1996 federal consent decree. Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials welcomed the ruling from Special Master Donald T. Bliss as a sign that the consent decree could expire as planned in 2006 – after 10 years and more than $1.3 billion spent on buses. But the Bus Riders Union, which sued the MTA a decade ago and won the consent decree settlement, said it hopes to get the court’s oversight for up to four more years, until the MTA fully complies with all orders to improve bus service for its mostly poor and minority riders. “While the BRU may be disappointed that it did not achieve all of its recommendations, it is important to place in context what has been accomplished,” wrote Bliss, the Washington, D.C., lawyer appointed by the court as the special master overseeing the consent decree. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREBlues bury Kings early with four first-period goals “Since inception of the consent decree, the MTA has made the improvement of bus service a high priority. The progress has been substantial.” Bliss on Wednesday approved the MTA’s plan to buy 134 new Metro Rapid buses for up to $83 million to run express routes on major streets and to continue some pilot programs. However, the approval was conditioned on the MTA’s guarantee that it would run the buses more frequently and with more service than the agency had planned on some routes. The MTA plan came short of the proposal submitted by the BRU, which pushed for hundreds more buses, as well as new freeway express services. “He (Bliss) recognizes we’ve come a long way,” said MTA Chief Executive Officer Roger Snoble. “It’s kind of come to the end of the process. He recognizes we’ve accomplished that. He still has work for us to do.” A BRU attorney conceded that “basically MTA won” this round, but vowed that the group would seek to extend the consent decree past the 2006 expiration if the MTA does not fulfill the orders. “On this particular order, the plaintiffs did not get what we wanted,” said E. Richard Larson, an attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense Fund. “But I’m sure MTA did not get what it wanted, either. It wanted out with no conditions. And the special master imposed many conditions. “It’s not over. The special master imposed these conditions. The only way we can make sure they’re going to be complied (with) by MTA is to ask the special master to extend the consent decree for three to four years.” The MTA and Bus Riders Union entered the consent decree after the group sued the transit agency, claiming bus riders’ civil rights were being violated as the agency built suburban rail lines while bus service remained crowded and unreliable. Over the years, the MTA has been ordered to buy hundreds of new buses so no more than eight bus riders go without a seat for 20 minutes on any bus. The agency has fully replaced its 2,000-bus fleet, which was prone to breakdowns, with new, compressed-natural-gas buses, while also growing the fleet by another 500 coaches. The agency now spends 40 percent of its nearly $3 billion budget on bus operations, and has repeatedly faced problems trying to balance its budget with the increasing operating costs. Wednesday’s order centered on the new service plan, which is a final element of the consent decree and spells out how the MTA will expand bus routes to serve additional transit-dependent bus riders. Bliss agreed with the MTA’s plan for more Rapid buses on 28 major routes by 2008, but wanted guarantees of frequent service, which could end up requiring the MTA to buy more buses, though officials said it would not mean hundreds of new buses, as in past orders. Bliss also said the plan would be approved conditionally through November 2010 – though the consent decree would expire in 2006. Bliss notes that the MTA has gone from spending $719 million, or 25 percent of its budget, on bus operations a decade ago to nearly $1.2 billion, or 40 percent, today. Still outstanding before Bliss are various BRU motions, including one saying the MTA is in contempt for not fulfilling a past order. Lisa Mascaro, (818) 713-3761 [email protected] 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!