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Fare increase won't fix public transit

Transit agencies should work harder to attract new riders rather than further squeezing the ones they have.

May 11, 2010|David Lazarus

Public transit systems throughout Southern California are preparing to jack up fares this summer. They could use the extra money — the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority alone is facing a $181-million budget shortfall.

But fare hikes aren't the whole solution to public transit's money woes. It's time that the dozens of city- and county-run systems that make up the region's transit network get together and hash out a plan to expand ridership, rather than repeatedly reaching deeper into the pockets of those who already ride the bus.

"They need to entice people to leave their cars at home," said Esperanza Martinez, lead organizer for the Bus Riders Union, a public transit advocacy group. "They're not doing that. Instead they're just going for more money."

The grand pooh-bahs of the MTA convened over the weekend to hear what the public had to say about the system's first fare hike in two years, which will take effect July 1. More than a dozen people got up to speak at the meeting. Not one supported the idea of paying more.

But the problem isn't that the MTA plans to charge unreasonable rates. Pound for pound, SoCal's largest public-transit system is still cheaper than many comparable systems nationwide.

The same goes for other local transit systems that also have fare hikes in the works, including Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus, West Covina-based Foothill Transit, Metrolink, and the L.A. Commuter Express and Dash lines.

The problem is that most of these systems are focusing solely on short-term financial gain and all but ignoring long-term promotion of public transportation as a practical alternative to traveling by car.

As a result, their money troubles will almost certainly keep growing, our roads and freeways will become even more clogged, and L.A.'s pitiful status as the nation's smoggiest city won't change.

"The board does not like raising fares and it does not like cutting service," said Rick Jager, an MTA spokesman. "But sometimes you have to take the pain."

The pain in this case is an increase in one-way fares to $1.50 from $1.25. It's also a jump in the cost of daily passes to $6 from $5, and in monthly passes to $75 from $62.

Yet even at these levels, fares will account for only about 28% of total revenue needed to operate the system's buses and rail lines — one of the lower such percentages in the country.

By comparison, fares make up more than half of the operating budget for the Bay Area Rapid Transit network in Northern California and about 36% of New York's municipal system. The rest typically comes from state coffers.

Local transit systems apparently believe the answer to their cash crunch is to make existing riders pay more. I say the answer is getting more people to use public transportation.

As I've written before, greater use of bus-only lanes and express lines would help make bus trips faster and more attractive to casual riders, those who (like me) might be inclined to use public transportation one or two weeks a month. Anything that's quicker and easier than traveling by car would be a welcome change for many people.

Similarly, it seems foolish that you can't buy a daily or weekly pass that would allow you to jump from one transit system to another — from the MTA to the Culver City system, for example.

Regional EZ Passes exist, and they do allow you to use multiple systems, but they're sold on a monthly basis only. Not everyone might want or need a full 30 days' worth of transit access. Also, the cost of an EZ Pass will rise in July to $84 from $70 — not very palatable for casual riders.

At least you can get a transfer on the bus, right? Not necessarily.

Transfers from one city's system to another are available on many buses, but they're being gradually phased out.

The MTA decided in 2005 to do away with transfers within its own system and to instead push daily passes on riders. That means you can't switch from an MTA bus, say, to an MTA subway without paying the full fare twice.

It also means that, after the cost of a daily pass rises to $6 in July, you'll have to ride at least four times a day to make the pass worthwhile.

Now look at the Big Blue Bus. Here's an example of a transit system that gets it.

The Santa Monica service had originally proposed that along with raising one-way fares in August to $1.25 from 75 cents, it would follow the MTA's example and do away with intrasystem transfers.

But Stephanie Negriff, director of transit services for the Big Blue Bus, told me that the transfer change is being taken off the table.

"What we were doing was right, technically," she said. "The convention is to move to day passes."

However, Negriff said, Big Blue Bus officials realized that riders don't necessarily want to use day passes, and many people want to be able to make short hops from one bus to another using transfers.

"We decided we should keep giving people the choice," she said.

That's how you do it: Pay attention to what riders want and respond accordingly; empower people with plenty of options so they can use public transportation the way they want to, not the way some bureaucrat has decided.

By the way, does anyone really think the honor system is the best way to go for subways and light-rail lines? I'm thinking that whatever the cost is of putting in actual ticket gates, it would be far outweighed by all the extra revenue that would be raised from people who now ride for free.

It's not that commuters want public-transit systems to go broke. And it's not that we don't want to use public transportation.

We just want transit operators to meet us halfway.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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