As he boards the bus at the corner of Vermont and Ninth Street here, construction worker Joe Almont utters in lowered voice what has become almost a daily mantra:
"Standing room only. Why am I not surprised?" says the Los Angeles commuter.
But now Mr. Almont and thousands of bus riders may have something to crow aloud about. A federal court has found that the nation's second-largest transit authority has failed to live up to an agreement to replace its aging bus fleet and expand routes to provide adequate service.
The finding gives moral and legal encouragement to similar movements in other cities, which allege racial discrimination in transit planning and funding.
"Here we have one of the highest courts in the land validating the cause of action by thousands of minority bus users," says Erica Teasley, a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. People in other cities now "know that they have a strong case beyond local and state law."
The ruling this month, by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, gives federal backing to a 1996 state ruling. That decision held the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to its statutory obligation to patrons "without regard to race, color, or national origin."
The facts of the case made it something of a civil rights cause célèbre nationwide: Some 90 percent of agency funding was going to trains carrying only 10 percent of commuters to wealthier suburbs.
Seeking to prevent further courtroom wrangling, the transit agency agreed in a federal consent decree to improve its service.
The victory by the city's bus riders - 81 percent of whom are minorities - became a model for activists in cities such as Atlanta, Seattle, and Pittsburgh.
"These other cases are looking for ways to similarly ... accommodate those minorities who use public transportation most," says Ted Robertson, organizer for the 40,000-member Bus Riders Union in Los Angeles. "They have been asking, 'Do we really want to go through years of fighting, only to have this tossed out of federal court?' That is why this ruling is so crucial."
In its recent decision, the federal court determined that the MTA has failed to live up to the terms of the consent decree.
For its part, the MTA says it has largely complied with the original consent decree to purchase new buses.
"The MTA has greatly improved bus service and continues to do so," says MTA CEO Julian Burke. He says the MTA hopes to take its case back to the Ninth Circuit, explaining that since March, 1999, the MTA has taken a delivery of more than 1,000 new buses. Should the agency be rebuffed by the Ninth Circuit, its only recourse is the US Supreme Court.
Transit officials say the ruling has significant implications for Miami, Atlanta, Detroit, St. Louis, San Diego, Sacramento, and Portland, Ore. All have built train systems at the expense of bus routes, but ridership numbers often have not met expectations.
In Atlanta, city dwellers have long complained about lack of bus shelters and sufficient routes, even as rail service is expanding to affluent communities north of the city. Activists there, as well as in Seattle and Pittsburgh, have filed administrative complaints with the Federal Transit Administration.
But even as activists across the country take heart from the Ninth Circuit decision, other signs point to a tougher road ahead for cases based on civil rights arguments.
The Los Angeles decision came just weeks after the US Supreme Court voted 5-to-4 to weaken a tool that civil rights activists used in at least a dozen similar cases: Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
On April 25, the court divided 5-to-4 on a key antidiscrimination law that prohibits any agency or program that receives federal funding from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.
"The ... court has torn the heart out off Title VI," says Eric Mann, director of the Labor Community Strategy Center, a multiracial issues center based in Los Angeles. But experts don't foresee the high court hearing the MTA case, because the agency had voluntarily signed the original consent decree in 1996 to buy more buses.
Support for the MTA appears to be shrinking, evidenced in statements by key politicians from new Mayor James Hahn (D) to US Rep. Xavier Becerra (D). And the Los Angeles Times, the state's largest newspaper, opined in a Sunday editorial: "The agency is squandering money on appeals that could be used to buy buses."
Analysts say that in many US cities, from Detroit and Washington to smaller ones like Mobile, Ala., policies that favor middle-income, suburban commuters have spurred flight of residents to the suburbs.
But many, like L.A. are loath to sink more money into inner-city bus routes.
Indeed, due to funding pressures in recent years, federal legislators have forced the MTA to design a recovery plan.
Buying more buses and expanding routes could cost close to $1 billion over five years, say analysts, cutting into other MTA plans.
The MTA also has extensive plans to expand carpool lanes, extend light-rail lines, and make other highway improvements, all of which could be curtailed to comply with the ruling.