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 if it doesn't want to reduce service.
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 its 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. Ventura County voters rejected a proposed sales tax increase in 1990.
Faced with the option of cutting 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 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 trains are stationed overnight is at the end of the line in Moorpark, and the trains have to go there even if they carried no passengers.
The Ventura County route, the busiest of system's three lines, served 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.
Ventura County officials have vowed to pay their designated share after a new 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 voted to limit its annual contribution to $750,000, adding that the payment plan being considered 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.
"We have to be very, very prudent," Gherardi said. "It's very unlikely we will be able to expand any kind of rail service in the county unless we have a local sales tax or another decided source of funds to pay for it."
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.
Los Angeles County officials said they have little choice but to fill in the financial gap created by Ventura County.
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.
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 the operation of the Ventura County line.
But committee member Marvin Holen said he wonders whether "there is a fairer formula that can be devised." Holen 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.