The City of Los Angeles pays employees up to $15 a month if they take mass transit to work. But that's not enough incentive for city worker Irene Saltzman to use the Metrolink commuter rail service that starts next week.
The city's subsidy would make only a small dent in the $9-a-day fare Saltzman would have to pay to ride Metrolink round trip between her home in Chatsworth and her job in downtown Los Angeles. Instead, she plans to stick with the bus or van pool.
"There is no one in our office . . . who can afford it," said Saltzman, an analyst for the Department of Public Works.
Metrolink will operate rush-hour trains to downtown Los Angeles from eastern Ventura County and the San Fernando, Santa Clarita, San Gabriel and Pomona valleys. If the cost of a Metrolink ticket has sent many potential riders into sticker shock, they can expect little sympathy or additional financial help from their employers, who are already maxed out on subsidies.
Some transportation workers fear that the trains, financed with public funds, will become the exclusive domain of affluent workers, since tickets will cost as much as $240 a month.
"It will get a lot of riders out from Cadillacs and from BMWs and on to Metrolink," said Elliot Peterman, employee transportation coordinator for the City of Los Angeles. "I don't think we will get a lot of people out of their Fords."
Metrolink's backers deny that the service is overpriced, saying it's still cheaper than driving to work alone. The trains are expected to carry 3,000 to 4,000 a day, regardless of employer subsidies.
"We assume good ridership with or without the (employer) subsidy," said Jacki Bacharach, a member of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission.
Prodded by anti-pollution regulations and congestion-weary employees, a growing number of Los Angeles-area companies have begun to pay their employees to take mass transit. The subsidies range from discounted bus passes to a transportation allowance that workers can use any way they want.
But employer transit subsidies do not go as far when it comes to Metrolink. A basic Southern California Rapid Transit District bus pass costs $42. Express freeway buses can cost more than $100 a month. In contrast, the cheapest monthly Metrolink pass starts at $80.
Employees of KPMG Peat Marwick, a downtown Los Angeles accounting firm, pay only $12 a month for a basic bus pass after the company and building owner chip in a subsidy, said Jean Archer, employee transportation coordinator. If a worker bought the cheapest Metrolink pass, his or her out-of-pocket cost would rise to at least $31--if they traveled from the Montebello station--or $83 from Van Nuys.
"I take the bus, and I think it's high," Archer said of Metrolink prices.
At Southern California Gas Co. headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, workers interested in Metrolink would be entitled to the same amount of monthly subsidies available to bus riders--about $65. Despite the generous allowance, Metrolink prices are so high that employees have asked if the company will kick in even more, said Valarie Perrodin, assistant transportation coordinator.
"The first thing they see is the monthly fare, and it just blows their mind because it's so expensive," Perrodin said.
The answer at the gas company and other employers is "no." Giving a larger subsidy to a Metrolink commuter "is not fair to the person who doesn't take it," said Le Ann Ayres, a commuter services supervisor at Southern California Gas.
Many of the people who sought cheap housing on the suburban frontier--those who would benefit most from Metrolink--may discover that they cannot afford to avoid the daily trauma of long-distance commuting.
"The people who moved to Riverside couldn't afford to live in Los Angeles. They are on limited budgets," said the RTD's Teresa Moren, who helps corporations boost mass transit use among employees.
Income is a major distinction between those who will or will not ride Metrolink, said Jose Franco, transportation systems manager for Pacific Telephone.
While many marketing executives say they plan to take the train, lower-paid service representatives say Metrolink is just too pricey.
"They say, 'I can't afford to ride the train. I'll just stick to riding the bus,' " Franco said.