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Consultants Give High Marks to Transit Plan

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A separate agency to manage the MTA’s San Fernando Valley bus lines could reduce base fares by 35 cents, run buses more often and still operate 25% more cheaply than the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, according to a preliminary report by consultants to the city.

But in order to save that much, the agency would need to break away from the MTA’s current labor contract and turn over administration and operation of the bus service to private companies, the report by Solana Beach-based Transportation Management & Design found.

By using competitive contracting and slashing overhead, the consultants found, a Valley agency could add up to 40% more service or reduce the base fare from $1.35 to $1, or both, the consultants said.

“I think it’s very encouraging,” said City Councilman Richard Alarcon, the concept’s chief proponent on the council. “At a minimum, we know it can be done.”

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While cutting the base fare would mean a loss of up to $8 million in revenue, the consultants estimate, the agency could compensate as lower prices attract more riders.

The information is to be presented next week to an appointed advisory panel reviewing the concept of a Valley agency. The panel is expected to make recommendations to the City Council, which ultimately may file an application to establish such an entity.

Consultants for the MTA are pursuing a similar analysis of the financial and legal impact of such an agency, also known as a “transit zone.” When the MTA transferred a handful of San Gabriel Valley lines to a semiautonomous agency in the 1980s, it touched off a legal war with the MTA’s transit unions.

Even if a Valley agency was forced to abide by the MTA’s current contract, it could still trim overhead costs and run 21% cheaper, according to the consultants.

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MTA’s overhead rate, the percentage of its costs that come from administrative expenses, is more than 50%--significantly higher than publicly run bus systems in Long Beach and Santa Monica, and the privately managed Foothill Transit agency, which has 22% overhead, the consultants found.

“I think we found the technical support to show potential savings by establishing a zone,” said James Okazaki, chief of transit programs for city’s Department of Transportation. “Even if the MTA union contract is transferred to the zone, the potential to reduce existing . . . costs is there.”

Planners have yet to work out whether the zone would include only bus lines within the city or those in Burbank, Glendale and the rest of the Valley. But the consultants found the agency could stake a claim to 29 routes now run by the MTA.

If the MTA declines to create such an agency, proponents hope to appeal to the state Legislature. A bill to establish a Valley bus agency faces its first major test Monday in Sacramento at a hearing of the Assembly’s Transportation Committee.

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While the consultants’ report provided ammunition to Alarcon, it raised the specter of another conflict with the unions. A spokesman for United Transportation Union, which represents drivers, said it will fight any effort by the MTA to transfer lines to another entity without also requiring it to comply with the current contract.

Alarcon acknowledged the potential for another battle with the unions, but said, “The greater issue is service.”


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