Secession, Schmesssion

(Op-ed article written for the Daily News but unpublished due to space limitations before the election.)

In the arguments for secession, many of the candidates for mayor and city council have taken the position that the Valley's transit service would be improved under their stewardship. I fear that these candidates' zeal to break the Valley away from L.A. and take office themselves has caused them to speak without researching the facts.

First, the vast majority of the Valley's transit service is not operated by the city of Los Angeles. It is the responsibility of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, best known as MTA. Note that the full name of the agency has the word "county" in it. The MTA has jurisdiction over all transportation -- bus, rail, and private vehicle -- in the region. A new Valley city would not have the power to replace MTA service and any candidates that think they can are deluding themselves.

There is not even a guarantee that a Valley city would have a seat on the MTA board of directors; the composition of that board is controlled by the state Legislature, which created the agency in 1993. Although the enabling legislation does mandate a restructuring of the MTA board if the population of the city of Los Angeles falls below a certain number, it does not dictate how a lost seat on the board would be reassigned and a Valley city might find itself competing with its neighbor cities in the region for a position.

Second, not all city-operated (LADOT) services would be eliminated from within the borders of a Valley city. Most of LADOT's peak-hour commuter express lines operate to and from downtown or other employment centers such as Century City, and as long as those destinations are within the Los Angeles city limits, they are entitled to continue to operate them. (As examples, note that the transit agencies for both Santa Clarita and Antelope Valley operate commuter bus service into the Valley even though they are outside their home territories at this end of their lines.)

The two exceptions would be the LADOT commuter line that runs from Encino and Sherman Oaks to Glendale and Pasadena, and the Simi Valley to Warner Center line, which together carry over 300 passengers a day. Many of these are presumably residents of the affluent areas of the Valley that secessionists claim are their strongest supporters, especially on the line running from the Encino-Sherman Oaks area. I wonder how many of them would support secession if it affected their ride to work?

The only LADOT-operated service -- indeed, the only transit service, period -- that would be at risk if secession passes would be the successful DASH circulator services in Panorama City, Van Nuys, Studio City, Northridge, and Warner Center. The DASH lines carry a total of over 6400 passengers daily, with close to half of those riding the Panorama City-Van Nuys line and almost one-third riding the Van Nuys-Studio City line. Again, I suspect those passengers would not be in favor of the service being endangered by a change in government.

It is possible, of course, that secession proponents would look at the demographics of the areas served by those two high-ridership DASH lines and conclude that those passengers are among the renter population of the Valley. This is probably true: Transit-dependent persons are far more likely to be renters, and this does not concern secessionists because they expect homeowners and business owners to vote in large numbers and push the breakup through. This is an error in their judgment because the renter vote is a high percentage of the Valley and to many in this voting bloc continued transit service is nearly as important as continued rent control laws.

I should also caution against the concept expressed by many Valley city candidates that the privatization of transit service is money saving without negative impact. MTA has contracted out several of its lines, including two in the Valley, since 1996. Since that time, every MTA report on customer satisfaction has had a higher number of complaints per 100,000 boardings on the contracted lines than on the lines operated directly by the agency. Obviously, there is a trade-off that is never admitted by the politicians who make the decisions to privatize: Having outsiders operate service results in lower quality. This is totally at odds with the stated goal of improving the quality of life for Valley residents.

There are many reasons, in my opinion, why secession is not good for the Valley. Throwing transit service into potential turmoil is high on my list of those reasons.

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