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NEWS ANALYSIS : Privately Run Foothill Transit a Strike Winner


Whether the Metropolitan Transportation Authority or its unions claim to have prevailed in their conflict, the fight already has another winner: Foothill Transit.

Foothill's name may be unfamiliar outside the Pomona and east San Gabriel valleys, where it operates 21 local and express bus routes with about 10.7 million boardings this year.

But the agency's interests--further privatization of MTA services--have been a major factor in the county's first transit strike in more than a decade. And the transit unions' failure to stave off further contracting out of MTA services has created new opportunities for Foothill, MTA's largest contractor.

Under agreements struck a week ago with bus drivers and clerks, MTA will turn 13 more bus lines over to private operators. The terms of the tentative agreement with the mechanics, reached early Monday, were sketchy, but MTA officials said it would not interfere with plans to privatize the lines. All the agreements still must be ratified by union members.

"People think this strike is over contracting," said one board member, who asked not to be identified. "But it's really over contracting with Foothill. That's all the pro-contracting-out forces on the board really care about."

Foothill Transit began operating in 1988, when it took over 14 bus lines from the Southern California Rapid Transit District, which since has been merged into the MTA. Today, Foothill operates 200 buses as the county's second-largest transit agency and has proposed a takeover of additional MTA lines.

County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who also sits on the MTA board, says he would like to see agencies such as Foothill established in the San Fernando Valley, on the Eastside and in South-Central Los Angeles. Ultimately, the massive MTA would operate a fraction of its current lines and function mainly as a contract manager.

Contracting arrangements such as Foothill's, Antonovich says, work because they are "free of the sweetheart contracts of the former RTD, with their featherbedding and work rules that are contrary to the interests of the taxpayer and rider."

"Contracting out" is the euphemism that elected officials use to describe the increasingly popular practice of allowing private companies to bid on the provision of basic services traditionally rendered by public employees. Big-ticket items with high labor costs, such as transit and trash collection, are favorite targets.

Nationally, Phoenix's competitive system of refuse hauling is one closely watched example of this process, which often is called privatization. Foothill Transit is another. To many who have watched their progress, these two experiments are a window on the future of many traditional public services.

What you glimpse through that window, however, depends on your angle of view. To elected officials struggling to live within ever-tightening budgets, Foothill-like entities point the way to a new era of affordable, flexible, efficient public services. But to the leaders of organized labor and their dwindling number of sympathizers, that era is one in which budgets are balanced by pushing an increasing number of public employees down the economic ladder to the rung occupied by the working poor.

Foothill's experience seems to vindicate both views.

Foothill is neither a traditional public transit agency nor quite what the libertarian theorists who conceived the privatization movement had in mind. Rather, it is a hybrid of the public and private sectors. Its policies are set by a "joint powers authority" consisting of 20 small cities in the Pomona and east San Gabriel valleys and Los Angeles County.

Representatives of all the authority's members meet once each year to approve a budget and to elect a five-member executive board.

Foothill Transit itself has no employees. All of its work--from management to maintenance--is done by private contractors. The 30 people who comprise Foothill's entire administration all work for Forsythe and Associates Inc., a West Covina-based transportation and management firm, which is paid $2 million a year by Foothill to run the bus company. The agency leases its buses, which are driven and maintained by two other private transit companies, Laidlaw and Mayflower.

Sharon Neely, now a private transit consultant, was the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission staff member who worked on the formation of Foothill in the mid-1980s.

She says that, so far, the experiment "has been extremely successful. It has caused no layoffs in the public sector. Fares are lower for its riders and it has added service in the San Gabriel Valley, which needed it. More important, the constituents are happy because they're getting better service."

Even a cursory look at Foothill's service tends to bear Neely out. The agency's buses--all of them relatively new--are clean and free of graffiti. Surveys have recorded a high degree of rider satisfaction.

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