Lately there has been a great deal of talk in the San Fernando Valley about creating a transit agency that would give the Valley some autonomy over its own affairs. An option being studied by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, at the behest of Councilman Richard Alarcon, is a transit zone.
In 1976, the state Legislature passed a bill requiring county transportation commissions--currently the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Los Angeles County--to establish a process wherein communities dissatisfied with their transportation provider could assume the responsibility of providing their own services. This process involves many steps and must receive the approval of the MTA board. Once this is achieved, a new agency is created and the affected bus service is transferred from the old provider. This new transit zone receives all funding from the MTA according to a set formula. The successful Foothill Transit in the San Gabriel Valley is an example of such a zone.
For the Valley, there would be two major benefits to having a transit zone. First, Valley representatives would have full discretion in operating and improving the Valley's transit system and, second, there would be additional funds available to them, generated from cost reductions. One requirement that a transit zone must satisfy is the ability to save at least 25% over the operations of the former provider. This is accomplished through competitive bidding. Foothill Transit has been able to reduce costs by more than 40% and use these savings to increase service, improve customer satisfaction and maintain low fares.
The application process for transit zones is spelled out in the zone guidelines created by the old Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, now part of the MTA. These guidelines specify that a government entity must file the application with the MTA but allow for a local board of citizens to be involved too. This board could serve as the zone applicant, by coordinating all government and transit interests through the application process. At the very least, this board of Valley citizens would allow for community interaction, guaranteeing that no one government entity or official controlled the process.
Whoever coordinates the application process--and I hope it is a citizens board--will have to consider many issues, including the makeup of the transit zone's governing board. This board will choose the path to success or failure for the transit zone.
The MTA board of directors is a perfect example of how not to govern a transportation agency. The partisan political agendas of many directors prevent effective governance. They are far too busy representing their own districts to even attempt to direct a large agency. Therefore it is imperative that elected officials have no control over the operation of a new agency.
It may prove difficult to get a governing board of only private citizens approved by the MTA, so a two-tiered governing board, similar to that of Foothill Transit, could serve as a good compromise.
This board would give residents directorial control and elected officials general oversight. The first tier or executive board, which should be comprised of no more than 10 Valley residents who are not elected officials or their staff, would meet at least monthly to set policy, approve contracts, compile the budget and propose new service. They would be appointed by the mayors of the zone's member cities, with approval by their city council. The second tier, comprised of elected officials representing areas within the zone, would meet once a year to approve annual operating and capital budgets. This two-tier board would give elected officials important oversight yet keep daily management out of their reach.
Another important consideration would be the zone's administrative structure or entity, for which there are two possibilities: a joint powers agreement, (JPA) or a local public transit authority. A JPA is basically a contract between cities that agree to form a public agency together. Foothill Transit, again, is an example. There each member city has one representative and one vote on the governing board. The San Fernando Valley is different, however, because Los Angeles dominates the area and would thus deserve more board representatives.
The other possible administrative entity, as specified in zone guidelines, is a public transit authority. This kind of agency doesn't require a city to become a contractual member; it merely gives a city that wants to join the opportunity to appoint representatives to the board. A public transit authority would be immune to city politics and petty intrusions.
If the transit zone is approved, the Valley would own the 18th-largest bus agency in the nation. Operating more than 350 buses a day to move more than 55 million riders annually, it would rank ahead of cities such as Dallas, Detroit, New Orleans, Denver, St. Louis and San Francisco. With the savings generated by this new agency, the Valley could reduce fares, increase service and / or build alternative means of mass transit. Most important, whatever was done would be the Valley's choice to make.
In addition to a transit zone, there is another option for Valley autonomy that is being promoted by state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles). His proposed legislation would create an agency similar in name only to the public transit authority I have described. Hayden's proposal is for total secession of Valley transportation from the MTA. This proposed agency would receive funding directly from federal, state and local tax sources, but its financial responsibilities would be the same as the MTA's.
Although Hayden's proposal may be best for the Valley in the long run, the undertaking is huge. On the other hand a transit zone provides an easy start because the MTA would help with funding during the first three years of existence. Once the Valley's bus operations were running smoothly, taking responsibilities from the MTA could then be considered.