Transit for the System, Not for Passengers

If They Build It

Metro is cooking its books to support curtailing or canceling bus service in poor and working-class neighborhoods. That's just one of the troubling conclusions reached by Tom Rubin, former CFO of the Southern California Rapid Transit District, predecessor to Metro (aka, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority).

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According to Rubin:

Those who run the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority evidently believe that, since the Consent Decree that forced it to improve service to its bus riders has expired, they are free to rewrite history to justify Metro's elimination of nine bus lines, its reductions in service on eleven more, and its overall elimination of four percent of its bus service hours by attempting to show that MTA bus service is little utilized and not cost-effective.

The numbers crunched by Rubin show that Metro provides cost-effective bus service with passenger loads that compare favorably with other large city systems. All transit systems, of course, subsidize the cost of carrying passengers, but Metro's subsidies per mile and per passenger are not excessive by comparison with other systems:

Direct subsidy ratios are a (the most) significant indicator, particularly taxpayer subsidy per passenger and per passenger-mile. Metro's subsidy/passenger was $1.74 . . . against the average of its peers of $2.49; its subsidy/passenger mile of $.44 . . . against the average of $.68.

So why has Metro cut hundreds of thousands of hours of local bus service since 2009, after the federal consent decree mandating service levels ended? Again, according to Rubin:

Metro is in the business of construction of transportation infrastructure, and money wasted on actually moving people takes away from what is available to build . . .

"Construction before transportation" drives what Rubin believes is Metro's skewed formula for determining if bus service on a particular route should be reduced or terminated.

Metro's formula is complex - accounting for many factors - but it results in what Metro says is a single number that measures the viability of a bus route. Metro calls that number its "Route Performance Index" or RPI. Rubin figures that Metro has selected an arbitrarily high RPI standard so that bus service can be cut:

If one takes the Metro RPI and applies it to the nation's Top 20 (transit systems), nine of the 20 are either below or very close to the cut-off point. This implies that a high portion of their individual lines, a majority in at several cases, are below the Metro route-by-route cutoff point.

Metro kills bus routes meeting performance standards that other major systems regard as acceptable, even superior. Why? Because Metro's construction projects - and the public money spent and the favors Metro collects and doles out - benefit the politics of transit more than passengers, who only want to get to work and back with a modicum of dignity, comfort, and reliability.

And there's another reason. Fixed-rail systems - unlike bus routes - have acquired powerful new advocates: big landlords and speculative builders who are deeply embedded in the city's development-by-any-means culture. Rail is the new Midas touch that converts a developer's under-performing chunk of strip mall into the site of a multi-story "transit-oriented development." With the city's density bonuses, tax breaks, and relief from parking and other requirements, TOD is giving the old L.A. development machine new life.

Eliminating buses to build rail would be less of an abuse if Metro was better at making rail work. But compared to its bus fleet, Metro's rail service isn't performing as well as it should. According to Rubin:

Metro, since it came into being, has always had rail construction - not rail transportation, as in actually carrying people - as its highest priority. The rail system operating statistics, while doing very well on productivity, are poor by industry standards on the cost-effectiveness of operations. Metro (for example) is one of the very few multi-modal transit operators that has rail farebox recovery ratio lower than of buses . . .

Even worse, Metro's "construction before transportation" culture is building itself into a crisis, Again, according to Rubin:

Clearly, Metro is so short of operating funds that it is cutting service on a bus system that is the best value to the taxpayers and riders in the nation. It cannot afford to operate its current bus system, and it is attempting to get Congress to front-load massive construction funding against the thirty-year, half-cent sales tax passed in 2008. Given Metro's less than stellar record of bringing in capital projects on budget, and considering its failure to provide for the very large capital renewal and replacement costs of the current rail lines as they age, exactly how does it expect to pay the operating costs of the expanded system it is rushing to construct?

With the complicity of politicians, developers, and the construction industry, Metro has managed to make good bus service look bad and made limited rail service look like a good deal to taxpayers. Metro's reasons have little to do with moving passengers and a lot to do with keeping L.A.'s development machine well oiled.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page is adapted from materials that are in the public domain.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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