Metro: Make riders, not rail, the pri­or­ity

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - James E. Moore II is a pro­fes­sor in USC’s Viterbi School of En­gi­neer­ing and Price School of Pub­lic Pol­icy and direc­tor of USC’s Trans­porta­tion En­gi­neer­ing Pro­gram. Thomas A. Ru­bin isa con­sul­tant based in Oakland; he was the chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer of the

The Los Angeles County Met­ro­pol­i­tan Trans­porta­tion Author­ity’s rid­er­ship has been fall­ing steadily since 2014, los­ing on av­er­age 69,000 daily riders each month. The most re­cent 12 months of data show a de­crease of more than 10% com­pared with the same pe­riod three years ago, and Metro’s cur­rent “an­nual board­ings” — just un­der 400 mil­lion — rep­re­sent a drop of al­most 20% from the sys­tem’s 1985 peak, even though the county’s pop­u­la­tion has in­creased by nearly a fifth since then.

It wouldn’t be dif­fi­cult to turn these fig­ures around, as Metro’s his­tory shows: The trans­porta­tion author­ity should stop fo­cus­ing pri­mar­ily on build­ing new rail and use a fair share of its voter-sup­plied wealth to lower fares and im­prove the bus sys­tem.

The agency’s own data make both the prob­lem and the so­lu­tion clear.

Be­tween 1982 and 1985, Metro rid­er­ship in L.A. ex­ploded by 40%, jump­ing from 354.1 mil­lion to 497.2 mil­lion an­nual board­ings. The rea­son was sim­ple: The in­crease fol­lowed bus fare re­duc­tions, from 85 cents a ride to 50 cents. A mi­nor share (20%) of funds gen­er­ated by Propo­si­tion A in 1980 (the first of four bal­lot mea­sures in­creas­ing sales taxes to sup­port trans­porta­tion) was used to sub­si­dize the cost. Then as now, Metro riders tended to be low-in­come, some very low-in­come. Re­duc­ing their travel costs al­lowed them to travel more.

But in 1986, Metro ended the fare sub­sidy and shifted the funds to build­ing rail lines, be­gin­ning with the Long Beach Blue Line, which opened in 1990. To­tal tran­sit rid­er­ship pro­ceeded to fall un­til the NAACP, the Bus Riders’ Union and oth­ers took Metro to fed­eral court to pro­tect bus ser­vice in 1994. Their ar­gu­ment was that the ex­pan­sion of rail was com­ing at the ex­pense of bus routes, bus fre­quency and bus riders, and it was dis­pro­por­tion­ately harm­ing mi­nori­ties, the el­derly and the young. Metro set­tled, and the deal was en­shrined in a 10-year con­sent de­cree start­ing in 1996.

The set­tle­ment al­lowed Metro to build all the rail it could af­ford, so long as spe­cific bus ser­vice im­prove­ments were made too. Those im­prove­ments in­cluded re­duc­ing fares, in­creas­ing ser­vice on ex­ist­ing lines, es­tab­lish­ing new lines, re­plac­ing old buses and keep­ing the f leet clean. Lo and be­hold, while the de­cree was in force L.A.’s tran­sit rid­er­ship rose by 36%. When Metro was no longer bound by the set­tle­ment, it re­fo­cused its ef­forts al­most ex­clu­sively on new rail projects. The qual­ity of bus ser­vice be­gan de­clin­ing in al­most ev­ery way mea­sur­able, and over­all rid­er­ship again fell.

With the funds gen­er­ated by the Mea­sure R sales tax in­creases, voted on in 2008, and last year’s Mea­sure M in­creases — which will pro­vide $121 bil­lion over the next 40 years — Metro has more than enough money to rein­vig­o­rate bus ser­vice. At a min­i­mum, it should re­turn to the pro­gram un­der the con­sent de­cree: build­ing all the new rail it wants, as long as bus ser­vice is im­proved as well.

Our de­tailed anal­y­sis of Metro’s 2015 bud­get iden­ti­fied $573 mil­lion avail­able for bus op­er­a­tions and im­prove­ments that was spent in­stead en­tirely on rail con­struc­tion and debt ser­vice on funds bor­rowed to ac­cel­er­ate that con­struc­tion. If just half of this $573 mil­lion from Metro’s much larger to­tal bud­get was redi­rected to im­prove the bus sys­tem, rail con­struc­tion would slow but Metro would likely see growth in to­tal rid­er­ship. (It is im­pos­si­ble to do the same anal­y­sis on Metro’s 2016 bud­get: Its doc­u­men­ta­tion has be­come less trans­par­ent.)

Metro’s rail-cen­tric ap­proach to tran­sit per­sists, it ap­pears, pri­mar­ily be­cause of the makeup of its board of di­rec­tors. Ap­pointed by the mayor, the board mem­bers are mostly elected of­fi­cials. No board mem­ber specif­i­cally rep­re­sents tran­sit riders. It’s not sur­pris­ing then that the board’s con­cerns seem to be less about the wel­fare of most Metro users and more about fund­ing cap­i­tal-in­ten­sive rail projects that serve par­tic­u­lar con­stituents.

The Metro sys­tem now has 93 rail stops, with 18 un­der con­struc­tion. It has 18,500 bus stops. Bus ser­vice will al­ways pre­dom­i­nate in L.A. If we ex­pand and im­prove it, and re­duce fares, tran­sit rid­er­ship will in­crease again, quickly, bet­ter serv­ing the low-in­come riders Metro has been mostly ig­nor­ing. Los Angeles needs a tran­sit sys­tem that fo­cuses on proven strate­gies that work not just for a few An­ge­lenos, but for all of us.

Los Angeles Times

TO STOP the steep de­cline in rid­er­ship, Metro should spend a fair share of its bal­lot-mea­sure money on bet­ter bus ser­vice.

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