Over the objections of some transit riders, L.A. County officials on Thursday eliminated almost 4% of the county's bus system by canceling or reducing service on 18 routes from the San Gabriel Valley to the South Bay.
The cuts, which are the first major reductions in years for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, eliminate three Metro Local and five Metro Rapid bus lines and reduce service during weekdays and weekends on the remainder of the routes. The changes begin Dec. 12.
MTA officials say, however, that the loss of the Rapid lines will be backfilled with conventional Local buses, which generally travel more slowly and make more stops than Rapid service. One route, the 168 in the San Fernando Valley, was spared from cancellation pending further study.
Overall, about 270,000 hours of bus service a year will be dropped at an estimated savings of $30 million annually. The amount, MTA officials say, will help erase a $250-million deficit in its budget for bus and rail operations.
Like other transit agencies in the state and nation, the MTA has been buffeted by the worst recession since World War II. Revenue has been reduced because of declining ridership, the loss of state funds and decreases in proceeds from the county's three half-cent sales taxes that help pay for transportation projects.
"The changes flow from a great deal of analysis," said Art Leahy, the MTA's chief executive. "The data shows we can take these economic steps and still improve operations. We are running service that is excessive compared to other parts of the nation."
Of all the transportation services MTA provides — operating buses, subways and light-rail lines and working with Caltrans on highway projects — bus service is one of the most popular, with slightly more than 1 million boardings each weekday.
MTA officials said they tried to reduce bus service in a way that affects the fewest riders and causes the least inconvenience.
Scheduled for cuts are routes that have low ridership, duplicate service and those in which Rapid buses do not perform much better than Local buses. Some of the bus lines marked for elimination carry 20 or fewer passengers an hour compared with the MTA average of 51 passengers hourly.
But Bart Reed, executive director of the nonprofit Transit Coalition, said the MTA should have tried rerouting some lines before taking away service that people depend on. A weak route at MTA, he added, is not necessarily a weak line at another transit agency such as Culver City's.
"Before you kill the patient, you should try a lot of experiments," Reed said. "This seems to be lacking at MTA. It's an issue. We are hurting human lives here — people that don't have any alternatives."
In addition, members of the Bus Riders Union opposed the reductions, saying that the changes will overcrowd buses, hurt low-income and minority communities and inconvenience people who must depend on buses for transportation.
Union members also said reductions in service hours would undermine the 1 million hours of bus service that the MTA added under a federal consent decree issued in 1996.
"It's unconscionable what the MTA is doing," said Ivan Chavez, a transit user and member of the Bus Riders Union. "MTA is playing with taxpayer money. I am a taxpayer. I deserve better service."