Los Angeles: The MTA's Bus Stop Strategy

Los Angeles Metro Bus.jpg

Those who run the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority evidently believe that, since the Consent Decree that forced it to improve service to its bus riders has expired, they are free to rewrite history to justify Metro's elimination of nine bus lines, its reductions in service on eleven more, and its overall elimination of four percent of its bus service hours by attempting to show that MTA bus service is little utilized and not cost-effective.

The Consent Decree followed a decade of reductions in bus service and increases in fares while the majority of transit spending by the major LA transit agencies went to rail. As a result of a Federal Title IX (discrimination in utilization of Federal funding) legal action, Labor/Community Strategy Center v MTA, in 1996, Metro agreed to the CD. It was forced to eliminate the effective doubling of fares that it had imposed, to return to offering the monthly passes that had been highly utilized by low-income transit riders, and to commit to a relief of overcrowded bus service. Those of us who fought for the CD, and who fought Metro to make it live up to its commitments, believed the CD to be an incredible success.

MTA has always felt otherwise.

To see how MTA characterizes the CD as a failure, and thus justifies bus service reductions, go to the source… literally. The Source is MTA's blog:

"After the late 1990's, Metro increased bus service by more than one million hours. Although overall Metro ridership has increased over time, bus ridership has fallen or been flat in the past two decades."

This is a wonderful example of the creative use of statistics.

The latest National Transit Database data is for 2009, when there were 386 million bus boardings. In 1989, twenty years earlier, there had been 412 million. So, yes, Metro bus ridership fell over this two decade period.

However, a more relevant way of looking at this is to compare 1996 – the year before the CD went into effect – to 2009. From 1996 to 2009, mostly as a result of the CD, bus vehicle revenue hours were up 20.2%, miles were up 14.6%, and bus boardings were up 14.5%.

What the CD was intended to correct, more than anything, was Metro's history of reducing overall ridership, bus and rail, by an average of 12 million a year in the eleven years that followed its start of major rail construction in '85. The measure of the CD's success was the turnaround: Once it went into effect, Metro ridership increased 12 million a year for the next eleven years until it expired.

Metro did increase bus service substantially after the CD, and utilization of this service increased at right about the same level. Again, from The Source:

"How full are Metro buses today? Overall, Metro buses are running at an average of 42% capacity."

The 42% figure is evidently derived by dividing Metro's FY09 bus average passenger load – passengers-miles/vehicle revenue miles – by the average number of seats on Metro buses. The figure looks low, doesn't it? Think about all those empty seats.

However, unlike an airline flight from LAX to JFK, Metro buses make many stops along their routes to pick up and drop off passengers. Bus scheduling is developed around the maximum carrying capacity of a bus at the peak load point of the route during the peak ridership period. This means that, for much of the day, and for most of even the busiest bus trips, there are a lot of empty seats. That's the nature of the transit business.

And compare Metro bus service to its 20 largest peers. For 2009, Metro was had the second highest average passenger load of the group, at 17.1, beaten only by MTA-NYCT, at 17.9. The average of the results of the Top 20 was 11.3. That 42% starts looking pretty good . In fact, a ratio this high actually suggests that a lot of Metro bus lines should be examined for overcrowding.

"At present, Metro subsidizes about 71 percent of the cost of each passenger's bus ride, an amount higher than most other large transit agencies."

More commonly, this ratio is turned around, as in: Metro has a 29% farebox recovery ratio.

How does Metro bus rank up against its Top 20 peers? Seventh, and the average of the Top 20 is 27%. However,farebox recovery ratio can be a very misleading metric. Direct subsidy ratios are a more significant indicator, particularly taxpayer subsidy per passenger and per passenger-mile. Metro's subsidy/passenger was $1.74, third in the Top 20, against the average of its peers of $2.49; its subsidy/passenger mile of $.44 was second best, against the average of $.68.

So, rather than the bus service financial performance being sub-standard, it is actually outstanding, providing good value for the riders and great value for the taxpayers.

Instead of Metro telling the world what a great job it is doing, and taking pride in what it has accomplished, why is Metro leadership explaining how wasteful it is, and why service must be cut?

"As to whether [these] will be the final bus service changes, Leahy said that he wasn't sure. 'But, if we don't do these things, the capital program is not sustainable.'"

For those not familiar with MetroSpeak, "capital program," when applied to transit, primarily means building more rail.

This is the central issue: Metro is in the business of construction of transportation infrastructure, and money wasted on actually moving people takes away from what is available to build new guideway transit corridors.

As of this writing, Metro has Chatsworth Orange Line extension (BRT) and Expo Light Rail Phase I in construction, Expo Phase II approaching construction, and a design/build procurement for Phase 2A of the Pasadena Gold Line is underway.

Metro is also in various stages of planning and obtaining funding commitments for East San Fernando Valley North-South BRT lines, Sepulveda Pass Transit Corridor, Westside Subway Extension, Downtown Regional Transit Connector, Crenshaw/LAX Transit Corridor, Eastside Transit Corridor, Green Line LAX Extension, South Bay Green Line Extension, and West Santa Ana Transit Corridor. Plus, it's the majority partner for the seven Metrolink commuter rail lines.

Clearly, Metro is so short of operating funds that it is cutting service on a bus system that is the best value to the taxpayers and riders in the nation. It cannot afford to operate its current bus system, and it is attempting to get Congress to front-load massive construction funding against the thirty-year half-cent sales tax passed in 2008. Given Metro's less than stellar record of bringing in capital projects on budget, and considering its failure to provide for the very large capital renewal and replacement costs of the current rail lines as they age, exactly how does it expect to pay the operating costs of the expanded system it is rushing to construct?

As Will Rogers said, "When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging."

Tom Rubin has over 35 years in government surface transportation, including founding the transit industry practice of what is now Deloitte & Touche, LLP, and growing it to the largest of its type. He has served well over 100 transit agencies, MPO’s, State DOT’s, the U.S. DOT, and transit industry suppliers and associations. He was the CFO of the Southern California Rapid Transit District, the third largest transit agency in the U.S. and the predecessor of Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Photo by biofriendly, Metro Bus Campaign, Los Angeles

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