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A (higher) ticket to ride

The MTA is deep in the red, making a fare hike -- not seen in more than a decade -- a reasonable decision.

January 26, 2007

TAKING THE BUS or train in Los Angeles might soon get a little more expensive. Believe it or not, that's a good thing.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority hasn't raised single-ride fares since 1995; adjusting for inflation, local transit riders are paying 20% less than they did a dozen years ago. The result is a system that has long had to cannibalize itself to placate two groups: federal monitors who refused to allow service reductions and a small but politically potent group of rider advocates who won't accept fare hikes. To maintain service on a budget deep in the red, the MTA has raided its maintenance budget, pared its administration and depleted its reserves.

No big-city transit system in the country is self-supporting. On average, systems get about 40% of their operating budgets from fares. But the MTA covers only about 24%; the rest comes from sales taxes and state and local sources. Other cities also charge more to ride the bus -- a daily pass costs $9 in Boston, $8 in Atlanta and $5 in Chicago. It's just $3 in L.A.

For the last decade, the MTA has been handcuffed by a federal consent decree to reduce overcrowding, giving a judge huge power over budget decisions. Any discussion of raising fares, meanwhile, has been met with howls of protest from the Bus Riders Union, whose 1994 lawsuit about overcrowding and a proposed increase first led to the consent decree. But the decree ended in October.

That doesn't mean the newly empowered MTA board is eager to raise fares. The Bus Riders Union has shown that it can scare politicians from doing anything that might trigger an accusation of "transit racism." No politician wants to be accused of making life harder for the low-income people, largely nonwhite, who rely on public transit.

But the board doesn't have much choice. The MTA faces a $105-million shortfall in next fiscal year's budget, which begins July 1. Though the agency is hoping the state will bail it out by returning $100 million in gas-tax money that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to seize, that's a long shot. A board committee is scheduled to discuss the financial situation in a few weeks, though the budget probably won't be approved until at least May.

With roughly 450 million transit rides a year, a modest increase in daily fares and monthly passes could go a long way. Still, to balance the budget, some service also will have to be cut.

L.A. faces challenges unique among U.S. cities in encouraging new people to ride public transit and accommodating a huge population of transit-dependent residents. The MTA is right to try to keep fares low. But the agency's budget woes have been worsening for years because tough decisions have been deferred. It's time to raise fares.

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