MTA Riders Hurt by Union Contracts

By Wendell Cox

Op-ed published by
Los Angeles Daily News
22 August 1999

The transportation zone debate in the August 8 Daily News is all too familiar. In 1976, Mayor Tom Bradley had promised to appoint a San Fernando Valley resident to the new Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC). LACTC was to govern public transit for the next decade and a half, until it was merged with the Southern California Rapid Transit District to form the MTA. As a Chatsworth resident, I was fortunate enough to be appointed by the Mayor to the LACTC and spent an invigorating, yet frustrating eight years representing the city.

My greatest disappointment was the early realization that transit in Los Angeles, and elsewhere in the nation, exists largely for the benefit of its employees, not for the riders or the taxpayers. At a time that federal, state and local transit funding was being expanded to encourage people out of their cars, most of the new money was being consumed in tax increases well above the rate of inflation. Bureaucracies grew and employee compensation ballooned to the point that public transit bus drivers were paid double or more that of their unionized counterparts in the private sector. Part of the problem is the extraordinary protections that transit employees and their labor unions are granted that are simply not available to the rest of the work force, union or non-union. For example, federal law guarantees six years severance pay to transit employees who lose their jobs due to "efficiencies and economies." Virtually no other employees, public or private, have such lay-off benefits, the value of which would exceed $300,000. As if that were not enough, the transit unions are using their considerable political clout in Sacramento to support Senate Bill 1101, which would grant another layer of special labor privileges, at the expense of transit riders in the San Fernando Valley.

Valley civic leaders are pressing to secede from the MTA and establish a San Fernando Valley Transit Zone, which would assume responsibility for local transit services. Routes would be competitively contracted, saving money and making it possible to expand services. The San Fernando Valley Transit Zone would follow the successful example of the Foothill Transit Zone, which was established in the San Gabriel Valley in the late 1980s.

At Foothill, the public agency continues to establish routes, schedules, fares, safety standards and buses are all painted in the livery of the public agency. But the services are provided by the lowest responsible and responsive bidder, at costs 40 percent below that of MTA bus services. Services have more than doubled, and in stark contrast to MTA, ridership is up 110 percent. The cost effectiveness of the Foothill Zone has allowed fares to be lower than at MTA.

Similar progress is happening around the nation and to an even greater extent overseas, where transit is far more important to urban mobility than in the United States. All London and Copenhagen bus services are now competitively contracted. Costs have dropped more than 40 percent in London, which has allowed services to be expanded. Conversions are also underway or completed in New Zealand, Australia, Sweden and Finland.

Yet, despite these impressive benefits to the riders and taxpayers, the vast majority of transit services in Los Angeles continue to be provided at costs near double what they should be.

I would like to be able to report that, since my leaving in 1985, transit in Los Angeles has been restructured to place the interests of riders and taxpayers over that of transit unions. Regrettably not. In 1979, transit costs per mile in Los Angeles were approximately the same as in San Diego. Since that time more than 40 percent of San Diego's bus service has been competitively contracted, and costs have dropped 28 percent (inflation adjusted). At the same time, Los Angeles costs have risen 36 percent. If Los Angeles had contained its costs as well as San Diego, the same level of bus service could be provided for approximately $300 million less annually and more than $4.2 billion would have been available for other uses since 1979.

For all the high minded talk about attracting people out of cars and into transit, nothing of the sort will happen so long as distorted laws and regulations, such as would be imposed by SB 1101, preclude the service expansions that could make it possible.

    Wendell Cox was a member of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission from 1977-1985. He now lives in St. Louis and runs his own business, Wendell Cox Consultancy, as an international public policy consultant. Write to him in care of Daily News Opinions, P.O. Box 4200, Woodland Hills, CA 91365-4200.

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