On most mornings at 7:10, Miesha Parks steps onto a Green Line light-rail train, the start of an hourlong journey from Redondo Beach to work in downtown Los Angeles. Parks rides the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s buses and trains using a monthly pass that costs $42. What she expects from the MTA is safety, cleanliness and promptness.
“It’s simple,” says the 29-year-old office assistant. “I want efficient service.”
What the MTA wants from riders like Parks is more money. Attempting to get riders to pay a bigger portion of the expense of running buses and trains, the agency is poised to raise fares for the first time in eight years.
The MTA board plans to vote today on a proposal to raise the base monthly pass from $42 to $52, increase the cost of tokens from 90 cents to $1.10 and replace 25-cent transfers with a $3 daily pass providing unlimited trips. The cash fare would drop to $1.25 from $1.35 under the proposal, which would take effect in January. Fares for senior, student and disabled riders would not change.
The plan has angered some transit advocates. Instead of raising fares, the critics say, the MTA should slash rail operations and stop plans for building busways and railways that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
“We pay enough as it is,” said Cynthia Rojas, a spokeswoman for the Bus Riders Union. “We can’t afford it.... What is $10 for a woman making minimum wage trying to support a family? ... It is the difference between bread and butter and the difference between rent and your kids’ clothes.”
The MTA says it must start bringing in more money from fares to stop its budget from hemorrhaging. The agency has been hit hard by state and federal budget deficits, the recession and the cost of putting more buses in service because of a federal consent decree.
The restructured fares would bring in an additional $40 million a year, the MTA estimates. That money would help pay to operate the existing fleet of about 2,400 buses and about 200 subway and light-rail cars. This summer, the agency will add 14 miles of rail service when the Gold Line, connecting Pasadena and downtown Los Angeles, opens.
Passengers such as Parks foot less of the bill for operations of buses and trains than riders in other large transit systems in the U.S.
MTA customers pay for about 29% of the agency’s operations, with government subsidies and money from a countywide sales tax making up the difference, according to a national database kept by the Federal Transit Administration.
Philadelphians’ fares pay 40% of operating expenses; the figure is 43% in Washington, 54% in New York. If the MTA rate increase is approved, the riders’ share here would be about 33%, the agency projects.
Forty years ago, the question of rider fares and subsidies would have been cast in an entirely different light, transit experts say.
Throughout much of the 1900s, Los Angeles’ massive public transportation system was run by private companies. Buses and the sprawling network of street trolleys were free-market commodities, and rides were subject to market forces. Transit owners used fares to cover not only the cost of the trip, but to provide a profit.
By the mid-1960s, private transportation companies had mostly given up on providing transit service. In 1964, Congress passed the Urban Mass Transportation Act, paving the way for cities across the nation to take over rail and bus service.
Transit experts such as Boston-based Jonathan Richmond say that by the 1970s and ‘80s, an implicit social contract had developed between riders and the public bureaucracy. Since mass transit was thought of as an efficient way to move people through a crowded metropolis, and because most riders were poor, trips were heavily subsidized.
But at a time of widespread budget cuts and a struggling economy, large transit agencies across the country have begun increasing fares and rolling back subsidies. New York, Boston, Dallas and Washington have recently raised, or proposed raising, fares by up to 30%.
The old implicit social contract “is fast evolving,” said Randall Crane, associate director of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies. “As other sources of funds diminish and costs continue to climb, the transit agencies are certainly looking more and more at fares.”
Crane said that although the MTA will certainly be able to raise overall revenue from the fare changes, it runs the risk of losing ridership. Indeed, for several years in the mid-1980s when the MTA pumped huge subsidies into its bus system and kept fares at 50 cents, ridership stood at about 1.8 million boardings per weekday, about 300,000 more than the combined rail and bus figure now.
As for riders, they care little about how much of the transit system’s operations they are paying for.
“You can be sure nobody on this bus knows anything about that stuff,” said Cecilia Mercado, a cashier who uses a monthly pass for her daily trip from her home in Hollywood to work near Glendale. “The only thing people want is to get around without any hassle. They want buses that are on time, buses that don’t cost too much.”