Missing the Bus on the Route to Better Transit

Op-ed article, Los Angeles Times, February 6, 2000

Two years after a transit zone was proposed for the San Fernando Valley, nothing has happened to improve service. If anything, the politics surrounding the zone have so delayed the process that those who would potentially benefit -- transit users -- find themselves having to make do while those who could truly improve service are stymied.

I say transit users would "potentially" benefit because it now appears that the stated purpose of the zone may not be achievable. From the beginning, we have been told that a zone could operate Metro Bus service at considerably lower cost and that the savings could be used to increase service. Now comes word from the Los Angeles Department of Transportation -- the primary agency for the proposed zone -- that funding provided for a zone by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority would not be enough for it to operate. MTA's board, at its Jan. 27 meeting, voted to give zone proponents $140,000 to conduct a study to see if MTA can afford to increase the funding. Let me see if I have this right: MTA is paying LADOT to investigate its own finances?

LADOT's James Okazaki has been quoted in The Times as saying the City Council would need to subsidize the zone if the MTA could not increase its funding. This admission, that the zone apparently could do no better than the MTA in using available funds to operate transit service in the Valley, makes me wonder why the city continues to pursue this pipe dream.

Meanwhile, Valley transit users still have not been asked what they would like to have happen. As an MTA volunteer passenger advisor, I have talked to many people who ride Metro Bus, and most of them cannot understand why LADOT wants to replace the MTA. Many fear that removing Metro Bus service in the Valley would make it more difficult to make connections to service in areas where it would remain. Even the Bus Riders Union, often at odds with the agency, has said it would prefer the MTA to a zone; although its main concern has been that court-ordered overcrowding relief would not apply to a zone, the group believes that a unified transit system is better than a balkanized, fragmented patchwork of smaller operators.

As the charade continues, transit service improvements are at a standstill. The San Fernando Valley Transit Restructuring Study, completed in 1994 with feedback from MTA passengers, has been placed in limbo after partial implementation. Although part of the delay can be attributed to the MTA board's patchwork attempt at contracting service, the agency's service planning department has been ordered to halt all route realignments while the zone application is pending (a partial list of stalled improvements, along with an overview of the study, is available on this site at http://www.transit-insider.org/sfvp/index.htm).

LADOT has attempted improvements of its own in the past two years -- if you consider an improvement its experiment with Smart Shuttle, an erratically scheduled service chasing Metro Bus up and down Van Nuys Boulevard and Sherman Way. But it has also delayed its portion of the Transit Restructuring Study implementation. It took the Bus Riders Union's service improvement demands to force the beginning of reverse-direction service on LADOT's successful peak-hour downtown-to-Westlake Village express line. And that had to be funded by the MTA as well!

So, I do not believe that a transit zone is the answer to the Valley's needs. LADOT has shown no indication that it cares about -- or even knows -- what the region's passengers need, and now it is obvious that it is unable to take on the massive task of providing service to this region without spending more money than the MTA does.

The zone application needs to be withdrawn so the MTA can complete the restructuring it has begun. If LADOT stands in the way of the long-planned improvements, the MTA should move on without it, even if that means taking over LADOT-operated lines to make them more responsive to the region's needs. Passengers, not politics, must be the focus.

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