Since the crippling Metropolitan Transportation Authority strike began 12 days ago, the agency's directors repeatedly have argued agency's high labor costs have pushed the price of operating its buses to unacceptable levels.
According to the transit agency's officials, the cost of labor and benefits accounts for 70% of the $98.66 per hour it takes to operate an MTA bus.
However, an examination of the MTA's budget shows that the United Transportation Union, which represents the striking bus and train operators, accounts for about 40% of the total hourly cost of running a bus. Maintenance of buses and facilities, including the workers who do the job, represents about 23%.
The agency's figures show that 7.8% goes for overhead, 6.2% goes for management and administration, 4% goes for security and 3.6% for insurance. Add to that the cost of removing graffiti, cleaning buses, fixing wheelchair lifts, replacing windows and painting vehicles.
The MTA operates the nation's second-largest bus system, with 2,000 buses running on 200 routes serving a vast area, including low-income urban neighborhoods and affluent suburbs.
While the agency spends more than any other Southern California transit operator to run a bus, neither its hourly operating cost nor its bus drivers' pay are out of line with those of most other big cities across the country.
A survey by The Times found that the hourly operating cost of MTA's buses is not significantly higher than transit agencies in New York, Boston or San Francisco.
Moreover, five big-city transit districts pay their experienced bus drivers a higher hourly wage than MTA does. Experienced bus drivers earn more per hour in Boston, the Silicon Valley, New York, San Francisco and Washington than they do in Los Angeles. The wage scale in Boston is the highest, with the most senior bus drivers earning $23.37 an hour. Full-time MTA bus drivers at the top of the pay scale earned $20.72 an hour before the strike.
The New York City transit system, the largest transit operator in the country, spends $98.61 an hour to operate its buses, a nickel less than the $98.66 spent by the MTA. San Francisco's transit operator spends between $94.72 and $100.48 an hour, depending on the type of bus, electric or diesel.
In Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority spends $91.90 an hour, even though it pays the highest hourly wage for an experienced bus driver of any of the cities surveyed.
At $79.50 an hour, the Chicago Transit Authority spends significantly less than the Los Angeles or New York transit systems, in part because of its lower wage scale. The Chicago system has taken steps to reduce operating costs in recent years by eliminating marginal routes, offering early retirement to higher-paid drivers and using less expensive part-time drivers on weekends and holidays, said Dennis Anonsike, senior vice president and treasurer of the transit authority.
The Chicago transit agency is negotiating a new contract with its unions.
The top pay for a bus driver in Sacramento is slightly less than in Chicago, but it costs more to operate a bus in the California capital--$85.14 an hour.
The Orange County Transportation Authority will spend about $77 an hour this year to run a bus.
In arguing that MTA's costs are far out of line with those of other transit districts, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and other MTA directors have cited the Santa Monica municipal bus system, which runs its Big Blue Bus for $65 an hour. The top pay for a bus driver in Santa Monica is $18.58 an hour.
But Brian Taylor, associate director of UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies, said larger and more urban public transportation systems nationally have what he calls a "diseconomy of scale," meaning they are inherently costlier than their smaller-scale counterparts.
That is true for a variety of reasons, including the fact that they are more likely to have pricier work rules established decades ago, when reliable public transit was more of a necessity, he said. Larger systems also see their costs rise because they service far more people, Taylor said.
Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus, for example, operates about 166 buses on 13 lines, mostly on the Westside. It has an operating budget of $30.7 million. The MTA's operating budget is just under $835 million a year.
The MTA runs the country's biggest fleet of expensive-to-maintain clean-fueled natural gas buses in a region with one of the country's worst air pollution problems.
And the MTA signed a federal court consent decree that requires it to reduce overcrowding and improve bus service. The agreement was reached to settle a federal civil rights case filed by bus rider advocates, who alleged that the transit agency poured billions of dollars into building expensive rail systems while allowing the bus system to deteriorate.
The Santa Monica system does not operate under a federal court consent decree. It does not serve the disadvantaged areas that MTA does.