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David Lazarus: Blue ribbon transit committee mails it in

A gaggle of transportation officials and community leaders gathered this week to help shape the future of public transit in Los Angeles County — to decide, in effect, whether it’s time for revolutionary change, or whether the status quo should prevail.

Status quo won by a knockout.

The so-called Metro Blue Ribbon Committee was established by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority late last year to come up with “a new regional transit vision” for bus and rail systems. It met Tuesday to finalize recommendations it will make to the MTA’s board of directors next month.

I attended the session with high hopes. My recent series of columns on public transit resulted in the MTA board last week approving motions from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Supervisor Mike Antonovich to create daily and weekly passes good on most regional transit systems, as well as to look into basing fares on the distance and time of day that people travel.

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To my mind, the real question now was whether the Blue Ribbon Committee would embrace the idea that cash-strapped transit operators need to expand ridership by attracting people who don’t need to travel by bus or rail but are willing to do so as circumstances allow — say, one or two weeks a month.

While this might seem like a no-brainer, such a commitment would require transit systems to improve efficiency, reliability, safety and comfort so that these “discretionary riders” (or “choice riders” in MTA parlance) would view traveling by bus as a viable alternative to commuting by car.

It was heartening to see that one of the draft recommendations that the panel had cooked up was that “Metro should attract choice riders through high service quality.”

But after a lively debate among committee members, it was decided that “choice” or “discretionary” should be omitted from the final recommendation. Instead, the MTA should seek to attract all riders.

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“The key is to make the product the highest quality possible to attract and keep riders,” said Jerard Wright, a committee member representing the MTA’s Westside governing body.

The problem, of course, is that the MTA and other transit systems have been using this approach for decades, and it’s done pretty much nothing to woo fickle choice riders.

Meanwhile, the Blue Ribbon Committee will recommend that the MTA make it a priority that “service should be provided when and where sufficient demand exists.”

With focusing on new riders off the table, this is the heart of the panel’s “new regional transit vision.” What they’re basically saying is that the transit network should concentrate primarily on its existing customer base — people who either already choose to travel by bus or rail, or who have no choice.

If the rest of us decide to come along for the ride, great. If not, oh well.

I understand why transit systems would do this. Funding is scarce and resources are spread thin. It’s easier and cheaper to deliver barely adequate service for those who already use public transit on a regular basis.

Attracting new customers would require transit systems to be more comprehensive in their routes and schedules, and to step up their game in offering a wider variety of options — for example, a greater number of rapid and commuter express lines.

It would require out-of-the-box thinking such as creation of bus-only streets serving as “virtual subways,” as well as development of elevated rail lines to get people off the roads, which has to be the ultimate goal of any serious transit plan for the car-choked region.

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This would be pricey. But as I’ve written, such costs could be offset in part by higher ridership volume, as well as by gas taxes, parking fees and congestion pricing intended to both raise revenue for transit systems and to deter people from traveling by car.

The Blue Ribbon Committee didn’t go anywhere near such possibilities. It focused instead on recommending that the transit network “be designed to be simple, coordinated and intuitive.”

Conan Cheung, the MTA’s deputy executive officer for operations planning, disagreed with my assessment that the committee had cast a vote for the status quo.

“Status quo is having duplication of service among transit operators,” he said after the meeting. “Status quo is not having the level of reliability that we want. Status quo is not providing riders with the level of information that we want to provide. These are things we want to change.”

He said the MTA board will seek greater cooperation among regional transit systems, and will work harder to let people know when a bus is running late. One possibility: wireless apps that would allow commuters to track the whereabouts of buses on their smart phones.

Or electronic signs at bus stops throughout the region with up-to-the-minute info on arrivals. Or even just placards at bus stops that clearly list all available lines (incredibly, different cities employ different sign specs, adding an extra layer of confusion for some riders).

These would all be improvements. But why convene a special committee for that? Aren’t these things that the MTA board can do on its own?

Yes, Cheung acknowledged. But a panel of regional transit experts helps shield the board from the perception that it’s forcing changes on smaller systems.

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“This is a way to get some buy-in from other cities and jurisdictions,” he said.

It’s also why our public-transit network is such a pitiful mess: We’re still at the buy-in phase for something as small potatoes as signage. The hard decisions remain unaddressed.

At the meeting, an MTA staffer asked during a break if any members of the Metro Blue Ribbon Committee needed their parking tickets validated. Only two or three of the 17 members, I learned, actually ride buses and subways with any frequency.

That’s all you need to know about the current state of public transit in the Southland.

David Lazarus’ column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.


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