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of Southern California. | STREET SMART

What if Disney Took Over the MTA?

May 31, 1996|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just about everybody has an idea for reforming the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Here's mine: Do away with the MTA and turn over the job of building and operating the transit system to the Walt Disney Co.

The idea may sound goofy, but wouldn't privatization remove the politics from transit planning that has given Los Angeles a train that runs near, but not to, the airport, and a subway that will bypass museums along Wilshire Boulevard to run under Wilton Place?

Wilton Place?

With a private company like Disney in charge, profit would become Priority No. 1, meaning that whatever system is built, it would take people where they want to go. And it would probably be fun or at least pleasant to ride.

So why Disney? The company is regarded as a first-class operation with a golden touch and a high level of customer satisfaction. When was the last time you heard about a sinkhole at the Magic Kingdom?

What's more, Disney has a track record, so to speak, of successfully operating transit systems. In 1959, the company opened the first daily operating monorail in the Western Hemisphere at Disneyland. The 2 1/2-mile system shuttles more passengers than the MTA's spiffy new Green Line trolley.

And in Florida, Walt Disney World's transportation network of ferries, monorails and 160 buses shuttles up to 360,000 park visitors on peak days.

In contrast, the MTA operates about 1,750 buses--recording 1.1 million boardings a day. It also operates rail lines serving 81,000 riders a day.

Author Ray Bradbury once suggested that Walt Disney should be elected mayor of Los Angeles--because he was the only person who knew how to make a city fun and profitable.

MTA officials themselves have acknowledged that the agency needs reform.

Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, decrying the MTA's "turmoil and inefficiency," is supporting a bill wending its way through the state Legislature that would restructure the MTA board barely three years after the agency was created. It would allow Riordan and other elected officials to continue serving or appoint someone to serve in their place.

Would Disney, even with its magic touch, want the job?

No public transit system in America makes money.

Until the late 1950s, private companies ran the buses and trolley lines in Los Angeles. But the companies couldn't make enough money, especially after freeways were built and Southern Californians fell in love with the automobile.

Eventually, the city's first public transit agency was created--the Metropolitan Transit Authority--in order to ensure mass transit.

Even the feds realized that the private sector couldn't go it alone. During the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, the federal government began providing grants so cities could replace their aging bus and rail systems. Under President Gerald R. Ford, the government began providing operating subsidies.

Today, fares account for only about a third of the cost of bus operations. The rest comes from taxpayer subsidies.

So if Disney or another company took over the MTA, it would have to receive public subsidies.

If a private company took over the transit system--whether to build the subway, run the buses or both--a public authority of some kind would still be necessary, according to experts.

"How are you going to hold them accountable?" asked Robert Paaswell, a former Chicago Transit Authority executive who is now director of the Transportation Research Center at City University of New York.

"I can't imagine a way in which public money is going to be spent without some public oversight," said Martin Wachs, UCLA professor of urban planning and director of the Institute of Transportation Studies. "It's getting out of this too easily to say it ought to be run by a private company. Why can't we do things that are inherently political with a greater degree of efficiency?

"Let's suppose General Motors wanted to do it," Wachs added. "Can you imagine the voters of L.A. being delighted to have the sales tax money turned over to General Motors with no oversight?"

Transit activists also fear that if a private company took over the transit system, riders would suffer.

Imagine what would happen if Disney charged to ride the bus what it charges for a hamburger at its theme parks, they say.

Although some experts thought the idea of turning over transit operations to a private company was provocative, they questioned whether it was realistic.

Disney's operations are limited to ferrying vacationers on a relatively small system. It is quite different to provide transit to thousands of rushed commuters on hundreds of lines.

Public agencies, nonetheless, are increasingly turning over more and more of their operations to private companies.

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