Reduce Los Angeles’ Vulnerability to Transit Strikes

Some 450,000 people have been left stranded by the strike by MTA employees. Most of the victims are low-income people without cars, who depend on mass transit for commuting and shopping. Most of the strikers earn middle-class salaries three or four times those of the typical bus rider.

In a city so dependent on mass transit, how have things come to this pass? And in the interest of LA’s transit dependent, how can we reduce the chances of such a devastating loss of service happening yet again in the future?

The fundamental issue in the MTA strike is the extremely high cost of the MTA’s bus service. Elsewhere in the region, the other providers of municipal bus service-Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus, the San Gabriel Valley’s Foothill Transit, the City of LA’s DASH and Commuter Express, and a half-dozen others-have a cost per bus-hour that’s 30 to 50 percent less than MTA’s. Indeed, the MTA operates one of the nation’s most-costly bus lines.

Some would reply that big cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles are expensive places to live, so of course they have to pay more to attract and keep bus drivers. But the drivers who willingly go to work for Santa Monica, Culver City, Commuter Express, and Foothill Transit all live and work in the same metro area. They have been willing to accept somewhat lower pay and benefits–and more flexible work rules-the very issues at stake in the now-stalled negotiations between the MTA and its unions.

Why are MTA wages, benefits, and work rules so far out of line with the market? In a word: monopoly. While these other operators exist in parts of the metro area, in most of Los Angeles the only available bus service (and the only light-rail or subway service) is provided by the MTA. Acting in the interest of their members, the MTA unions have taken advantage of this monopoly status to press their demands, knowing that a strike has devastating consequences for the poor-and that the unions can take advantage of this fact to drive a hard bargain. And take advantage they have! This week’s strike is the seventh bus drivers’ strike against MTA or its predecessor in 28 years. That’s an average of one strike every four years.

That’s why one of the key issues in the strike is the possibility of a lower-cost alternative being created in the San Fernando Valley: the proposed Valley Transit Zone. Valley business, government, and community leaders have worked for years to come up with a plan-modeled on the enormously successful Foothill Transit Zone-to create a more efficient transit operator for their part of Los Angeles. A bill awaiting Gov. Gray Davis’s signature or veto would force any such zone to accept MTA union contracts in perpetuity, thereby killing the whole rationale for the zone.

But this week’s strike should reframe what?s at stake in this issue. It’s not merely about providing lower-cost bus service in the Valley. It’s also about providing more competition in mass transit in greater Los Angeles. By reducing the monopoly power of the MTA and its unions, a Valley Transit Zone would make the metro area much less vulnerable to future strikes.

Several other policy changes would also help protect LA’s bus-riders from future strike-caused service shutdowns. Repealing the city’s ancient anti-jitney law would permit New York-style jitney vans to ply major thoroughfares offering an alternative to MTA bus service. Flexible, entrepreneurial jitney vans typically charge about the same as bus fare-but require no taxpayer subsidy. Thousands of them serve mostly immigrant riders every day in Miami and New York.

A longer-term reform would be to shift the basis for transit subsidies away from providers like the MTA and instead give the money to riders, to spend as they choose. For example, suppose everyone below a certain income level were eligible to receive transit coupon good at any transit provider in the region. The rider would select the provider that offered the most convenient and reliable service, using the coupon as payment. The provider would hand in all the coupons to a central agency (a revamped MTA?) for reimbursement. This kind of system would stimulate far more competition, perhaps enticing existing municipal providers like Torrance and Culver City to expand their routes, and possibly even luring new private firms into the transit business. It would certainly force a high-cost provider like the MTA to focus on lowering its costs (Sell its marble-clad headquarters? Terminate a layer of bureaucrats?) and improving its service.

And best of all, a competitive transit system would make strikes like the current one far less likely to occur–and far less harmful to the least fortunate among us.

Robert W. Poole, Jr. is Director of Transportation Studies and Founder of Reason Foundation.