The $500-million Harbor Transitway from Wilmington to downtown Los Angeles was supposed to generate 65,000 bus rides a day along the Harbor Freeway.
But usage is so low--3,000 boardings a day--that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has slashed the fare by more than half--from $3.35 to $1.35--in hopes of increasing ridership.
Friday illustrated the problem. The three southernmost transitway parking lots had more empty spaces than cars. The impressive and artfully designed bus stations, complete with gleaming new elevators, were nearly empty at mid-morning. One bus heading back to San Pedro at noon had a single passenger.
The reduced transitway fare will be in effect until the end of January, and is in line with the cost for riding the MTA's Metro Rail trains.
The new fare was announced Friday, along with the official dedication of the transitway's last two stations--one at Carson Street, the other at Pacific Coast Highway--just off the Harbor Freeway.
At the same time, MTA officials said they were increasing bus service during the week and on weekends.
"We are providing faster buses at a lower price," said county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, head of the MTA board. "Hopefully, this will make a difference."
The news conference seemed at times like a pep rally for the transitway. The only thing needed to complete the picture was passengers.
Edgar Sanchez, an organizer for the Bus Riders Union, said dropping fares should help pull in more passengers.
"We think its good that they are finally giving this line a chance to succeed," Sanchez said. "They should do that for every bus line."
Transit agency officials declined to say what will happen to transitway buses if passenger traffic does not improve.
One of the most imposing concrete edifices in Los Angeles County, the transitway in places soars 50 feet above the freeway. Caltrans spent more than 20 years studying, planning and building the structure, designed to accommodate carpools as well as buses. The elevated portions, built along the freeway median, run for 2.6 miles. The rest of the transitway is at ground level, mostly on dedicated freeway lanes.
Drivers of cars that meet the two-person minimum required for using the carpool lanes seem to love them. It has shaved significant time off trips from the Harbor area to downtown and, going the other way, from downtown to the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Los Angeles International Airport and other destinations.
But the buses that share the dedicated lanes with them are often less than half full.
The El Monte Busway--with 32,000 boardings each weekday and one-way fares up to $2.75--and other popular bus routes have proven that middle-class commuters will use buses under the right conditions.
Officials are having a hard time explaining why more people aren't taking advantage of the Harbor Transitway's relatively inexpensive, fast ride.
The route is advertised as going from the Pacific Coast Highway station in Wilmington to downtown in a little over 40 minutes. The trip can be even less expensive than the new $1.35 fare if riders use 90-cent tokens or buy basic $42-a-month bus passes.
Those costs compare favorably with those charged by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, which runs express buses from San Pedro and the Palos Verdes Peninsula to downtown. Top express bus fares are $2.65. Its comparable monthly pass costs $86. The Department of Transportation buses are also only about half-full during peak hours.
In addition to the possibility that riders were turned off by the old $3.35 fares, MTA officials acknowledge that running buses more frequently could help.
Now transitway buses start out from Wilmington every half-hour during peak commuting periods, and service is more frequent closer to Los Angeles.