Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Metro’s Board to Consider Bone-Deep Service Cuts

During last week’s meeting of the Metro Board of Directors, staff presented their transit service proposal for the remainder of the current year. As highlighted by transit advocates throughout LA, Metro’s plan would reduce bus service by 20% from 7 million annual hours to 5.6 million annual hours this year, with an eye toward what is internally being called a “new normal” service cut of 8% from pre-Covid levels beginning next summer. If adopted, these cuts would be disastrous for transit riders in Los Angeles both during the immediate Covid recovery period and potentially for years afterward.

For more and more Angelenos, the pandemic does not correspond to an ability to remain sheltered safely at home. Rather, as places of business gradually reopen, workers in low-income service sector jobs in particular are being compelled to return to stores throughout the region. From the lowest depths that it hit when quarantine orders were at their strictest, system ridership on Metro has rebounded 25% already and can be expected to rise further for the simple reason that buses are a lifeline for Angelenos.

Given that, and the fact that buses are supposed to be running at less than full capacity so that riders and operators can safely distance from one another, the upshot of these cuts is clear: Metro is telling riders that they should find other means of travel. While for many riders the cost of car ownership is an expense that they cannot easily afford, in particular during these economically dire times, that does not mean that a bus rider today will not take Metro up on that and become a permanent car driver tomorrow. This is exactly the death spiral for bus ridership that Metro’s NextGen bus reorganization plan was intended to stop, which is why it is so disheartening now to see Metro preparing instead to undercut NextGen and accelerate the decline of the transit network.

The NextGen plan comprehended the vast disparities in bus ridership that exist between the counties busiest travel corridors in the LA basin and those in outlying suburban neighborhoods. That is why it sought, for the first time in Los Angeles, to redirect existing bus service hours to create a frequent all-day network on streets where demand was the highest. But NextGen cannot be achieved from a service level deficit like Metro is proposing. Although staff said that they would add back service hours over time according to the NextGen plan, the simple fact is that the proposed budget leaves us fighting to claw our way back to the poor service of the pre-Covid baseline and makes that frequent all-day network an unfulfillable promise.

Metro has said that the cuts are prudent financial management and that they are not giving up on the NextGen plan. But their actions tell a different story. At the same time that Metro is cutting bus service, they are also voting to accelerate unfunded capital rail projects, like the northern extension of the Crenshaw line, that will cost billions of dollars and that have groundbreaking dates decades in the future.

As riders and advocates, we can’t fail to notice that the checkbook is open wide for future rail construction and closed for the present day bus service that hundreds of thousands of Angelenos rely on. Further, without Metro providing any evidence that it cannot afford a gradual ramp up back to 7 million service hours or what it would cost the agency to get back to pre-Covid service, how can the public judge whether these drastic cuts are truly merited?

Later this month, Metro is planning to formally adopt the budget, with its bone-deep cuts to bus service. Transit advocates and riders have been clear that a vote for this budget is a vote against public transportation in Los Angeles, and not just in the near-term. By signalling so clearly that the quality of transit service is on the chopping block, Metro will have contributed to the longer term movement of riders away from the system. Angelenos who have left the system will be the first to tell Metro: even if you make the buses free, it takes good service to make transit worth it.

Next Steps:

  • Get involved and join the Better Buses for LA workgroup by emailing jessica@investinginplace.org
  • Save the date: Metro Budget Public Hearing Wednesday September 16th at 1:30pm

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