Proposed Southeast transit plan could help bus riders

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By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer

BELL GARDENS — Jennyfer Tamayo takes the 110 bus every day from Bell Gardens to Bell to go to work, but on weekends she leaves her house with a 20 to 30 minute cushion to catch it on time.

Tamayo said the weekend buses run far apart compared to the weekdays, averaging a ride every 30 minutes Saturdays and Sundays, whereas from Monday through Friday passengers are picked up every 15 to 20 minutes.

“Today, the bus takes too much time to run. By now, we should have more units running more often,” Tamayo complained while clutching a cold drink and waiting for the bus below a metal canopy on Gage and King avenues on a sunny afternoon Oct. 8.

Tamayo said that there are several bus stops in Bell Gardens that lack shelter, and the situation became unbearable last month as people sought refuge from the sun by walking into open businesses or hid behind fences with tarps amid scorching temperatures hovering above 100 degrees.

“We also need benches to wait for the buses,” Tamayo said.

Some of those concerns may be eased thanks to a $29.5 million investment plan Supervisor Janice Hahn pitched to improve public transportation in Southeast Los Angeles communities with new bus shelters, lighting and on demand real time information for bus arrivals.

The Southeast L.A. Transit Improvement program is one of four new investment plans the Metropolitan Transportation Authority committed to support with funds from state, federal and local sources, in addition to a package of streamlined works to be proposed in 2023 by the Long Beach Freeway south corridor task force to combat carbon pollution and ease transportation.

“Many of my constituents in Southeast L.A. depend on our buses and they tell me how hard it is to wait for the bus at stops that don’t have shade from the sun or lighting at night,” said Hahn, who represents the Fourth District on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. “They don’t know when the next bus is coming and sometimes they don’t even have a place to sit.”

Along with a handful of local elected representatives whom she rode with in a bus with passengers, Hahn pledged to modernize stops with screens that tell riders actual time arrivals and increase safety measures to experience more pleasant trips.

The public transit program arrives after strong pushback from local environmentalists and advocates who found allies in state and federal transportation agencies that ultimately crushed the original plan to widen the Long Beach Freeway through Southeast communities including South Gate, Bell, Maywood, Cudahy and Commerce.

Last year, the federal Environmental Protection Agency canceled the project on grounds that it would create more pollution instead of reducing it along the 19-mile corridor from Long Beach to East Los Angeles, and cited the area as having the “worst air quality in the United States.”

The federal agency told the MTA to review its protocols and devise creative ways to improve issues linked to air quality, equity, mobility and sustainability.

For its part, the MTA Board of Directors killed any notion of expanding the freeway in May.

Whittier City Councilman Fernando Dutra, who also serves on the MTA Board of Directors, referred to the recent public transportation program as a “step in the right direction” to foster prosperity, better mobility and safer ways to commute for area residents.

“I am excited about these opportunities and appreciate the work led by our residents, locally elected officials and community organizations,” Dutra said.

Approved unanimously on Sept. 22, the SELA transit program also received backing from local leaders like Bell City Councilman Ali Saleh, who described it as a plan to benefit working-class residents who ride public buses daily.

“Our neighbors… and students deserve to have quality bus service,” Saleh said. “They ride these buses regularly and don’t have any other ways to get to places like work or the grocery store. Some of our residents wait hours for buses.”

For passengers like Miriam Ibañez, improving bus service entails offering better starting salaries to entice applicants to sign up, so routes on weekends are more reliable and not clipped.

COVID-19 sequels of high infections among bus drivers and lack of new operators have hampered MTA services, causing delays due to a shortage of drivers.

The MTA received raised starting wages for bus operators to $23 an hour from the $18 and $19 they earned less than a year ago, in response to high inflation and to be more competitive with other organizations seeking similar workforce.

“There’s strong demand for bus drivers to drive any route,” said Ibañez before a bus arrived at the intersection of Pacific Boulevard and Gage Avenue in Huntington Park to take her to a family gathering in Bell. “On weekends there are less buses. They should add, not cut them.”

Exposure to asymptomatic and maskless riders, plus not wearing their own masks in buses that have poor air circulation have made drivers more vulnerable during the pandemic, and potential applicants are wary that new coronavirus variants may hit them.

Hahn did not mention if funds from the Southeast LA Transit Improvement program would be used to hire new bus operators or raise pay for existing drivers.

Improvements related to the plan may be completed by the end of 2023 or extend through 2024, Hahn’s staff said in a press release.

 

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