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BUSWAY STOPPER ACTIVIST WORKS TO HALT MTA PROJECT.

Byline: Lisa Mascaro Staff Writer

The brains behind the San Fernando Valley residents group that has stopped construction of the Orange Line busway is a former Los Angeles transit official who has worked as a highly paid consultant to MTA unions, the Bus Riders Union and even the Los Angeles school district.

The focus of much of the effort of Tom Rubin has been waging a spirited fight against the policies of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the agency that gobbled up his former employer, the Rapid Transit District, more than a decade ago, in an effort to coordinate transportation policies throughout the county.

Working as an unpaid consultant to Citizens Organized for Smart Transit, the Valley group fighting the busway through its members' neighborhoods, the wonkish Rubin has guided an effort that on Monday won a state appellate court order halting - at least temporarily -construction of a $330 million project that is 40 percent complete.

``Tom is the fact man,'' said Diana Lipari, the chairwoman of COST, a private group that refuses to disclose its membership or financial backing, and whose lawsuit halted busway construction this week.

``Tom is the person who knows the actual facts. Tom is an essential part of what we're doing.''

The California Court of Appeal handed COST a victory by ordering the MTA to stop construction on the Orange Line, at least until a hearing next week, although the delay could grow into months.

The work shutdown - costing up to $70,000 a day, according to the MTA - came after the court last month overruled the lower-court judge in the case, saying the MTA's environmental review was inadequate because the agency failed to study a system of Rapid buses as an alternative to the busway.

Supporters of the busway have been outraged that construction is being halted after so much work, especially since community opposition cost the Valley a chance to get a promised east-west subway or light-rail line in the past. Two Valley city councilmen on Wednesday called for a report next week on steps the city could take to help complete the project.

``We're livid about it,'' said Bruce Ackerman of the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley.

``What the Orange Line brings to that swath along the Valley in the way of new jobs, new economic opportunities - not to mention convenience for the residents abutting this project - I am just amazed.

``I cannot believe a handful of people who really don't have the interests of the San Fernando Valley at heart can stop a project like that.''

The residents group COST was formed in spring 2002, shortly after the MTA gave the busway final approval, as an umbrella group of the various opponents that had been fighting the project for more than a year.

Rubin attended that meeting, in the living room of Lipari's home, when about 25 people, many with contributions of about $1,000 each, agreed to start working on the lawsuit.

He and Lipari had crossed paths in the previous months fighting the MTA, and found common cause in their belief that a system of red Rapid buses across the Valley was preferable to the busway.

The group hired land-use attorney John Henning. Rubin continues compiling the nitty-gritty details of bus speeds and route analysis to form the backbone of arguments against the Orange Line.

As a private group not required to disclose its membership or finances, COST says only that its membership is in the thousands and financial support comes not from any formal group but from individuals opposed to the project. It says no money comes from unions.

``I'm hoping the specifics can come out with a real comparison that people will really look at,'' said Lipari, a former opera singer and New Yorker, who has sold real estate in her Valley Glen neighborhood since 1993.

``If MTA comes out with a study that says Rapid bus is better ... and then they still chose the busway ... well, then, the public has to say, Well, what are you doing?''

Rubin, a certified public accountant by training, puts it this way.

``We're of the opinion if a proper study is done, and it shows there are better ways to move people around, the elected officials on the MTA board may take some cognizance of it.''

Rubin worked for the precursor to the MTA, the old Southern California Rapid Transit District, for four years as the CFO, and a year at the MTA after the two merged in 1993, before taking a layoff package in 1994.

He said one of his last projects at the MTA was an analysis of a proposed fare hike - which he strongly criticized - that put him in touch with the Labor/Community Strategy Center, the parent group of the Bus Riders Union, which won a consent decree that has given it a major say in fares, bus purchases and MTA priorities.

That summer, he worked pro bono helping to draft the center's lawsuit that resulted in a consent-decree settlement that capped fares and forced the MTA to start buying more buses. When the court ordered the MTA to pay for monitoring of the consent decree, the center hired Rubin, a job he continues to this day, he said.

He also worked for the MTA's mechanics union in 2003 when it tried unsuccessfully to get legislation in Sacramento to help shore up its ailing health benefits trust fund, which went on to become the center dispute in the monthlong MTA strike last fall.

During the transit strike of 2000, he said he was hired by the bus drivers union.

Currently, Rubin works as the paid consultant for the Los Angeles Unified School District's bond oversight committee, which oversees spending of billions of dollars in school construction money.

Rubin says he's financially able to do choose his crusades, and that his work against the MTA is nothing short of a labor of love.

``I have two main reasons. One, MTA without adult supervision is very dangerous. And two, many of the things I have done, participated in, have led to major improvements that would not have happened.

``I feel I have made a difference, basically in some cases over the strongest possible objections of MTA.''

He said he sees faults in the MTA's other projects, the trains to the Eastside and Santa Monica, but has to pick his battles - though he's already criticized the Santa Monica train proposal, saying it, too, should have considered the Rapid bus alternative.

But Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the MTA board member who has championed the Orange Line through his district, believes the busway will ultimately prevail, an aide said.

``He's confident the busway is the better mode; he's also confident the busway will prevail in court,'' said Yaroslavsky press aide Joel Bellman.

``(Yaroslavsky) is confident that the MTA will prevail in court on the merits of its arguments and that this mode will be thoroughly endorsed by the board as the optimal mode.''

Lisa Mascaro, (818) 713-3761

lisa.mascaro(at)dailynews.com

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(color) Tom Rubin prepares to fight the MTA as it tries to overturn the decision against the proposed Valley busway.

John Lazar/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 5, 2004
Words:1199
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