The Metropolitan Transportation Authority board intends to study the merits of breaking up its massive bus system into small, subregional agencies. One scenario would produce smaller transit zones governed by their own boards and funded through the MTA. Meanwhile, there is sentiment in the San Fernando Valley for a breakaway operation with a separate bus system. Backers believe that a breakup would create more efficient and economical service.
But before everyone jumps on this train (no pun intended) as the solution for the region's mass transit problems, remember that these changes could just devolve into the last stop on what's been a 40-year treadmill ride.
In the 1950s, Southern California had both public and private bus and trolley companies. By 1957, for a variety of reasons, the region was left with a hodgepodge of ailing and failed lines, abandoned service areas and unreliable inter-regional companies.
It was an earlier, state-operated MTA, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, that was given the task of buying up those companies and developing an areawide transit agency that would ensure uniform fares and reliable service. Problem was, the old MTA was designed primarily to run a local bus system, not a regional mass transit system.
The latter was evident by the 1964, when the MTA was replaced by the Southern California Rapid Transit District. The focus became development of a rapid transit system that would take the region into the future, and the assumption was that Los Angeles would follow other big cities and rely less on buses and more on rail.
By 1976, it was clear that the RTD could not do both, and yet another transit agency, the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, was formed to take over mass transit planning. When the new MTA was formed later, regional bus service was a mess and the MTA and its board were blinded by the goal of a rail network, not a better bus system. Sense a pattern here?
Now, late in the 1990s, it's clear that any new formula will have to offer some proof that the same old problems will not be repeated, such as a system that provides far better service in some areas than others and puts in place separate and competing bureaucracies and poor logistics.
Even if these potential problems are resolved, others await: existing MTA union contracts, for instance, and a court consent decree requiring better bus service in poverty areas.
And bear in mind that the "privatized" local bus companies cited as models are often heavily subsidized with local, state and federal dollars.
Finally, it has by no means been proven that a single countywide bus system cannot be operated successfully. What's clear is that for many years the MTA board has not considered buses its top priority. The current incarnation of the board should have learned otherwise.