Which way for the MTA?

IT’S ALL OVER but the lawsuits in the public-transit fare conflict, and the good news is, L.A. County decision-makers did the right thing. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority board approved a moderate fare hike last month that will reduce the agency’s structural budget deficit without gouging the low-income riders who rely on the system. Just one problem remains: There still won’t be enough money to build the kind of transit network L.A. needs.

Public-transit funding decisions in Los Angeles are often framed in terms of class warfare. Since the mid-1990s, when bus riders organized to fight overcrowding and oppose higher fares, activists have claimed that low-income, often minority bus riders are subsidizing the construction of rail lines meant to benefit wealthier, whiter commuters. Advocates such as the Bus Riders Union take this argument to extremes, accusing MTA planners of “transit racism” because they dare try to improve the county’s dysfunctional rail system. This approach isn’t just needlessly divisive, it misses the point.

It’s true that rail lines tend to serve commuters while buses tend to serve transit-dependent people. It’s equally true that thousands of low-income minorities ride the rails every day, while thousands of commuters take the bus. But which population should the MTA be serving? Does public transit exist to get people who don’t own cars from point A to point B, or to get commuters out of their cars so they aren’t clogging the freeways and polluting the air? Actually, an effective transit system must do both.

L.A. County’s doesn’t do either very well. The MTA’s 73-mile rail system bypasses the densest, highest-traffic corridors in L.A., completely failing to connect the Westside with downtown and thus missing the best opportunity to reduce freeway congestion. Other big American cities have rail lines running from their international airports to transit hubs, yet despite the fact that Los Angeles International Airport has more people traveling to and from it every year than any other airport in the world, it has no such connection. There are cities in underdeveloped nations with better rail networks than L.A. (Mexico City comes to mind.) Meanwhile, despite a federal consent decree that forced the MTA to spend $1.3 billion improving bus service over the last decade, local buses remain overcrowded. The MTA plans to add eight Metro Rapid bus lines but could still use more, as well as more dedicated busways like the successful Orange Line in the San Fernando Valley.


Of course, there isn’t enough money to adequately expand or maintain either system. The fare hike will help, but it won’t eliminate the MTA’s budget gap. Planners estimate that the higher fares, which go into effect July 1, will generate an additional $30 million next year, yet the agency is facing a $104-million deficit. MTA chief Roger Snoble says that even after the fare hike, worthwhile rail and busway projects could be endangered or delayed, including a proposed rail line from LAX to Union Station, an extension of the Red Line subway down Wilshire Boulevard that would shoot commuters from the Westside to downtown and a new north-south arm of the Orange Line.

So where is the needed money to come from? The most obvious, if not the fairest or most practical, solution would be a sales tax increase. The MTA pays for 24% of its operating costs with fares and also gets revenues from state gas taxes and ads on buses, but most of its operating income comes from sales taxes. L.A. County voters have twice approved half-cent sales tax hikes to pay for transit, so a penny of every dollar of taxable sales goes to the MTA. But not only would such an increase be a tough sell politically -- at 8.25%, the county sales tax is already quite steep -- it would further burden low-income residents already hit hard by the fare increase. Sales taxes hurt poor people more than they do wealthy people.

A better approach would be to shift some of the costs for public transit to drivers, especially daily commuters. This may strike some as unfair, especially because many commuters live in areas where taking the bus or train is impractical. But expanding public transit benefits even those who don’t ride it because it cuts the number of cars on the freeways and cleans the air.

The simplest and most effective solution would be to raise the state excise tax on gasoline, which has been frozen at 18 cents a gallon since 1995. Because the tax isn’t indexed to inflation, the revenues it generates are shrinking. Higher gas taxes would discourage driving and thus decrease traffic, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions; they also would encourage conservation and research into alternative fuels, thus reducing U.S. reliance on foreign oil.

Congestion pricing is another possible route. This might involve charging tolls for using major commuter freeways at peak hours. One of the more elegant solutions would be to demand that large employers stop providing free parking to their workers; instead, they could be made to charge for parking, and that money could pay for employee transit vouchers.

Transportation experts have a host of other interesting ideas, such as variable pricing for light rail and subway rides: The farther you travel, the more you have to pay. This works well in other cities and could help shift the burden for rail construction to rail riders, who can better afford it. The MTA is also probably losing millions of dollars a year by failing to adequately police its rail network, where riders are on the honor system and many don’t bother to buy a ticket. And the agency continues to run bus lines at odd hours that attract only a handful of riders.

There are plenty of options, but one seldom hears much about them from political leaders. Rather than proposing ideas that could be hard to sell politically, they prefer to let the MTA slowly cannibalize itself and the rail network stagnate.