In a major political defeat for the RTD and its powerful employee unions, the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission Wednesday approved a pioneering plan to allow lower cost, private bus companies to replace a large share of RTD service in the San Gabriel Valley.
In an 8-2 vote, the commission approved creation of a new transit agency that would take over most of the local bus service in a vast area from Arcadia to Claremont. A board representing 20 cities and Los Angeles County would jointly govern the new bus system, which would be operated by charter bus companies that would competitively bid for the business.
Both supporters and opponents of the new system--the first of its kind since the Southern California Rapid Transit District was created in 1964 to consolidate the region's bus systems--agreed that it may be the first move toward a break-up of the nation's largest all-bus transit agency.
"It's the most significant change in public transit in Los Angeles County in 23 years," said Mike Lewis, chief deputy to county Supervisor Pete Schabarum, the leading advocate of the controversial "privatization" proposal. "Given the success we expect to see, other communities will look to this as a way to preserve their bus service."
RTD's major unions, which had succeeded in defeating a similar proposal earlier this year and lobbied hard against the latest plan, immediately announced they would challenge the creation of the new transit agency in court. Earl Clark, general chairman of the 5,000-member RTD bus drivers union, said the plan was a "very dangerous precedent" and is intended to "destroy" the RTD.
For the approximately 9.5 million riders who will use the new system each year, proponents say it will mean new equipment, better and more service, as well as fewer fare increases. Commission analysts say reduced management and labor costs will allow the new transit agency to provide service at 35% less cost than the RTD.
Most of the projected saving comes from lower overhead costs, the analysts say--not necessarily from paying non-union wages. Many of the bus systems used as models--for example in Santa Monica and Long Beach--are unionized, proponents point out.
Target of 20 Routes
Using distinctive white and blue-striped buses, the new San Gabriel Valley bus system will be dubbed Foothill Transit and initially use the same fares, routes, information telephone lines and monthly passes as the RTD. If it survives legal challenges, it will gradually assume operation of 20 routes, representing 7% of the RTD's total rush-hour bus runs. The RTD would maintain more than 30 routes in the San Gabriel Valley area.
As a pilot project, two former RTD freeway express lines were recently taken over by Foothill Transit. The county commission, which oversees transit service and funding, has also approved the takeover of four RTD routes in the San Gabriel Valley by the end of the year. The remaining routes would gradually be transferred to Foothill Transit over a two-year period, and the new transit system could assume additional routes if they are dropped by the RTD.
The RTD has repeatedly cut back service in recent years in the San Gabriel Valley and elsewhere because of financial problems. And the RTD board is now weighing a new round of possible fare increases or service reductions to eliminate the red ink in its current year budget.
If dissatisfaction over RTD service grows, and demands for greater local control of transit increase, other areas may follow the San Gabriel Valley's lead. City officials in the South Bay area also have expressed interest in forming their own transit system if the San Gabriel Valley agency is successful.
Such whittling away at the RTD could prove to be a far more fundamental reorganization of the troubled transit district than anything proposed recently by state lawmakers upset by reports of waste and mismanagement.
"The people who use the service are the ones we should be most concerned about," said Commissioner Ray Grabinski, owner of a small business. "If everyone is not getting the bang for their buck, we are not doing our job. . . . When we cannot prove to the public that we can operate good service, we have to look around for alternatives."
But RTD officials claim creation of the new transit agency will cost millions of dollars and result in worse service elsewhere in the county--a charge disputed by proponents of the plan who say it should save the RTD money.
Other critics of the "privatization" movement charge that breaking up the RTD will ultimately hurt riders. "It's the first step toward Balkanization of the regional transit system," said Robert Geoghegan, a commissioner representing Supervisor Ed Edelman. "It will cause duplication, confusion, inefficiency and passenger dissatisfaction."