Commentary

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.

Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the Ronald Reagan, the George H.W. Bush, the Clinton, and the George W. Bush administrations.

Surface Transportation

In the field of surface transportation, Poole has advised the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the White House Office of Policy Development, National Economic Council, Government Accountability Office, and state DOTs in numerous states.

Poole's 1988 policy paper proposing privately financed toll lanes to relieve congestion directly inspired California's landmark private tollway law (AB 680), which authorized four pilot toll projects including the successful 91 Express Lanes in Orange County. More than 20 other states and the federal government have since enacted similar public-private partnership legislation. In 1993, Poole oversaw a study that coined the term HOT (high-occupancy toll) Lanes, a term which has become widely accepted since.

California Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Poole to the California's Commission on Transportation Investment and he also served on the Caltrans Privatization Advisory Steering Committee, where he helped oversee the implementation of AB 680.

From 2003 to 2005, he was a member of the Transportation Research Board's special committee on the long-term viability of the fuel tax for highway finance. In 2008 he served as a member of the Texas Study Committee on Private Participation in Toll Roads, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. In 2009, he was a member of an Expert Review Panel for Washington State DOT, advising on a $1.5 billion toll mega-project. In 2010, he was a member of the transportation transition team for Florida's Governor-elect Rick Scott. He is a member of two TRB standing committees: Congestion Pricing and Managed Lanes.

Aviation

Poole is a member of the Government Accountability Office's National Aviation Studies Advisory Panel and he has testified before the House and Senate's aviation subcommittees on numerous occasions. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Poole consulted the White House Domestic Policy Council and the leadership of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

He has also advised the Federal Aviation Administration, Office of the Secretary of Transportation, White House Office of Policy Development, National Performance Review, National Economic Council, and the National Civil Aviation Review Commission on aviation issues. Poole is a member of the Critical Infrastructure Council of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation and of the Air Traffic Control Association.

Poole was among the first to propose the commercialization of the U.S. air traffic control system, and his work in this field has helped shape proposals for a U.S. air traffic control corporation. A version of his corporation concept was implemented in Canada in 1996 and was more recently endorsed by several former top FAA administrators.

Poole's studies also launched a national debate on airport privatization in the United States. He advised both the FAA and local officials during the 1989-90 controversy over the proposed privatization of Albany (NY) Airport. His policy research on this issue helped inspire Congress' 1996 enactment of the Airport Privatization Pilot Program and the privatization of Indianapolis' airport management under Mayor Steve Goldsmith.

General Background

Robert Poole co-founded the Reason Foundation with Manny Klausner and Tibor Machan in 1978, and served as its president and CEO from then until the end of 2000. He was a member of the Bush-Cheney transition team in 2000. Over the years, he has advised the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations on privatization and transportation policy.

Poole is credited as the first person to use the term "privatization" to refer to the contracting-out of public services and is the author of the first-ever book on privatization, Cutting Back City Hall, published by Universe Books in 1980. He is also editor of the books Instead of Regulation: Alternatives to Federal Regulatory Agencies (Lexington Books, 1981), Defending a Free Society (Lexington Books, 1984), and Unnatural Monopolies (Lexington Books, 1985). He also co-edited the book Free Minds & Free Markets: 25 Years of Reason (Pacific Research Institute, 1993).

Poole has written hundreds of articles, papers, and policy studies on privatization and transportation issues. His popular writings have appeared in national newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes, and numerous other publications. He has also been a guest on network television programs such as Good Morning America, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News Tonight, and the CBS Evening News. Poole writes a monthly column on transportation issues for Public Works Financing.

Poole earned his B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and did graduate work in operations research at New York University.