Amazingly, the city community building meeting room was filled with anti-spending cut protestors at the inconvenient hour of 6 p.m. Wednesday, and the stars of the evening were the students from Lincoln High School.
The meeting was held at Ramona Hall Community Center on North Figueroa Street by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation to hear what the public thinks of the $23 million in cuts officials are proposing for this year as a result of the big city budget deficit.
I’m glad I went because I got a ground view of the budget process that is missing from most news accounts. My wife Nancy and I were there as a show of support for our daughter Robin Smith, who coordinates the city-financed charter bus program for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy that takes students and seniors to all the mountain parks. The $4.5 million program would be wiped out by the proposed cuts, and the conservancy hoped that the sight of supporters in the audience would help convince the department, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council to keep the buses rolling.
The Department of Transportation, while hardly as well known as the police and fire departments, reaches deep into the lives of Los Angeles residents, handing out parking tickets, creating bikeways, operating the traffic signal system and running a transit system including the short range DASH buses, the long range commuter buses, subsidies for senior transportation and the charter bus program.
Community advocates in the neighborhood spoke up for the charter buses to the Santa Monica Mountain parks. Advocates said parks are far out of the range of public transit, and the city charter program provides the only access for people, many of them poor, without motor vehicles. It’s especially important to urban students in a city famously short of parks. The trips offer a chance to study nature and hike through the mountains. Life, they learn, is not all busy streets, cracked sidewalks, crowded living quarters and noise.
Miguel Luna of the advocacy organization Urban Semillas, said, “the charter bus program, which we benefit from, makes it possible for our families to make a connection with nature.” Luis Garcia of the City Projects civil rights organization, criticized the Transportation Department for not doing an analysis of how cancelling the charter program would impact Latino, Asian and African American communities, all of which are served by the buses. Federal law requires agencies such as the Transportation Department to make such analysis when they receive federal funds, as does the Los Angeles department.
I was struck by the importance of DASH in improving life in the north Figueroa area, which reaches roughly from Lincoln High School on the north to Chinatown on the south. The big County/USC hospital is on the edge, reachable by DASH buses. The area is a neighborhood that, like Los Angeles, is too spread out for walking to destinations. It is transit dependent. As one resident told the Department of Transportation officials conducting the hearing, “many of us don’t drive and DASH takes us everywhere.”
Or as one of the Lincoln High School students told them, “I don’t know if you feel good when you see an 82-year-old grandmother walking up a steep hill carrying groceries.” Several Lincoln students spoke. They were well prepared, made strong arguments for the DASH line and were backed up by cheers and applause from their fellow students.
This was the last of several department hearings on the budget. Similar sessions are being held elsewhere in city government. From the meetings will come the recommendations to the mayor and the council who have the final say on the cuts.