Our response to Bus Riders Union allegations that Metro can’t afford 30/10 Initiative

The Bus Riders Union recently sent a letter to Rep. Grace Napolitano alleging that Metro would have to drastically cut future bus service because the agency did not have the money to operate new projects that are part of the 30/10 Initiative.

As many of you know, the 30/10 Initiative proposes to build 12 Measure R transit projects in 10 years instead of 30 by using federal loans and other financing. The idea is to build now while construction costs are down and then repay the federal government over time using Measure R revenues.

In fact, Metro is already in the process of planning on how to pay to operate a dozen new projects should the 30/10 plan be fully funded by Congress and President Obama. Metro recently submitted an operating plan to the Federal Transit Administration that calls for the agency to mostly use funds from sales tax increases in 1980 and 1990, Measure R funds and fares collected by customers. The federal government insists on a financially viable operating plan before they will partner with local projects.

The critical number in the plan is to reduce the subsidy Metro pays per customer. Metro passengers currently pay about 29 percent of the cost of operating the system. Even before the 30/10 Initiative was proposed, the agency announced its intention to raise that number to 33 percent — a critical factor in having funds to operate projects built under the 30/10 plan.

Here are some points worth considering:

• Of the dozen projects proposed for 30/10 Initiative funding, two are bus projects, five will almost certainly be rail projects and five others are in the study process and could be bus or rail – the decision has yet to be made by the Board of Directors of Metro.

• The majority of Metro customers use both bus and rail to get around. In Metro’s most recent customer survey, 59 percent of respondents said they rode both Metro buses and trains. Seven percent said they only used rail and 27 percent said they only took the bus. Fares are the same for buses and trains.

• In most cases, Metro’s trains operate at much higher average speeds than buses and can also carry hundreds more people than a bus. Trips on rail are typically longer than trips passengers take on buses. Another advantage of rail often overlooked: A rail right-of-way is mostly protected from traffic congestion going forward, ensuring that future trips will be faster than on streets that buses and cars reply upon.

•Metro has 191 bus routes that cover more than 4,000 miles of roadway. Bus service accounts for about 79 percent of average weekday boardings on Metro (1,058,021), according to the latest numbers.

•The rail system has 79 miles of service and accounts for about 21 percent of average weekday boardings (306,180). In other words, buses carry the bulk of Metro’s passengers, but rail carries many more passengers per mile.

•Metro has also invested in its bus system in recent years, creating the Metro Rapid program in 1999, which has more than 20 lines today. The Rapid buses improved travel times by 21 to 37 percent over pre-Rapid buses, according to a recent study by the Mineta Transportation Institute. Metro also is extending its popular Orange Line to Chatsworth, a project funded by Measure R and also part of the 30/10 Initiative.

•The Metro Rail program, which began in 1990, has caused total L.A. County transit ridership to grow from 552 million annual boardings in 1985 to 614 million in 2008. During that time, bus ridership slipped five percent despite a 42 percent increase in service.

•Generally speaking, it costs less per passenger mile to operate rail than buses, according to Metro’s most recent budget (see page 63). For example, it costs 36 cents per passenger mile to operate the Blue Line, 38 cents per passenger mile on the Red Line, 55 cents on the Green Line, 73 cents on the Gold Line, 56 cents on the Orange Line busway and 63 cents for Metro local and rapid buses. Of course, it costs significantly more to build a rail line than to purchase a bus.

•The Bus Riders Union contends that Metro bus riders have an average household income level of $12,000. That number comes from a 2001 Metro customer survey, which also stated that the average household income for rail passengers was $22,000. Metro is asking for household income data in its current survey but the results are not yet available.

•No future fare increases have been decided upon by Metro. The only certainty at this point is that fares for seniors, the disabled, Medicare recipients and students will remain at their 2008 levels until July 1, 2013, as dictated by the Measure R sales tax approved by voters in 2008. In 2013, the Board of Directors of Metro can choose to keep those fares at their current level, raise them or even lower them, although that is unlikely.

•There have been three Metro fare increases in the past 15 years. More than half of Metro customers – seniors, students, disabled and Medicare recipients – did not see a fare increase on July 1 because of the Measure R freeze in fares. Metro fares are lower than many other large transit agencies, although it should be noted that Metro does not allow for free transfers.

•Metro also offers steep discounts for seniors, students, the disabled, Medicare recipients and low income earners. For example, seniors pay $14 for a monthly pass that regularly costs $75.

•However, the Long-Range Transportation Plan approved by the Board of Directors in 2009 says that fare increases will be needed. Specifically, the plan says: “Metro transit fare revenues currently pay for only 29 percent of our cost to operate transit services. Cost savings are essential to improving this percentage to the planned level of 33 percent. Specific cost strategies are being implemented, but fare adjustments will be necessary to avoid serious deterioration in transit service.”

•Again, to emphasize this point: no decision has yet been made on when or how fares may be changed. The agency could choose to switch to a distance-based fare system, for example, or keep intact the current pay-per-ride structure.

•How does Metro’s 29 percent fare recovery compare to other large transit agencies? Here are the numbers according to the American Public Transportation Assn:

New York City Transit 50.6%

Boston MBTA  43.0%

Washington Metro 42.7%

Philadelphia SEPTA 40.7%

Chicago Transit Authority 39.8%

Atlanta 27.5%

San Francisco 25.9%

•As many readers know, Metro has been in the process over the past year of cutting and/or changing some of its bus service. The aim is to: emphasize service that is used by the most people; save money by eliminating redundant service and routes, and; better align bus and rail service so they don’t compete with one another. It’s an ongoing process and there is no pretending that the cuts are tiny or insignificant, particularly to our customers who are impacted by them. But the cuts in Metro service overall are far less drastic than recent cuts made by other large transit agencies and Metro still offers significant daytime, night-time and weekend service.

