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Pumped-up public transit

THE POLITICS OF POWER

August 13, 2005

AMID ALL THE PAIN inflicted by skyrocketing oil prices, there is a silver lining for Los Angeles. The agony of paying from $40 to $60 for a tank of gas is prompting more people to take public transportation.

That holds true not just for the overcrowded bus system, but for the underutilized subway and light-rail lines. For the fiscal year ending in June, ridership on Metropolitan Transportation Authority-operated buses was up nearly 23% to more than 361 million boardings. The Red Line subway was up nearly 30%, and even the troubled Gold Line to Pasadena saw a 28% jump, according to the MTA.

It is impossible to say whether all those gains are attributable to high gas prices, but they are clearly a factor. And they are a factor that is not likely to go away. The recent run-up in oil prices may be a bubble that will eventually burst. But the fast-growing economies of India and China guarantee that long-term demand will rise at unprecedented rates. In the past, oil companies have coped with rises in demand by finding new sources of supply, but the world is running out of untapped oil fields. The era of cheap oil may be over.

Like past L.A. mayors, Antonio Villaraigosa is now finding himself in a hot seat when it comes to public transportation. The mayor wields considerable power over local transit decisions, appointing three members to the 13-member MTA board (in addition to serving on it himself), but that power comes fraught with political peril. Invariably the board has to choose between pleasing the powerful Bus Riders Union by maintaining and expanding bus service or pleasing business interests and wealthier constituents by expanding the rail system. Villaraigosa has vowed to do both.

To some, his plans seem grandiose. There is a limited pool of local, state and federal money for public transit; L.A. never gets enough to fulfill all its needs, certainly not enough to fund Villaraigosa's ambitious agenda of extending the Red Line down Wilshire Boulevard, funding the Exposition Line to Santa Monica, extending the Gold Line farther into the San Gabriel Valley and building a line to LAX, all while fully complying with a federal consent decree that demands big increases in funding for bus service.

But the jump in MTA ridership will give the mayor considerable ammunition when he goes looking for federal and state funds for these projects, and should quell any doubt that L.A. residents are clamoring for extended services. More public transit is an unalloyed benefit for the city, helping decrease the twin ills of traffic and smog.

None of this makes the pain at the pump any more bearable or relieves the plight of low-income households for whom high gas prices are straining budgets to the breaking point. But as with most economic shifts, this one has some pluses to go with the minuses.

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