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MASS TRANSIT / IN THE CITY OF CARS : But Is It a Matter of Rich (Rail) vs. Poor (Bus)?

July 31, 1994|William Fulton | William Fulton is editor and publisher of California Planning & Development Report. His book about the politics of urban planning in Los Angeles will be published by Solano Press Books.

VENTURA — Once again, it has come down to this: Should we subsidize the poor who cannot afford to drive, or the rich who drive too much?

The recent ruckus over the Metropolitan Transportation Au thority's budget, and, indirectly, the mechanics' strike revolve around this question of rich (rail) vs. poor (bus). Indeed, this is often the issue in transportation. But it's magnified by the politics of the MTA, which are structured to yield a petty debate about bus vs. rail.

Using the MTA budget to argue transportation policy is like trying to solve the health-care crisis by tinkering with Medicare: Making Medicare efficient won't contribute all that much toward fixing the whole system. The problem with the MTA is not so much that the transit system is too bloated. It is that the MTA isn't a useful forum for framing transportation policy issues.

Though huge, the MTA actually controls a fairly small portion of transportation spending in Los Angeles. The rest is controlled by regional agencies, in Sacramento, in Washington and, of course, in millions of private decisions by individuals who buy cars, ride public transit and decide when and where to drive.

But the MTA is the most obvious pressure point. It's the agency that controls most of the transportation money generated through local tax revenue. The MTA also serves as a place where interest groups can hassle mayors, council members and county supervisors directly, because they serve on its board.

Watching the poverty advocates and transit unions fight against rail construction is an odd sight. After all, you don't see unionized schoolteachers lobbying against the construction of new schools. But that's because the political decision-making process concerning schools, though troubled in other ways, distinguishes between money used for operations and money used for new construction. New schools are constructed with developer fees and state and local bond funds, both requiring voter approval. When a new school gets built, nobody claims that third-graders and teachers elsewhere will suffer as a result.

By contrast, the MTA operates in a way that creates the perception that bus riders and rail construction are in competition.

The MTA is the product of a forced merger of two agencies: the Southern California Rapid Transit District, which ran the bus system and was building the Red Line subway, and the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, which doled out transportation funds and was building the light-rail system called for in Proposition A. The two agencies never liked each other and, since their union, have been struggling to fit together harmoniously. The turf wars can be almost comical. Try listening to an RTD loyalist defend the billion-dollar-a-mile Red Line as a sound investment while ridiculing the much cheaper Blue Line as a waste of money.

As a result of the marriage, the MTA carries out two basically conflicting tasks. First, it operates the largest bus system in the country, making the agency a big target for political attack by poverty advocates--because most riders are poor or working-class--and union activists. Second, it is in charge of constructing one of the largest public-works projects in the history of the country, which inevitably attracts big-dollar lobbyists seeking construction contracts.

The MTA's board actually doesn't have as much leeway in deciding how to spend money as the poverty advocates claim. There is some discretion in doling out Proposition A and C funds, but the drafters of the ballot measures, especially Proposition A, were primarily concerned with paying for construction of a light-rail system. Nonetheless, because all the money is in the same budget, Mayor Richard Riordan, county Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich and the other MTA board members get hammered from all sides by people wanting to spend the money a certain way.

Furthermore, this structure encourages political activists to fire away at the MTA without needing to pay attention to the overall transportation planning and funding process.

Billions of dollars of state and federal transportation funds flow into Los Angeles every year, and it is spent according to priorities mostly determined by the Southern California Assn. of Governments and state and federal bureaucracies--forums reporters don't usually cover and politicians usually ignore. These spending decisions reflect a bias toward rail--and highway--construction over bus-operating funds that has nothing to do with the MTA.

Other decisions that drive public policy on transportation in Los Angeles are not even made by transportation agencies. Tighter tailpipe-smog regulations, which arguably hit the poor hardest because they increase the cost of old clunkers, are imposed by the California Air Resources Board. The regional car-pooling requirement, an expensive attempt to get the middle class out of their cars, is controlled by the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

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