Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Are Transit Agencies Credible?

Transportation finance is politically challenging in the best of times. These are not those times. In the New York region, the New York MTA has responded admirably to the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. Will their efforts and effectiveness in restoring most service in the aftermath help the credibility of the authority with the public and elected officials? We'll see. What about New Jersey Transit, which is also working hard but has not had the same success restoring service?

Credibility matters for agencies more than generally thought. Mike Manville and I wrote a paper about credible commitment as a barrier to congestion pricing, where we argue that agencies that are not viewed as credible have particular challenges with politically difficult policies. In Los Angeles, credible commitment is a major issue facing the ballot Measure J to extend a dedicated sales tax 30 years to pay for transit improvements. Specifically, LA bus riders, who are the overwhelming majority of transit users, don't think the new revenue will be spent on improving bus service. Rather, they think that the LA MTA will spend the new money on expensive rail projects. From the LA Weekly story:
"The potentially devastating impacts of Measure J -- combined with the MTA's record of shamelessly ignoring the needs and concerns of working class Latinos and blacks as it advances a corporate-driven agenda -- has moved leaders of major churches to speak out," said the Bus Riders Union in a press release.
The Measure's supporters don't understand the opposition:
Denny Zane, a leading advocate for the 2008 countywide sales tax hike approved by voters -- and a key force behind this proposed 30-year extension of that tax hike just four years later, finds the Bus Riders Union's position galling.
Zane says that both Measure R from 2008 and the proposed Measure J on the November 6, 2012 ballot send 20 percent of the tax hike into the bus system.
"All around the country, bus systems had major dramatic cutbacks," Zane says. 
 To which the Bus Rider's Union responds:
But Measure J opponents point out that to the millions of bus riders, 20 percent of this latest tax hike is chicken feed.The vast majority of the millions of mass transit users in Los Angeles and its suburbs use the bus -- not the subways and light rail. But, they note, under Measure J, the subways and rail get the lion's share of this proposed sales tax hike to 2069.
There are good reasons to be skeptical of the LA plan. Here is a overview of service and investment since the sales tax measure first passed in 2008:
Since 2009 the MTA has added eight miles of train service, at a capital cost of about $2 billion. These new trains, the Expo Line and an extension of the east-county Gold Line, carry a total of about 39,000 people a day.

In the meantime, the cash-strapped authority radically reduced bus service twice: It cut bus lines by 4 percent in 2010 and 12 percent in 2011. These cuts were made even though buses move more than four times as many Angelenos as trains do.
 Bus riders in Los Angeles have a long history of feeling like they are not a priority. They have genuine reasons to oppose Measure J. The MTA also needs to recognize that they have credibility problems that they have to address. Is the MTA credible enough to trust with dedicated sales tax revenue until 2069? That's a lot of required trust. Damien Goodmon of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition has an answer:
"Can you trust these guys with that much money?" asks Damien Goodmon of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition. "Hell, no!"
And he likes transit spending:
Goodmon favors transit spending but hates the way Metro has gone about it. He's pissed off about the gobs of money being lavished on the Purple Line Westside Extension, which will run under Wilshire Boulevard.
The $6.3 billion to $9 billion Westside Extension will suck up a hefty chunk of the sales tax collected from consumers countywide, yet it falls miles short of the "subway to the sea" once promised, and it won't be completed until 2035.
Meanwhile, the planned Crenshaw Line in South L.A., serving mostly black and Latino riders, will be built on the cheap, at ground level. Goodmon has pleaded with Metro to address safety concerns at points where the line will intersect with streets.
Other black leaders were outraged when Metro's board chose not to build a Crenshaw Line transit stop at Leimert Park, which, in the eyes of many, is the business and shopping heart of black Los Angeles.
Goodmon says the Metro board's unfairly tilted votes on where to spend Measure R taxes amount to "basic economics: We're getting jacked."
Getting jacked, indeed. It is possible and reasonable to support transit investment and oppose Measure J (or any other similar measure). The agencies responsible for collecting and spending the money must be credible. It is not clear that this is the case in LA.

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