Mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa announced an ambitious plan Tuesday to buy 850 new buses for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and to cut the top bus fare to 50 cents, a move the former legislator predicted would reduce vehicle traffic and increase bus ridership by 140 million a year.
Villaraigosa released a detailed budget to pay for the $811-million, four-year plan, saying it was the kind of bold action that Angelenos are looking for in their next mayor. Although he was supported by several transportation advocates, administrators at the giant MTA predicted that it would prove politically and economically unfeasible for a mayor to complete such a huge make-over of the region's transportation system.
Skeptics noted that the transportation authority is having trouble meeting its operating expenses now, even without cutting the $1.35 fare by more than half. And they doubted that even a persuasive mayor, with four votes on the MTA board, would be able to convince the entire 13-member panel to adopt the expansion of the bus system at the expense of rail, other municipal bus companies and highway programs.
Tom Whittle, general manager of Torrance Transit, said: "Expanding bus operations and reducing fares is a wonderful thing. The problem is taking money out of the county pot and putting it into the city pot."
Villaraigosa said his critics were thinking in old, orthodox ways and that he would challenge the transportation agency to do better at its core mission of providing more frequent and cheaper bus service, especially to the urban poor.
"People are looking for problem solvers who are bold and who can bring constituencies together to solve the problems that face us," Villaraigosa said. "I think this plan does it."
Villaraigosa's proposal embraces a stand taken by two other mayoral candidates--City Atty. James K. Hahn and U.S. Rep Xavier Becerra--but goes several steps further. All three candidates pledged to drop the MTA's appeal of a federal lawsuit in which the agency was ordered to buy 350 buses to relieve overcrowding.
But Villaraigosa pledges not only to buy those buses to satisfy U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr., but to acquire 500 more by 2005. He would also add 20 high-speed bus lines on main thoroughfares. Finally, Villaraigosa said he would reduce fares across the board--cutting the standard monthly pass from $42 to $20 and the monthly rate for senior citizens and the disabled from $12 to $6.
Backing Villaraigosa's proposal Tuesday were three noted transportation advocates--former transit agency board chairmen Nick Patsouras and Marvin Holen and Richard Katz, past chairman of the Transportation Committee in the state Assembly.
About 20 members of the Bus Riders Union attended the news conference, and one of its leaders, Eric Mann, said he was pleased with Villaraigosa's plan and particularly his promise to make increased bus service the top priority, even over the light-rail construction that he has favored in the past. The group had earlier praised Hahn and Becerra for saying they would drop the MTA's lawsuit against the federal bus plan.
But some who work within the MTA, after reviewing Villaraigosa's plan, doubted whether agency board members from communities surrounding Los Angeles would support a proposal that tilts so heavily away from popular programs and toward the city's core.
Among other things, Villaraigosa would slash $57 million in payments to the Los Angeles Police Department and Sheriff's Department for security on buses and Metro Rail trains.
He would raise money for new buses by trimming $50 million in transportation subsidies to the popular commuter rail line Metrolink.
The plan calls for taking $81 million in annual bus subsidies to municipal bus lines in cities such as Torrance, Santa Monica and Long Beach.
The written plan also called for transferring about $18 million from a budget account used to pay for local dial-a-ride programs serving the elderly and disabled. But Villaraigosa said late Tuesday afternoon that he would try to avoid cutting that popular program.
An additional $68 million would come from traditional highway funds used to finance projects like construction of carpool lanes and various freeway and highway improvements.
Whittle of Torrance Transit said the plan rewards the county's most expensive bus line. He said municipal bus operators run their buses at a cost of between $50 and $60 an hour, compared to $90 to $100 an hour for the MTA.
The MTA noted that its average rider already pays less than 50 cents per ride, when bus passes and special discounts are factored in. Marc Littman, a spokesman for the MTA, also challenged the need to add 850 buses. He said the transit agency is replacing its bus fleet, having taken delivery of 1,132 new buses in the last couple of years, with another 500 buses due to arrive this year.
Most of those are replacement buses, but Littman said the new buses have contributed to a 27% drop in complaints over the last two years.
"There is a limit on how fast we can expand our bus system," Littman said.
Currently, Littman said the MTA sets aside about 45% of its annual budget for buses, while carefully trying to balance other transportation priorities.
He noted that the MTA has a mandate to help maintain the freeway and highway system. About 97% of trips in the county are by car.
Further, he said many experts believe that the county's transportation future may lie with a greatly expanded rail system.
Littman said that when the MTA was studying a light-rail extension to the Eastside "the community overwhelmingly asked for rail," as opposed to more buses.
Villaraigosa refused to back down, saying that his tough choices would create bus lines that would serve many more people and at much lower rates.