L.A. County May Pay the Metrolink Bill That Ventura County Refused


Ventura County officials, protesting that the way Metrolink expenses are divided is unfair, have refused to pay almost $1 million of their allocated share, leaving Los Angeles County to pick up the tab rather than reduce service to Ventura County.

A Los Angeles County transportation panel will decide today whether to recommend that the county pay the bill, which would add $943,000 this year and in 1994 to the county's present $3.8-million annual share of expenses for the commuter rail line from downtown Los Angeles to Moorpark.

Under a cost-allocation formula approved by the five-county Southern California Regional Rail Authority, Ventura County owes $1.71 million annually for the first two years of the service.

But Ventura County officials have long objected to the formula, calling it inequitable and saying they would pay no more than $750,000 a year.

Unlike the other counties involved in Metrolink, Ventura County does not collect an extra half-cent sales tax for public transit programs. Voters there rejected a proposed sales tax increase in 1990.

Faced with no other option but to cut Metrolink service to Ventura County, the Finance and Programming Committee of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission will consider a proposal to pay the $943,000 balance that Ventura County has declined to pay.

The entire commission is scheduled to consider the recommendation March 24.

Los Angeles County officials said Ventura County's decision gives them few options besides paying the balance.

Susan Rosales, a technical adviser to the commission, said it would be difficult to cut service to Ventura County because the rail yard where the trains are stationed overnight is at the end of the line in Moorpark, so the trains have to go there anyway.

Also, the Ventura County route is the busiest of the system's three lines, serving 35,622 passengers in February. The San Bernardino line from downtown Los Angeles to Montclair served 32,460 people in the same period, while the line to Santa Clarita served 11,925. Service is to be expanded later to Riverside and Orange counties.

Palos Verdes City Councilwoman Jacki Bacharach, a member of the Finance and Programming Committee, said she is confident that Ventura County will pay its fair share once a new cost formula is adopted. "They are planning to pay up," she said.

Bacharach said it is in the interest of Los Angeles County to pay the additional cost rather than reduce or eliminate service to Ventura County. Besides, she said, the rail yard in Moorpark is essential to operation of the line.

But committee member Marvin Holen said he wonders whether "there is a fairer formula that can be devised." He added that he would not accept as an excuse the fact that Ventura County voters rejected a half-cent sales tax that county officials could use for Metrolink services.

He warned that if Ventura County continues to object to paying its share, it could "in effect threaten the integrity of Metrolink service" by encouraging other counties to withhold payments.

Ventura County officials have vowed to pay their designated share after a new cost-allocation formula is calculated. They hope that the new formula will be more equitable to Ventura County by taking into consideration other factors, such as ridership generated in each county.

The present formula is based on train miles in each county. The 47-mile line runs about 12 miles into Ventura County, stopping in Simi Valley and Moorpark.

Ginger Gherardi, executive director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission, said Ventura County agreed to join the Metrolink system after its planners promised that it would cost Ventura County $500,000 to $750,000 a year.

She said the Ventura County commission agreed to limit its annual contribution to $750,000, "with the understanding that the formula was going to be revised." Gherardi added that the payment plan being considered merely formalizes a verbal agreement reached between officials of the two counties' transportation commissions last summer.

"The formula created a real fluke in Ventura County," she said. "Our commission expressed grave reservations about the formula because it was inequitable to our county."

Spending more on Metrolink would rob Ventura County's other public transportation services, including its bus systems, Gherardi said.

Simi Valley City Councilman Bill Davis, a member of the Ventura County Transportation Commission, said he and other Ventura County officials have pushed to make formal the verbal agreement between the two counties before the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission finishes merging next month with the Southern California Rapid Transit District to form the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Davis estimated that Ventura County is providing about 75% of the paying passengers on Metrolink's Ventura County line.

"If we can still produce the greatest amount of ridership, I think we're doing more than our share to make it really viable" because of the income generated by the fares, said Davis, who also serves on the board of the Southern California Regional Rail Authority.

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