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MTA adopts $3.9-billion budget

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority this week adopted a $3.9-billion budget for next year that directs money to new highway and transit projects but calls for minor cuts in agency expenses and bus service.

Though the budget for fiscal year 2009-10 is balanced, MTA officials cautioned that the agency would face annual shortfalls of more than $200 million starting next year in funds required to operate and maintain buses and rail systems. MTA’s operating budget is now about $1.3 billion.

Amid the state’s deepening budget crisis, California lawmakers have eliminated transit assistance, which had provided the agency with at least $100 million a year for operations.

In addition, revenue from two local sales taxes for transportation are forecast to decline by about 5% next year due to the recession, and the agency’s labor costs could rise depending on the outcome of pending union negotiations.

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MTA officials said there is a possibility of fare increases a year from now if the gap can’t be closed with money from Measure R, the county’s new half-cent sales tax for transportation that will be collected starting July 1. Congress also is considering whether to allow transit agencies to use federal stimulus money for operations.

“There is a down economy, and sales tax revenue will be off. The loss of state revenue is dramatic,” said Art Leahy, the MTA’s chief executive. “Next summer, we could be talking about fares and improving efficiency . . . but there will be time to calmly address these issues.”

The plan passed Thursday by the MTA’s board of directors is $507 million more than the current budget. The increase is largely due to new highway and transit projects, such as construction of a 10-mile carpool lane on the northbound side of the 405 Freeway between the 10 and 101 freeways.

Overall, the budget calls for $636 million in new programs, paid for largely by federal stimulus money and Measure R. Those projects include completion of the Gold Line light-rail extension to East Los Angeles, the purchase of 219 buses powered by compressed natural gas and the continued construction of the Expo light-rail line from downtown L.A. to Culver City.

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The MTA also will begin construction of a four-mile extension of the popular Orange Line busway from Canoga Park to Chatsworth and continue planning studies for new transit projects throughout Los Angeles County.

To help balance the budget, the MTA will reduce bus service by 120,000 hours a year, a tiny fraction of the 7.3 million hours now provided annually. MTA officials said they would reduce the frequency of buses, rather than eliminate service, on some routes.

The Bus Riders’ Union, which obtained a federal court decree to improve bus service, opposes the cut, which represents the third such reduction in recent years with a total loss of more than 400,000 hours of service. It contends the MTA has the money to prevent the reductions.

“Last year, they cut 200,000 hours. The year before that they cut 90,000 hours. This is a third of the service added under the decree,” said Manuel Criollo, an official for the Bus Riders’ Union. “There should be no talk of cutting bus service.”

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dan.weikel@latimes.com


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