Wednesday, May 12, 2010

MTA On Empty

Last month I posted on the proposed fare hikes for using public transportation in Los Angeles. MTA, the largest service provider in Southern California, projects an operating budget short-fall of about $181 million, and to stop the hemorrhaging intends to raise fares rather dramatically. David Lazarus, business columnist for the Los Angeles Times, took a look at those proposed hikes and suggests the MTA adjust its approach if it really does want to get out of the red zone.

Public transit systems throughout Southern California are preparing to jack up fares this summer. They could use the extra money — the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority alone is facing a $181-million budget shortfall.

But fare hikes aren't the whole solution to public transit's money woes. It's time that the dozens of city- and county-run systems that make up the region's transit network get together and hash out a plan to expand ridership, rather than repeatedly reaching deeper into the pockets of those who already ride the bus. ...

The problem is that most of these systems are focusing solely on short-term financial gain and all but ignoring long-term promotion of public transportation as a practical alternative to traveling by car.

As a result, their money troubles will almost certainly keep growing, our roads and freeways will become even more clogged, and L.A.'s pitiful status as the nation's smoggiest city won't change.
[Emphasis added]

As I noted in my earlier post, fares don't come close to covering the costs of a transportation system, and Mr. Lazarus agrees, but his point is that increasing the number of fares would be better than increasing the size of them.

Yet even at these levels, fares will account for only about 28% of total revenue needed to operate the system's buses and rail lines — one of the lower such percentages in the country.

By comparison, fares make up more than half of the operating budget for the Bay Area Rapid Transit network in Northern California and about 36% of New York's municipal system. The rest typically comes from state coffers.

Local transit systems apparently believe the answer to their cash crunch is to make existing riders pay more. I say the answer is getting more people to use public transportation.

He then proceeds to suggests ways the MTA could accomplish that. The trick, of course, is to make public transportation more convenient and more attractive than sitting in traffic, particularly during rush hour. For example, the use of transfers between buses, both within the MTA (a practice abolished in the '90s) and between the various agencies in the area (Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus, Culver City's lines, Foothill Transit, e.g.) would be a practical start. Instead, MTA and some of those other agencies want to end the practice entirely.

Coordinating schedules for the more populous routes would also help. Getting an early start doesn't mean much to a commuter who has to wait 20 minutes for the next bus or train because there is no rational connection between the schedules. Increasing the service on those lines would also make for the kind of ride that might tempt people from their cars. There is nothing worse than standing packed like kippers for another 20 minutes, especially if the commuter is carrying anything (briefcase, lunch, even a handbag).

Ridership rose dramatically during the last surge in gasoline prices when driving became too expensive for most people. When those prices fell back below $3 a gallon, however, most of the new riders went back to their cars. Public transportation didn't learn from that lesson. Now, with gas back over $3 a gallon with promises of further rises premised on the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, MTA and its sister agencies need to reconsider their strategy for staying afloat.

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