Forget Valley transit zone and improve MTA

Op-ed article, Daily News, October 13, 2000

For close to three years, much discussion has taken place regarding the creation of a transit zone which would assume the responsibility for Valley bus service presently operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

One of the major issues in the creation of such a zone has been whether service could be contracted out, as is the case with Foothill Transit in the San Gabriel Valley. Such contracting could result in the loss of union jobs, and has been an issue in the current labor negotiations between the MTA and its unions.

Now that Gov. Gray Davis has signed legislation protecting union employment if the MTA approves transit zones, local business leaders and politicians say the future of a zone's viability is bleak. They maintain that secession will be the only way to get the MTA out of the Valley, not realizing that in order to take over service presently provided by Metro bus service, it will have to itself apply for a zone.

Proving the viability of such a zone is a difficult task. The feasibility study completed in July for the joint powers authority that has been pursuing a zone identified several trade-offs in order to achieve the required cost savings.

Those trade-offs include a reduction of nearly 57,000 service hours annually. If the point of a transit zone is to improve service, how does operating 150 hours per day less service constitute an improvement?

The feasibility study also called for downsizing maintenance. So what would remain of service after the reduction of hours would be less reliable, since a bus would likely only be pulled out of service after it broke down, delaying and/or stranding passengers. Small wonder the study called for the postponement of service improvements to an unspecified date.

One totally unrealistic assumption is that the MTA would simply turn over all the equipment and facilities at the two Valley Metro bus divisions without compensation. If the zone's proponents truly believe that would happen, I must credit them with having a great sense of humor (or a proclivity toward the wearing of rose-colored glasses).

Of course, all these factors are supposed to prove that a zone can operate service at a significantly lower cost per hour than MTA. In fact, the zone's proposed operating cost per bus service hour is higher than Foothill Transit, LADOT, Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus and Long Beach Transit, all of which have been touted as examples of how the zone would save money.

I expect that the zone proponents will respond that these types of cuts are necessary because of the new union-friendly legislation and that if only they would be allowed to contract out service -- as is the case for Foothill Transit -- they could prove the cost savings.

But those savings come at a price, and that price is reliable service. Foothill's performance review at the beginning of the year showed that 60 percent of their buses ran at least five minutes later than the published schedule, 25 percent were over 10 minutes late, and nearly 15 percent were more than 15 minutes behind schedule.

By comparison, MTA's two Valley divisions' service operated late only slightly more than 20 percent of the time, and MTA's existing contractors operate late 35 percent of the time.

Closer to home, the Antelope Valley Transit Authority's difficulty with its contractor provides further proof of the problems surrounding contracted bus service. Realistically, cutting corners by replacing union professionals with contractors has a tendency to lower the overall service level.

If the issue surrounding zones is improving service, the focus needs to be less about local control.

MTA's current board of directors was unwilling to trade transit zones for avoiding a strike, but it would be far worse to have a new regional board slashing costs by forcing major service and maintenance reductions while telling us they were improving same.

It is time to give up on the impossible dream of a transit zone and begin helping the MTA improve service.

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