Nobody can win the political transit war that has broken out in Los Angeles. Bus riders, who face cuts in service if there is no truce, cannot win. Officials on both sides already have lost one thing--public confidence that they know what they are doing. Least of all is there hope of victory for county taxpayers, who need leadership rather than confusion on transit issues.
On the surface the dispute between the Southern California Rapid Transit District, which runs the county’s largest bus system, and the County Transportation Commission, which collects local sales-tax funds used for public transit, is about money. But it really involves power--specifically, who controls public transportation here. Right now the RTD has the power that comes with doing most of the work. Some members of the commission want that power for themselves.
That is one reason the commission has been withholding $9 million per month from the RTD since June. Because commission funds make up 22% of their operating budget, RTD officials warn that service may be cut starting Jan. 2 if the commission keeps on withholding funds. Commission members say that the funds will flow again when the RTD agrees to operate under the same rules that cover smaller municipal bus lines.
By rules, the commission means mostly the guidelines governing labor contracts. The guidelines were adopted on July 1. RTD officials say that the guidelines do not apply to new contracts with their drivers and other officials covering pay and work rules because the new agreements were signed in June. As we see it, having a group like the commission try to call signals from the sidelines during labor negotiations is bad enough. But that is less important to the case than why the commission is being so ham-handed in dealing with the RTD.
The answer is that commission members, principally Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum and some allies, are witholding the bus money as a lever in a vendetta against the RTD so bitter that some probably would like to see the bus agency collapse. Unable to bring that about, they have to settle for making life as difficult as possible for the bus agency by interfering in its dealings with the unions, encouraging new private competitors in the county and reaching for control of the Metro Rail construction project.
Clearly the RTD and other transit operations can stand a lot of improvement. But the agency is making a good-faith effort to run its bus system--which works quite well for a system of its size--better than it did last year, when it was hit with a spate of accidents and scandals.
In sprawling Los Angeles, keeping mass transit moving smoothly should be the main priority of all transit officials. Next should come the construction of projects like the Metro Rail subway and the light-rail line to Long Beach. These, along with other projects still on the drawing boards, will tie in to the existing bus system to give Los Angeles a modern mass-transit system in the decades ahead. The Transportation Commission should focus its energy and insight on long-range transit planning for Los Angeles, not on grabbing for control over what exists now.