The debate surrounding a possible Valley transit zone is overlooking the very people it is supposed to help . . . transit users.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has had in place two passenger advisory committees, comprising bus riders in the San Fernando Valley, since last summer. I serve on the one based at the MTA's Chatsworth division, and we meet monthly with the management there to provide feedback about where the system needs improvement and how well previously implemented improvements are working. Yet, with the exception of the Valley Economic Development Center, which formed its own committee to explore the feasibility of a transit zone, no one has sought to include the voices of these users.
Why did the city of Los Angeles' zone advisory committee not include anyone who has any knowledge of transit from the passenger perspective? The MTA has appreciated the input from users, but even when members of the public have spoken at the committee public meetings, their contributions have been largely ignored.
Also largely ignored in this process has been the San Fernando Valley Transit Restructuring Plan, developed over four years in the early 1990s with extensive public input and implemented in phases during the past three years. As a result of my involvement in creation of the restructuring plan, I have been able to continue providing input directly to MTA's Operations Planning Department, which has given me access to the timetables for the remaining phases of the plan's implementation.
When the Universal City and North Hollywood Red Line stations are operational in 2000, there will be an immediate improvement in Metro bus service levels within the Valley, because the Red Line will save many hours of running time for bus service between the Valley and downtown. Those economies can--and will--be used to lower the waiting time between buses on the busiest arterial lines. MTA will thus be able to significantly improve service at little or no increase in operating cost.
That last statement is significant because it represents the major roadblock to creation of a transit zone in the Valley. One of the requirements for a zone application is proving that the existing transit agency (in this case, MTA) is unwilling to improve service in a cost-effective manner. The ongoing implementation of the Valley restructuring plan proves otherwise. Further, attempts to create a zone before that process is complete render many hours of planning--and the input provided by the public for that planning--worthless.
There are other factors, directly at odds with the goal of a transit zone, that also appear to have been overlooked. MTA has been increasing the number of buses in its fleet to meet terms of a consent decree between the agency and the Bus Riders' Union, and the riders' group has insisted that those be new buses. The problem is that there is a delay of a year to 18 months between the time an order is placed with a transit coach manufacturer and the time the vehicles begin arriving in Los Angeles. A Valley transit zone would be subject to the same delay, yet no one has adequately addressed the question of where the buses for a zone would come from. Some have assumed that buses could be leased from the MTA until new equipment could be acquired. The reality, however, is that MTA would only lease its oldest buses because the investment in its new equipment would have to be reserved for its own operations. Thus new natural-gas powered buses that have been added to Valley service in recent years would be replaced by 15- to 18-year-old diesel powered buses under the zone, which is not likely to be considered an "improvement" by transit users. . . . (Although I'm only guessing because, of course, no one has thought it necessary to survey those users to see if that would be an acceptable trade-off.)
Finally, there is the question of coordination of service and transfers with the other transit operators where adjacent or overlapping service occurs. There is already a fare disparity between MTA and the other operators that Valley lines meet (such as LADOT and Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus). Adding another operator, with another fare structure, would further hinder efforts to create a unified fare structure countywide.
Decisions about the future of Valley transit will affect thousands of people who depend on it, so those decisions should not be made hastily or in a vacuum. The only sensible course of action is to delay consideration of a zone for a few years, give the MTA a chance to finish the improvement plan it has started, and use that delay to find out from the Valley's transit users what they really want and if a post-restructuring MTA gives it to them.