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RTD's Critics Say It Could Learn From 'Big Blue Bus'

June 12, 1988|RICH CONNELL | Times Staff Writer

Sepulveda Democrat Richard Katz, who chairs the state Assembly Transportation Committee, agrees. "To the person on the street, the issue is what does a (bus ride) cost and does it get them where they want to go. All the other arguments are irrelevant."

Added Katz: "It appears Santa Monica is making a whole lot of (better) decisions that have nothing to do with size."

The new cost-conscious attitude, which has been endorsed in varying degrees both by the conservatives in control of the county Board of Supervisors and liberal Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, has already begun to change the face of the region's transit network.

Working with the county Transportation Commission, the City of Los Angeles last year created what amounts to its own, small bus system--the most visible part of which operates as "Commuter Express." Using private bus companies, the city took over shuttle services in the downtown area, Westwood and San Pedro, as well as a dozen Valley, Westside and South Bay freeway routes that the RTD was finding too costly to operate. Preliminary reports indicate that ridership is up, customers are happier and operating costs are down, compared to the RTD, said Ed Rowe, acting general manager of the city Department of Transportation.

Sharp Differences

Likewise, a recently approved plan by county Supervisor Pete Schabarum and city officials in San Gabriel Valley to secede from the RTD and form an independent bus system rested heavily on the sharp differences in operating costs between the RTD and the Santa Monica and Long Beach bus lines.

Earl Clarke, head of the RTD's 5,000-member bus drivers' union, said the Santa Monica-type comparisons are "very unfair" and part of the camouflage for an attack on RTD unions.

Run in High-Crime Areas

As an example, Clark said, the municipal bus lines' costs for worker compensation claims are far less because they do not operate in high-crime areas. "We have much more dangerous routes. . . . (Their) drivers are less prone to be attacked and assaulted," he said.

Gary Spivack, the RTD's director of planning, added: "We are operating in the most congested corridors of the city (and) we put a lot more miles on our buses than other operators. We are more prone to breakdowns."

And although Santa Monica and RTD drivers wages may be close, "there are significant differences" in other parts of the labor agreement that add to cost, Spivack said. Work rules that govern such things as absenteeism, which is well above Santa Monica's rate, is one. An outside audit in 1986 found that unexcused absences at the RTD were 50% higher than in other large bus systems, a matter that is now a key issue in labor talks.

But Spivack also argued that the RTD "provides services no one else provides--like transit police." The real question, he said, should be: "Is the region getting a lot of service for the money it pays?" The answer, he said, is yes.

But some analysts say there are simply too many layers of costly centralized management in an operation the size of the RTD.

Peak of Efficiency

"As a broad generality, bus systems reach their peak of efficiency in the 200-to-250-(bus) range," Sims said. "As you add (management) layers in and get more distance between the people at the top making decisions and the people at the bottom actually providing service . . . the less efficient you are."

A recent study of California transit systems found this to be particularly true in the area of bus maintenance--where for each hour of bus service RTD costs are 86% higher than Santa Monica's.

"In the maintenance area, there are dis-economies of scale," said Mike Ferreri, a Philadelphia-based senior vice president with Booz, Allen & Hamilton Inc., a national consulting firm.

Ferreri's division has studied transit agencies across the country and prepared the study of bus maintenance costs for the California Department of Transportation.

The RTD prides itself in being an industry leader in acquiring large management information systems and state-of-the-art bus maintenance facilities and equipment.

But transit agencies are paying more than once for a lot of the new high-tech gear, Ferreri said. "Of the technological innovations that have been introduced . . . a lot of them have actually raised costs," Ferreri said.

Kept Small and Simple

Santa Monica, which was judged one of the best-run bus systems in the country last year by the American Public Transit Assn., has kept it small and simple.

The bulky, 20-year-old mechanical calculator sitting on the city transportation director's desk in Santa Monica is both symbolic and functional. "I never made the switch to a 10-key (calculator)," Jack F. Hutchison said.

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