Metropolitan Transportation Authority mechanics walked off the job after midnight, and union officials said bus drivers, train operators and other workers would honor picket lines, halting some 1,900 buses, as well as light-rail and subway lines.
"Without mechanics to service the buses and the likelihood that bus and rail operators will not cross picket lines, that effectively shuts down our 185 bus lines and our 4 rail lines," MTA spokesman Ed Scannell told CBS Radio News.
"The strike will continue indefinitely, until we get a contract," Neil Silver, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, said early Tuesday by telephone. He was speaking from a picket line where he had joined about 50 members of the union, which represents some 2,200 MTA employees.
More than a dozen maintenance workers waived picket signs after midnight at an MTA center in West Hollywood where buses are cleaned and refueled. "We just dropped everything," said David Wilson, 26, of Los Angeles.
It was the area's second transit strike in three years; a walkout by bus drivers in 2000 shut down the system for 32 days.
"We estimate about a half million people will be impacted by the shutdown of service," said Scannell. "Many of those are people who do not have the option of an automobile."
Fernando Reyes, who depends on the bus to go from his Glendale home to his restaurant job in Santa Monica, said he had to take taxis to keep his job during the 2000 strike. The 32-year-old barely broke even, forking over his $35 in tips to taxis each night — something he wasn't willing to do this time around.
"I don't know what I'll do," Reyes said. "I guess I'll have to bike to work. I'll have to leave early in the morning."
Waiting for a bus on Santa Monica Blvd. just before midnight, 18-year-old Allia McCoy said she had walked nearly 10 blocks after her shift ended at a Beverly Hills retail store to catch one of the last buses heading out of the area. She said she still had to find a way to L.A. City College.
"I have no idea what I'm going to do," she said, shaking her head.
The approximately 500,000 riders a day that MTA carries accounts for between 75 percent and 80 percent of those in the county who use public transportation, MTA spokesman Marc Littman said.
Up to 9,000 union workers could honor the strike, Littman said. Sixteen other municipal bus lines in the region were expected to operate as usual, he said. Metrolink commuter trains also were to operate normally.
The decision to proceed with a walkout was made Sunday, after negotiations between the union and the MTA broke off with "absolutely no progress" despite intervention from a state mediator, Silver said.
"This is a great tragedy for the people of the county of Los Angeles, the people who depend on public transportation to get to work, to get to school," Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said Monday.
The parties are at odds over the mechanics union's health fund, which is in dire financial shape. The union wants greater contributions from the MTA to cope with soaring medical costs. The MTA pays nearly $17 million every year into the fund, which is administered by the union and pays for the medical coverage of 2,000 employees and retirees.
The MTA hasn't increased its contribution to the fund in more than a decade and rising medical costs have forced the union to spend fund reserves to keep up, Silver said. "They were waiting for us to run bone dry," he said.
The transit agency accuses the union of mismanaging the health trust fund and cites an independent audit that found the union wasted millions of dollars.
In its latest offer, the MTA said it would give the union money to keep the health trust fund from going bankrupt but asked for temporary control to restore it to financial health.
"Union leaders basically ran the trust fund into the ground and now they want the taxpayers to bail them out," MTA CEO Roger Snoble said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the Bus Riders Union wrote to the MTA's board and asked them to settle the dispute. The activist group, which spearheaded a civil rights lawsuit charging the MTA with neglecting the bus system, also said its members would join picketing transit workers.
"Three years ago, our members suffered greatly during the MTA-provoked strike," the group's letter said. "We cannot allow this suffering to take place again and we ask you in good faith to re-examine your management theory of class hostility to your own employees."