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Valley Perspective

'Rapid Bus' Program Merits MTA Board Support

A viable, cost-effective and relatively quick transit solution is available. But directors are cutting the Valley out of the picture.

November 22, 1998|HAL BERNSON | Hal Bernson in a Los Angeles city councilman and MTA board member

Once again, the San Fernando Valley is receiving separate and unequal treatment from the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

At a recent MTA board meeting addressing regional transit alternatives, the members refused to set aside any funding for the Valley's transportation needs, leaving us again waiting for decades for transit improvements. Even more disturbing is the fact that there is no longer a countywide approach to improving transportation.

The Valley is home to 1.5 million people. It is a multibillion-dollar economic engine and home to five of the top 10 employment centers in Southern California: Warner Center, Universal City, Chatsworth Industrial Park, Burbank Media District and Glendale.

Since voter approval of two half-cent sales tax measures, in 1980 and 1990, the Valley has contributed millions of dollars to the MTA and its predecessor agencies. When voters approved the two transportation sales taxes--Proposition A and Proposition C--the Valley was one of many areas promised a rail system.

Since then, the MTA has made some remarkable progress. More than 42 miles of light rail and 5.5 miles of subway have been completed since 1990. Another 14 miles of light rail and 11 miles of subway will be opened in the next four years. In addition, the MTA is responsible for partially funding Metrolink, the highly successful commuter rail service that operates a five-county system on 416 miles of track.

But this success has had a price. The MTA ran up a debt of more than $3.2 billion that now represents the agency's single largest operating expense. The MTA and its predecessor agency, the RTD, or Southern California Rapid Transit District, also neglected its bus system, resulting in a federal consent decree mandating significant bus improvements. Most importantly, the pace of subway and light rail development--with board members demanding their piece of the pie--was not financially sustainable.

The MTA experienced very expensive subway construction and light rail costs and a myriad of problems, including the infamous "Hollywood sinkhole." But I believe the greatest problem facing the MTA today is that the promised rail lines were based on unrealistic revenue projections. The MTA said yes to everyone and wound up unable to deliver much of what it obligated itself to when the money didn't materialize. This included promises of subway extensions to the Mid-City, the Eastside and the Valley.

The fact is that there was not enough money before the wasteful practices stopped and there is not enough money today to build all the lines we keep talking about. The new MTA chief executive, Julian Burke, told the board of directors that the agency cannot afford any new fixed rail in the next six years. Instead, Burke recommended a new 16-line countywide "rapid bus" program, including service to the Valley, Mid-City and Eastside.

Although I and many other board members still believe we need to plan for affordable rail systems in the future, we also recognize that the rapid bus concept will provide service within a year. The advantage of this technology is that it rides in its own designated lane during peak traffic hours with signal preemption or priority, eliminating the gridlock that occurs when buses and other vehicles are jammed together in mixed-flow lanes.

I am not so naive as to believe that the rapid bus program is a panacea or perfect solution. I acknowledge that we need to assess how this priority bus would affect traffic flow, pedestrian safety, the economy and more. But it is an innovative, viable, cost-effective, relatively quick solution and should be supported.

Unfortunately, some MTA directors who represent the Mid-City and Eastside and their political allies have decided to pursue more narrow, parochial interests. They have disregarded the will of the voters who approved Proposition A a few weeks ago, banning the use of local sales tax revenue for subways.

Instead, they made an end run around Proposition A by voting to set aside $220 million for their districts--ignoring the fact that their own transit-dependent population and the transit-dependent people in other parts of the county need immediate service improvements. And they have cut the Valley out of the picture, rejecting the bulk of the $266 million rapid bus program that would--in part--serve this area. They turned down their opportunity to set aside funding for the Valley's transportation needs.

Like residents of the Mid-City and Eastside, Valley residents are angry and disappointed that a long-promised rail line will not be built. But the answer is not to hoard the remaining funds for only the Mid-City and Eastside while current transit needs go unmet everywhere. Instead, the MTA board should support Julian Burke's countywide rapid bus proposal and seek affordable, short-term alternatives to subway with the remaining funds.

Over time, the MTA should pursue new, affordable rail systems for the Valley and other areas at a measured pace of development that matches the available resources. This is a prudent use of taxpayer dollars and it is fair. That is what the Valley wants, needs and deserves.

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