The bottom line: If the 30/10 Initiative goes forward, the public will see a massive expansion of transit services in Los Angeles County. That would greatly benefit all of our customers, including the transit dependent.

16 replies

  1. If this charges are so wrong, why did the MTA operations committee recommend cutting bus service? It goes before the full board on September 23rd. If there is money for all these proposed projects, isn’t there money to save the bus system, which is still carrying a majority of the transit users?

    • Hi Crystal.

      The money for the proposed bus and rail projects is coming from the Measure R sales tax increase that was approved by 68 percent of Los Angeles County voters in 2008. Measure R also supplies some money for bus operations and some of that money at the moment is being used to freeze fares at 2008 levels for seniors, the disabled, students and Medicare recipients.

      You are correct that the bus system carries the majority of transit users. But it’s a big system and the agency is trying to become more efficient and focus on service that has an impact on moving people. While there are many bus lines that have a lot of riders, there are some that have very few. I also think it’s worth considering that bus service is not a static thing — that once it’s created it should never be changed. As I wrote, the service cuts and changes are not trivial. But I also don’t think they should be characterized as something that would sacrifice the system as a whole.

      Thanks for reading and writing,

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  2. Why do you Seniors pay so little while I have to pay so much monthly? It’s an absurd gap of $14 to $75.

    Yes I understand discounts for Seniors but a $61 dollar discount is ridiculous! And you want to raise rates, again, for everyone else to continue to subsidize what you call the “majority” of your riders?

    It takes a senior over 5 month to pay what I pay MONTHLY! Maybe if you had a more egalitarian fare structure you wouldn’t need to continue to raise rates on those who you actually WANT to ride the system to gain even further popular support.

  3. What is the one thing all the great urban centers of the world have? Efficient, cheap, and safe rail transit. LA can not consider itself a great city until it improves its rail map. Its sad the BRU is more interested in politics than in helping its own constituents, many who (like me) ride the bus and rail.

  4. Fare Evasion is much higher than 10%… You have no idea how many times i’ve seen people run to catch an Orange Line bus and blow right on past the tap machine. When Sheriffs hop on a bus, all they really check are that people have a propper paper-ticket or tap card. Just because they have a tap card doesn’t mean they tapped it! Another thing, quite often the Sheriff will be waiting by the exit of the platform. If i was on a train or bus and while approaching i saw Sheriff standing there i would simply go to the next stop! Walking sure seems easier than paying $250!

  5. I feel the Bus Riders Union is shortsighted. In my opinion they would prefer to have the vast majority if not all transportation funds spent on buses. The fact is trains are far more efficient and move the most people quicker than do buses. As a bus rider, the BRU does not speak for me.

  6. I certainly hope no member of Congress lets the BRU influence their thinking about the needed 30/10 efforts. Build those 30/10 projects, I say! I ride the bus very frequently, but would FAR prefer more rail.

  7. Yes, Dan, there has.

    A while back on MetroRiderLA, a commenter posted the fare compliance rates for the color lines. It turns out that on each line, fare compliance — people paying — never drops below 90 percent.

    The problem isn’t that people aren’t paying fares, it’s that compliance is high. Every paid fare is only 20 percent of the cost of a ride.

    Also, people who don’t buy a ticket may be paying their fares. Close to half of Metro riders use some kind of unlimited-ride pass.

  8. “Has there ever been a study done as to how much lost revenue there is by people hopping on the light rail and subway system without paying?”

    Yes. It is a much smaller problem than many people think. Metro estimated 6% fare evasion, and this is according to a study meant to justify the installation of fare gates to reduce fare evasion, so the study designers had every reason to find a high number of fare evaders.

    The lost revenue per year is at most $2.5 million, out of 40 million fare revenue (from trains). Fares pay for only 29% of operating the transit system; so that 2.5 million is only a couple percent of the rail operating budget, and a very tiny part of Metro’s 2.8 billion dollar budget.


    “Are the stated boardings based on ticket sales or actual boardings?”

    They are based on actual boardings. Metro workers on “light duty” due to injuries are given electronic counters. They dress in plain clothes and quietly count the number of exists and entrances at each door. I’ve chatted with a couple of these guys before.

  9. The overwhelming issue regarding 30/10 is that Los Angeles is a very large city in terms of population and area and many people here are traveling long distances everyday to go to work or school and buses are simply the wrong answer for these people.

    West Los Angeles has the worst traffic in the county and is in a state of gridlock 7 days a week. Not only is traffic terrible in the San Fernando Valley but the topography limits the routes into the city thus creating horrible bottlenecks.

    My wife and I live in the eastern part of Los Angeles County and work downtown which is 45 miles away. We’re actually lucky since there are plenty of folks who live in San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange Counties and work in Los Angeles.

    I appreciate that the Bus Riders Members have special needs, but they’re not alone.

  10. There are conflicting numbers that I have heard but the fare evasion rate is actually fairly low as I have heard in the 5-8% of the total riders range.
    I remember that this past summer Metro and the Sheriffs conducted fare surveys on the Orange Line which I saw several times and usually on a bus carrying 70-80plus people maybe they would fine one or two (usually kids) who did not have a ticket.
    Keep in mind that Metro is spending $46 million on those gates, which is enough to fund 383,333 hours of bus service (based on $120/hour)

  11. Yes, a rather detailed fare evasion study was done prior to the installation of the fare gates. And no, you guessed wrong. The systemwide average was about six percent with late night and weekends being upwards of 10%. So no, it’s not 50%.

  12. Has there ever been a study done as to how much lost revenue there is by people hopping on the light rail and subway system without paying? I would guess half the people who board do not purchase a ticket. And are the stated boardings based on ticket sales or actual boardings?