In Defense of the FlyAway


Those of you who have seen my writings on the subject before know I'm a big fan of the FlyAway. For $6 you get clean comfortable ride (in an express lane) from Union Station ($4 from Van Nuys!) directly to your terminal at LAX. Having lived in New York, Boston, New Hampshire, Washington DC, San Diego, New Orleans, Beijing and traveled extensively around the world, I can assure you such a deal is not easy to find.

So when news broke today that FlyAway is running at a $4.6 million operating loss this year, I was upset. Not at the news. Most transportation infrastructure worth having is heavily subsidized. What kind of a loss do you think the I-10 runs? No, it bothered me that the reaction to the news in the press was decidedly negative--and seemed to lack all context. A $4.6 million loss doesn't sound so good. But really, it's all a matter of perspective.

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For example, the Metro Gold Line has a $60 million annual operating cost--not including capital improvements. In 2010 it carried nearly 9.25 million riders. How much revenue do you think it brings in? Though cautioning that it was difficult to say exactly, given that many riders purchase monthly passes or transfer from other lines, Metro officials told me they estimate the Gold Line will bring in $9 million in revenue this year.

That's a $51 million loss. Or a subsidy, which is how most people who support public transportation care to look at it.

Compare that with the FlyAway, which expects to have 1.36 million riders this year. Now, my math skills may be a little rusty, but it sure seems like for every rider on the FlyAway gets a $3.38 subsidy, while every rider on the Gold Line gets a $5.15 subsidy.

Not so bad anymore when you think about it.

Public transportation costs money. Just like the highway system, it's heavily subsidized. These are the facts. Just like it would be insanity to get rid of the Gold Line, it's crazy to look down on a service like FlyAway because it costs some money.

As it happens, LAX can't get rid of FlyAway even if it wanted to, thanks to a lawsuit settlement. In fact, the program is required to expand to 9 routes by 2015, up from four today. Not sure if we need nine routes, but FlyAway expansion is a good thing. And it sounds as if FlyAway officials have the situation mostly under control. The Westwood route was a dud so they're getting rid of it. Fine. The Irvine route is losing money, so they'll add a Long Beach stop. Both those decisions make perfect sense.

FlyWay is also considering starting new routes in Culver City and in Valencia, near Six Flags. I personally think somewhere in the San Gabriel Valley might be a slightly better choice than Six Flags...but I digress.

The point is, don't think of the FlyAway as a $4.6 million drain on the public coffers. Think of it as a $4.6 million subsidy to an invaluable method of public transit.

The L.A. Vitamin Report is a column about quality of life issues by Matthew Fleisher. It is brought to KCET's SoCal Focus blog in partnership with Spot.Us, which receives support from the Cailfornia Endowment.

The photo used on this post is by Flickr user by LA Wad. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

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