Mayor Tom Bradley said Monday that a new round of proposed RTD fare increases and service cutbacks can be avoided if the transit agency will let the city take over 12 commuter routes and contract them out to private bus firms.
RTD officials gave the proposal, which was contained in a letter from the mayor to the agency, a cool reception and sought to deflect anticipated criticism from bus riders by saying that cities and the county are stockpiling transit funds that could be used to maintain existing routes and fares.
The exchange highlighted a strain between the Southern California Rapid Transit District and other local agencies over how best to address the district’s funding problems. It also was a clear signal that the controversial concept of turning part of the system over to private transit operators will be a major part of the service reduction debate in the coming weeks.
May Lose Federal Aid
Currently, the RTD, faced with a possible federal aid loss of $5 million to $7 million, is considering cutting back or eliminating service on 51 routes carrying 5 million boarders a year. In lieu of the cutbacks, the agency also is weighing an increase of up to 10 cents in the basic 85-cent fare.
But the city of Los Angeles, in a plan to be discussed today by the City Council Transportation and Traffic Committee, is proposing to take over a dozen freeway express routes into downtown. The routes would include several from the San Fernando Valley, as well as lines from the South Bay, Westside and Harbor areas.
City officials claim that private firms could run the lines cheaper and the RTD could save several million dollars that could be used to maintain other services.
“We have inserted a new option” into the discussion, said Craig Lawson, Bradley’s transportation liaison. “We are trying to make a constructive proposal to avoid another fare increase for our citizens.”
An aide to Council President Pat Russell, who heads the council transportation committee, said, “We’re looking for long-term solutions, not a Band-Aid approach. Everytime the RTD is faced with a shortfall, they either cut service or increase fares.”
RTD officials, who have been cool to the idea of contracting out express bus routes, said they had not evaluated the Bradley proposal. But Nikolas Patsaouras, president of the RTD Board of Directors, said express lines generally produce more revenue for the system. “We have to be careful we don’t kill the regional system by giving up the good lines,” he said.
RTD also has a provision in its contract with drivers that requires the agency to pay union wages to any drivers hired by private firms under contract. The city would not be bound by that provision if it were to take over the commuter lines.
Patsaouras Calls on Cities
At a press conference called in part to put pressure on cities to help make up the anticipated shortfall in RTD funds, Patsaouras called on cities to use money they get from the voter-approved half-cent transit sales tax. A quarter of the money collected from that tax goes to Los Angeles County cities and the county itself.
Patsaouras contends that cities have banked $150 million in uncommitted transit funds from the tax. “Many localities are banking their (transit) dollars while the regional public transit system is fraying at the edges,” Patsaouras said.
Rich Richmond, executive director of the county Transportation Commission, which tracks how the transit tax dollars are used, said the RTD is substantially overestimating how much money is available. Officially, he said, there is only $56.7 million in uncommitted local transit funds, though the figure may be somewhat higher because of surpluses in some cities’ accounts.
Jacki Bacharach, chairman of the commission and a Rancho Palos Verdes City Council member, noted that cities have been reluctant to turn over more of their transit funds to the RTD because they are not convinced the agency is operating as efficiently as possible. “I’m not necessarily sure it’s as lean as it needs to be,” she said. RTD officials say that they already have cut their budget as far as possible.
And she added that if the RTD is serious about getting help from the cities, the district should work quietly toward that end. “Holding a press conference is not designed to create a dialogue,” she said.
RTD officials, who will hold a public hearing at 10 a.m. Saturday at 425 S. Main St. on the proposed cutbacks, said they are developing a formula that would propose to allocate a share of the shortfall to various cities and the county.