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Plan for Private Bus Zone Scaled Down, Still Faces Stiff Opposition

November 29, 1987|DARYL KELLEY | Times Staff Writer

County Supervisor Pete Schabarum's plan for a lower-cost San Gabriel Valley bus zone operated by private companies has been scaled down, but probably will still face stiff opposition when the county Transportation Commission debates it again on Wednesday.

The bus zone proposal--withdrawn in August after several commissioners, including Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, voiced concerns about it--has been trimmed from 26 cities to 20 in response to complaints that it would undermine the regional Rapid Transit District.

With the cutback, the smaller zone would include 14 of the 56 RTD lines in the San Gabriel Valley, about 4% of all those served by the regional system. The western-valley cities of Alhambra, South Pasadena, Monterey Park, Rosemead, San Marino and Sierra Madre have all been excluded.

The tighter boundaries also reduce peak-hour bus runs from 139 to 111 and cut the zone from 327 square miles to 272, all in the central and eastern valley.

But the RTD staff and the union that represents RTD bus drivers still say the zone would hurt them, spokesmen said last week.

And several Transportation Commission members and transit planners said they have seen no clear change of position by opponents on the commission.

Schabarum chief deputy Mike Lewis acknowledged as much.

"We have attempted to deal with their concerns. . . . But at this point I don't know whether we have the votes or not," he said.

A spokeswoman for Bradley said the mayor had not studied the new plan and will not decide on it until his staff meets with Transportation Commission analysts Monday. Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Woo, a commissioner who opposed the zone last summer, said he was undecided on how to vote this time.

The bus zone, which county analysts say would cut operating costs by one-third, needs support from 8 of the 11 commissioners. Five members represent the county Board of Supervisors, three the Los Angeles mayor and City Council and one the City of Long Beach. Two represent the 82 other cities in the county.

At least six of the commissioners favored the plan in August; Lewis says seven supported it. Of the four remaining votes, Lewis said, three are held by Los Angeles representatives and one by a county appointee who opposes the zone. As a result, he calculates, he needs at least one of the city's votes.

In part, Schabarum has submitted the revised proposal to get Bradley, who has taken no formal position, on the record. Because it saves money, the bus zone has been popular with the public, Lewis said.

"Frankly," he said, "we're going to go out of our way to embarrass the mayor into doing something. . . . By forcing the issue, we're keeping the matter in front of the commission, and at some point there has got to be a vote."

The conservative majority of the Board of Supervisors--and other city, county and federal officials--have supported the San Gabriel Valley zone as part of a push for expanded use of private bus companies throughout the county.

Proponents of "privatization" of bus service say it reduces overhead and operating costs and produces smaller bus systems that are more easily managed. Private companies are more able than the RTD to use part-time and temporary employees, according to county analysts.

The revised San Gabriel Valley zone would save 34% in operating costs, or about $9 million a year, by 1991, the analysts say. The estimates are based on contracts with private companies that by Dec. 15 will begin operating six other RTD lines with low ridership in the valley.

The possibility for reducing service costs can also be seen when comparing the RTD's San Gabriel Valley expenses with the much lower expenses of bus systems in Long Beach, Santa Monica and Orange County, said Sharon Neely, manager of transit programs for the Transportation Commission. The commission staff has recommended approval of the zone.

State law allows the Transportation Commission to set up a new bus zone and turn service over to private companies if it finds that existing service is inadequate, unresponsive or too costly. Under commission guidelines, a saving of at least 25% must be shown before a new zone can be established.

Critics charge that, in the long run, use of private bus companies will break up the RTD, which was formed 24 years ago to better coordinate bus service throughout the county.

The critics, including RTD officials and transit employee unions, also say the savings estimated for the zone are overstated and argue that RTD workers would suffer forced reassignment. They say the remaining RTD routes would have to pick up a greater share of the system's fixed costs, which cannot be cut because a few lines are eliminated. And this would possibly force fare increases or service cutbacks, they said.

Stephen Parry, manager of bus planning for the RTD, said his "best guess" is that the bus zone would save just 15% in operating costs. The zone's estimates are based on a "bare-bones plan" that does not consider upkeep costs and other expenses, he said.

Legal disputes about the eligibility of some lines for the zone and whether it must use union workers also remain unresolved, Parry said.

"The problem has been reduced in scope, but many problems remain," he said.

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