MTA fee hikes still leave rail plans unsure

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MTA fee hikes still leave rail plans unsure

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From the Los Angeles Times

MTA fee hikes still leave rail plans unsure

Even after winning the biggest fare increase in more than a decade, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority still finds itself in a cash crunch that keeps several projects in limbo.
By Jeffrey L. Rabin and Rong-Gong Lin II
Times Staff Writers

May 26, 2007

Even after winning the biggest fare increase in more than a decade, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority still finds itself in a cash crunch that leaves several rail projects in limbo.

If it survives an expected legal challenge, the boost in fares will help stabilize the transit agency's deficit-ridden finances. But the increase is significantly less than what MTA staffers originally sought to close a projected $1.8-billion deficit over the next decade.

That leaves the MTA with a fundamental challenge that has faced the agency since its birth 14 years ago: how to operate a vast bus system while simultaneously building or expanding light-rail and subway lines.

The MTA has dramatically increased its mass-transit network this decade, finishing the Red Line subway to North Hollywood and opening the Gold Line from downtown L.A. to Pasadena and the Orange Line, a busway across the San Fernando Valley. The agency is in the midst of building two more rail lines at a combined cost of $1.5 billion: a downtown-to-Culver City route known as the Expo Line and an extension of the Gold Line from downtown to East L.A.

MTA Chief Executive Officer Roger Snoble offered a sober assessment Friday of what comes next.

Although he believes the agency can afford to complete and operate the Culver City and East L.A. lines, he said other transit projects now being considered, including one busway extension, could face significant delays.

"There has been a big expectation that we will get it done sooner than is financially possible," Snoble said. "This whole experience shows we need to be realistic about our expectations…. It may delay some projects."

Among them:

• The Expo Line extension from Culver City to Santa Monica, where officials have already purchased property around the Sears department store near City Hall and plan to convert the store's auto center building into a transit center.

• The Gold Line extension that would run from Pasadena to Montclair, in San Bernardino County, with a possible link ending at LA/Ontario International Airport. The line has been pushed aggressively by officials in the San Gabriel Valley, who have long complained that their region has no light rail service.

• The Green Line extension from its Aviation station near El Segundo to Los Angeles International Airport.

• The Orange Line extension from Woodland Hills to Chatsworth.

• The much-discussed $4.8-billion "Subway to the Sea" under Wilshire Boulevard that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made a top priority when elected.

Only a dream?

Without a massive infusion of state and federal funds, officials said, the Wilshire subway remains only a dream. "That's got a long way to go," Snoble said.

The stakes are high, because there is general agreement that the MTA's current 73-mile rail network simply doesn't go enough places to lure motorists out of their cars. The agency's planners hope that pushing rail and busways farther into the Westside, San Gabriel Valley, South Bay and San Fernando Valley will create a system in which more people can get to their destinations. With L.A.'s population rising, officials worry that congestion on major boulevards and freeways will worsen, slowing bus service further.

The first set of fare hikes, which will hit bus and rail riders July 1, will generate at least $30 million in new revenue the first year, about 11% more than current levels, Snoble said. But it's less than the MTA chief had wanted.

A second wave of increases will be implemented in July 2009, possibly followed by another hike in 2011. That should provide the agency with enough revenue to operate the East L.A. and Culver City lines now under construction, as well as the other bus and rail services.

Already, an intense behind-the-scenes fight is underway between politicians from the Westside and the San Gabriel Valley over what rail project should follow the two now being built.

Westside forces are pushing for the $800-million Expo Line extension, saying traffic in their region is worse and that building a rail link to the ocean would be a huge relief valve. San Gabriel Valley forces say their area is underserved by rail and are pushing for a $1.4-billion route that would end in the fast-growing suburbs of San Bernardino County. (Both projects are at least six to seven years from completion.)

'It is sobering'

Transit advocates Friday said they are worried that the MTA's financial problems could cause delays on their projects.

"It is sobering," said Darrell Clarke, a Santa Monica planning commissioner and co-chairman of Friends 4 Expo Transit. "We need a network of new rail lines, not just a couple of little new ones."

LaVerne Mayor Jon Blickenstaff said the MTA's problems probably mean that the competition for funding will heat up.

"There's a critical need for a better transit system, [but] it's all very expensive to build and operate, and the subsidies are not nearly adequate," he said.

Members of Congress from L.A. County and transit lobbyists in Washington are trying to win approval of special provisions that would allow the local money being spent on the Culver City and East L.A. lines to be used to draw federal dollars for the extensions.

If successful, this effort would give the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Valley lines an extra source of funds. But even Snoble is skeptical. "It's really a hard sell," he said.

The fare increases approved by the MTA board Thursday will significantly increase what riders pay.

The cost of the monthly pass will gradually rise from $52 to $75 by July 1, 2009. The day pass — the most popular pass — will rise from $3 to $6 over the same period. The single-ride cash fare will rise the least, from $1.25 to $1.50 over the next two years.

Critics of the increase have already threatened to sue the MTA in federal court, arguing that the agency is ignoring the needs of working-class bus riders to build a grand rail system. Bus riders and civil rights groups sued the MTA on similar grounds in 1994, resulting in the agency's signing off on a consent decree that kept fares stable and resulted in improved bus service.

Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney who fought the MTA often over the last decade, said Friday that the increased fares will again hit the poor hard.

"They are going to make poor people's lives even more miserable," she said. "It looks like they are back to business as usual."

MTA officials have warned that without the fare increases approved Thursday, they might not be able to operate the Culver City and East L.A. rail lines after they are built.

Such restrictions would also be bad news for some projects in their early planning stages. L.A. officials are pushing for a light rail line along Crenshaw Boulevard and Florence Avenue from the Expo Line to LAX. There are also studies of a downtown route that would connect the Blue Line and Gold Line.

MTA board member Pam O'Connor, a Santa Monica councilwoman, said boosting fares was a difficult decision — but a needed one for the future of mass transit in L.A.

"You have to have a solid foundation," she said. "And, frankly, we were on shaky ground."



At risk

Expo Line extension

Where: From Culver City to Santa Monica

Est. Cost: $800 million or more

Purpose: Would bring rail to the beach and traffic-

clogged Westside.


Gold Line extension

Where: From Pasadena to Montclair

Est. Cost: $1.4 billion

Purpose: Would connect L.A. rail system to the fast-growing Inland Empire.


Green Line extension

Where: From near El Segundo to LAX

Est. Cost: $150 million or more

Purpose: The two-mile route would fill infamous "missing link," connecting rail line to LAX parking lot.


Orange Line extension

Where: From Woodland Hills to Chatsworth

Est. Cost: $135 million or more

Purpose: Successful busway would cross the full Valley. Costs less than rail.


Purple Line extension

(Wilshire subway)

Where: From Mid-Wilshire to Santa Monica

Est. Cost: $4.8 billion

Purpose: Would run through heart of city. Expensive but potentially popular.

Source: Times reports
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