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MTA's $565,000 Question


Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials are spending $565,000 to find out what the public thinks about bus service.

Have they thought about riding the bus for $1.35?

Beginning later this month, 53,000 riders and 4,000 nonriders will be surveyed about their transit needs, travel patterns and satisfaction.

For months, bus riders have been packing MTA meetings telling officials (at no charge) how they can turn around the decline in bus ridership, which has sunk from the 1.7 million daily boardings in the mid-1980s to 1.1 million today.

Riders say: lower the fare and provide buses that are clean, safe, run often and arrive on time.

But transit officials often pay less attention to the bus riders than the well-dressed lobbyists who represent monied interests.

Recently, however, new transit boss Joe Drew and board Chairman Larry Zarian did something that top transit officials rarely do.

They rode the bus.

They stood on street corners as one bus packed with commuters passed by without stopping. Finally, when they got on buses, they found themselves standing even longer because there were no seats available.

Zarian, who talked to dozens of riders, said he came away with a better understanding of the problems faced by thousands of mostly poor commuters riding the nation's most crowded bus system.

"Overall, I thought the service was good, but there is still room to improve," he said.

Yet Zarian still wants to take that formal survey. He and other MTA officials say it will provide information to help the agency adjust and plan bus routes, attract new riders and better serve existing patrons.

The monthlong survey, which will be conducted in English, Spanish, Korean and Chinese, asks riders to give the origins and destinations of their trips and to rate such variables as bus cleanliness, the fare, safety, driver courtesy, waiting time, crowding and travel time.

Riders will be permitted to fill out the survey on the bus or take it home and mail it back.

In a box on a draft survey marked "register to win," riders are asked for their name, address and phone number. (The form does not specify that riders can fill out the survey without giving their name.) The MTA will offer such prizes as a one-year bus pass and $500 in cash to encourage participation.

Plans call for establishing a computer database of respondents for use in evaluating the impact of new marketing programs and service changes.

State Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), a frequent MTA critic, raised an eyebrow on that score Thursday.

"The goal is to build a database of 'MTA constituents,' which means the agency may become involved in taxpayer-funded, self-promotional direct-mail campaigns to offset its critics," he said.

Hayden said that a survey in the $10,000 to $15,000 range is a good idea, but a $565,000 survey is "20 times more costly than necessary, exactly like spending money on a subway instead of a bus"--the kind of MTA spending priority the senator is fond of criticizing.

The MTA now surveys between 3,000 to 5,000 riders a year. Officials say the surveys show a "high level of satisfaction" with the agency. But the scale of those surveys is "so small that we cannot make decisions about travel patterns throughout the region," said Robert Jackson, MTA senior statistical analyst.

The survey comes as a historic June 11 trial nears on a lawsuit accusing the MTA of discriminating against minority and poor bus riders by spending money on rail projects that will mainly benefit affluent white commuters.

The Bus Riders Union, a plaintiff, is seeking to roll back fares from $1.35 to $1 immediately, and eventually to the 50-cent level of the mid-1980s, when ridership reached a record.

The group picked up a key ally in the court case this week: the Los Angeles Board of Education voted to file a friend-of-the-court brief on the bus riders' behalf.

School board member Jeff Horton said of students who rely on the MTA: "When they can't get to school reliably because buses are too full or don't run often enough, it hurts their education."

In case you don't get a chance to fill out the MTA survey, send us your ideas for improving bus service. Send to: Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

Suggestions will be forwarded to the MTA. Sorry, no prizes.

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