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Busways Not a Panacea for Los Angeles

October 12, 1985

Contrary to the impression conveyed by William Trombley's busway articles (Sept. 26), RTD has not overlooked busways and other transit improvements while pursuing the Metro Rail subway project.

This point was clearly stressed in lengthy interviews between Trombley and RTD's director of planning and general manager. Yet, Trombley failed to mention RTD's plans for revamping public transportation in the region, which include busway construction.

We told him Los Angeles needs a variety of transit modes: express busways, light rail, subways and local bus service. The aim is to match the right transit mode with the right corridor. In the densely populated Wilshire Corridor, the Metro Rail subway is the answer because of its capacity to move large volumes of people. On the other hand, we have long advocated busways for the Harbor Freeway, the 210 Freeway and, possibly, the San Diego Freeway.

We were further dismayed that the author failed to mention that voters in Los Angeles County in 1980 approved a half-cent sales tax dedicated, in part, to finance construction of a 150-mile regional rail rapid transit system that will be complemented by busways and local bus routes.

It's also naive to assume RTD makes transit planning decisions in a vacuum. A plethora of government agencies, including the L.A. County Transportation Commission, City of Los Angeles Department of Transportation, Southern California Assn. of Governments, Caltrans, and the federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration, are involved in that planning process. All too often the various agencies are at odds. Until we learn to work in concert, long-term transportation solutions will never be achieved.

Though Trombley is obviously infatuated with Houston's busway system, it's still no excuse for glossing over the problems and costs associated with busway operations. For starters, where does the author suggest we build busways in Los Angeles? The era of new freeway construction here has just about ended. The new Century Freeway will have a light rail line running down its median. Ten years ago, Caltrans, not RTD, constructed the El Monte Busway sidling the San Bernardino Freeway because right-of-way was available. But it would be extremely difficult to carve out a bus lane on our other more congested freeways.

And what's the use in funneling more express buses downtown if they're just going to get mired in traffic? Despite years of talk and grandiose plans for improving downtown traffic circulation, the city, thus far, has only grudgingly granted RTD bus priority on the Spring Street contraflow lane.

The articles note that Houston's operating costs rank among the highest in the country. Busways will help little in reducing those expenses. While express buses are more convenient for commuters, they require higher subsidies than local service because nothing is plunked in the fare box while the bus is traveling on the freeway. Higher fares are charged, but there's a point where commuters will opt for cheaper travel.

In Los Angeles, RTD is under intense pressure by the city and county to let private operators take over long-haul express service because on some lines it's costing us more than $5 a passenger in subsidies. Consider also that a full-time RTD bus driver earns about $30,000 a year plus benefits. A single Metro Rail train operator can transport as many passengers as 20 bus operators.

Trombley also makes a poor comparison between transit operations in Los Angeles and Houston. RTD carries more than seven times as many daily passengers as Houston Metro, 1.6 million to 220,000. Demands placed upon transit here are much different. There are more transit-dependent bus riders in Los Angeles due to an influx of Central American and Asian immigrants. They largely depend on local bus service. Houston's population is dwarfed by Los Angeles by about 3 million to 9.5 million. And density here, especially in the Wilshire Corridor, is among the highest in the nation.

While Houston Metro's busways are held up as a sterling example of creative and cost-effective transit planning, the author omits the fact that for years Houston failed to adequately address its transit needs. In Los Angeles, busways, alone, are not a panacea, nor will they be in Houston where many major rail lines also are planned as well.


Los Angeles

Patsaouras is director and president of the Southern California Rapid Transit District.

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