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Better Service, Lower Costs Aim of Valley Bus System

February 08, 1987|ASHLEY DUNN | Times Staff Writer

Supporters and opponents of the Southern California Rapid Transit District agree that the enormous bus system serving Los Angeles County is bursting at the seams.

Although RTD has been grappling for years with the problems of administering the system, some officials say changes have come slowly and have not always benefited riders--especially those in suburban areas like the San Gabriel Valley.

Now a radical proposal from county Supervisor Pete Schabarum is opening the possibility of a major change in bus service in the San Gabriel Valley.

Schabarum's proposal involves forming a new transportation district, separate from the RTD and controlled by local governments, that would be run by private bus operators. Last Tuesday the county Board of Supervisors endorsed the county's participation in the plan by a 3-1 vote.

The new 350-square-mile district would be broken into six small zones that each would handle up to six local or express bus routes.

RTD would continue to run about 53% of the buses it currently operates in the San Gabriel Valley, as well as maintain all bus stops, provide route information and distribute bus schedules for the new district.

Only Difference Would Be Cosmetic

For the bus rider, the switch from RTD to a new transportation district would hardly be noticed, said William P. Forsythe, a county consultant who is serving as project director for the proposed San Gabriel Valley Transportation Zone.

The new district would have the same bus routes, the same fares and the same transfer points. "The only difference to the public is that the bus may have a little different paint," Forsythe said.

The proposal is being promoted as a way to not only cut the cost of bus service through competitive bidding, lower labor costs and less overhead by as much as $14 million a year but also to improve service through increased local control.

The proposal has been endorsed by the supervisors and 10 of the 29 cities in the San Gabriel Valley. In order to be approved by the commission the proposal must demonstrate the potential for a 25% savings in the cost of running bus service in the area, and be endorsed by all 29 cities.

Beginning Monday, the public will have a chance to comment on the proposal at three public hearings.

Hearings are scheduled for Monday in San Dimas, Tuesday in El Monte and Wednesday in Temple City, all in the county public libraries in those cities starting at 7 p.m.

While the proposal seems to be winning some support, it is also being questioned by some labor leaders, the RTD and some city officials.

Earl Clark, general chairman of the United Transportation Union, which represents more than 5,000 RTD drivers, said allowing private companies to run the bus system may open the possibility of lower wages and less than professional service throughout the county.

'They Will Get a Battle'

"They have no intention of starting a zone out there and paying top wages, and they are going to get exactly what they pay for," he said. "We are going to fight privitization with every means at our disposal. If they want a battle, they will get a battle."

Albert Perdon, RTD's assistant general manager for planning and communications, said the proposed district could take money away from other areas that RTD serves and eventually lead to the breakup of the RTD system.

"If you set up a zone, that may be fine for the San Gabriel Valley, but what about the rest of the system?" he asked. "The concern is this could lead to a third zone or a fourth zone or a fifth zone. All of a sudden you don't have a regional system but would have what we had 30 years ago: a bunch of little systems."

Even supporters of the proposal agree that there are many risks and uncertainties in forming a new transportation district.

"The main disadvantage is that we are taking a risk. We're going way out on a limb," said Claremont Mayor Judy Wright, who is a member of a county committee studying the proposal.

"What if it doesn't work? Then where are we? There are a lot of unknowns out there," she said.

Proposed in 1984

Schabarum first proposed the formation of a new transportation district in 1984. The proposal is based on state legislation that allows the county Transportation Commission to form a new district if an existing transportation operator "cannot otherwise provide adequate and responsive local transportation service in a cost-effective manner." The commission is responsible for setting major policy and allocating state, federal and local funds for transportation.

Forsythe, project director for the proposed transportation district, said the RTD has failed in all those criteria in the San Gabriel Valley.

Because of low ridership and the high cost of providing suburban bus service, the San Gabriel Valley often has been the target of service reductions, he said.

"This is the first place they look to cut," he said.

Jan Hall, president of the RTD Board of Directors, said the possibility of service reductions is a problem in all county areas.

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