Thursday, March 29, 2007

An Alternative to L.A. Metro's Fare Hikes

In a region which is regarded as having the worst traffic in the country, the local transit agency has announced astonishing fare hikes and service cuts which will certainly give people incentive to drive, thus increasing congestion. The price of a day pass will rise from $3.00 to $5.00 in July and to $8.00 in January 2009, according to various news reports including this article in The Daily News. The cost of a monthly pass will rise from $52 to $75 in July and to $120 in January 2009. The MTA at this point has not published anything on its website regarding this proposed rate hike.

The fare hikes come at a time when the car as the primary mode of transportation strains the society and becomes ever more expensive. Ironically, by so drastically raising the price of the alternative, more people will buy into the exorbitantly expensive transportation model and exacerbate the problems associated with it. However, there are alternatives that would yield far more beneficial results to the society than the proposed fare hikes.

The majority of the MTA's budget is derived from the local county sales tax. Propositions A and C each represent .5% of the local sales tax. A similar increase in the sales tax could potentially increase the MTA budget by 25%. Such an increase would represent an additional $20 per year in taxes for a person who spends $4,000 per year on consumer goods and services, a very small sum for the enormous benefits of improved mass transit such a tax increase could yield.

The local economy would benefit if the population were to reduce gasoline consumption because most of the money which pays for gas leaves the local economy. Improved and affordable mass transit would free greater amounts of people to reduce their gasoline consumption, allowing for greater amounts of dollars to be spent on diverse local sources and to recirculate within the local economy.

Gasoline is now $3.19 per gallon at the gas station near my home, yet there are other palpable signs as to how the car as the primary mode of transportation strains the society; for example, the recent allocation of the Proposition 1B bonds by the California Transportation Commitee. Los Angeles found itself shortchanged, and thanks to the effectiveness of its polititcal leaders the situation was rectified, but what has become apparent is that the cost for road and highway construction and maintenance throughout the state not only exceeds what Californians currently pay through taxes, but also what they have borrowed and burdened the state with. The Los Angeles Times and La Opinion cited numerous counties that received less than they had hoped for as well as projects that were omitted from funding. Speaker Fabian Nuñez told La Opinion that he would seek another $5 billion dollar bond for 2008 if the CTC failed to do enough to relieve traffic.

Another indicator of how expensive our transportation model is are recent reports stating that demand for ethanol will result in farmers producing less food which will lead to higher food prices. According to Wired magazine's exuberantly optmistic story regarding the gasoline crises, the US would have to set aside 25% of its arable land for corn production in order to replace our total gas consumption with ethanol. However, this Los Angeles Times article depicts a far more daunting, almost farcical scenario. "To achieve Brazil's results, the U.S. would have to turn all of its crop-producing acreage over to corn and use all of the corn for ethanol." There is one E85(85% ethanol; 15% gasoline) dispensing station open to the public in the entire state of California!

Finally, the Federal High Trust Fund which is funded by the federal tax(18.3 cents per gallon) on gasoline is projected to go into a deficit within 2 years. This trend is largely attributed to automotive technology having become more fuel efficient over the years. Interestingly, 80 percent of the federal fund goes to highway construction and it is this portion of the fund that is careening towards a deficit. According to a Daily News article, "Brian Turmail, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation, said commissioners are asking why all the increased spending on road projects isn't paying off. Roads are still congested. Traffic is getting worse."

The other 20 percent of the fund which goes towards mass transit projects is not expected to go into deficit. As is often the case in the media regarding stories about the escalation of the price of gas or traffic, a spokesperson from the Southern California Auto Club was consulted by The Daily News. As alternative revenue options for the fund Dan Beal cited increasing the number of toll roads and raising toll fares during rush hour as well as charging drivers by the mile.

At this point it may occur to one that the federal government should increase the gasoline tax. It would seem like an increase in the gasoline tax with a greater portion of the total fund assigned to mass transit would be logical. Certainly the MTA would be a beneficiary. The contribution which the federal government made to the MTA's current budget is $404 million, or a mere 13.4%. It's a decision the federal government will have to confront soon. It is also an opportunity which Californians can seize for themselves. One of the advantages of Californians increasing their gasoline tax would be that Californians would recieve 100% of the tax, instead of the 90 or so percent that we recieve from what we pay into the federal gas tax.

A mere 10 cent increase in the state gas tax would raise $1.6 billion annually according to figures from the California Energy Commission. Money which unlike bonds, the state wouldn't have to pay back at double the rate. Increasing the gas tax and funding mass transit is more likely to reduce traffic than continuing to borrow billions of dollars to build roads and expand highway capacity, while maintaining a complete lack of emphasis on reducing car ownership.

The orange line which cost a relatively speaking mere $313 million dollars has widely exceeded ridership expectations. In less than one year it reached the ridership forecast for the year 2020. Shortly after it opened there was a study done whose results were published in the Los Angeles Times which found that the orange line had improved the performance of the 101 freeway by reducing the time that cars spent on the freeway as well as by allowing more cars to pass through.

Los Angeles mass transit is gradually, slowly being improved. The changes are real and noticeable. Yet we could accelerate the process through small tax increases and create significant improvements in traffic, conservation, and air quality, as well as potentially stabilize gas prices through reduced demand. The LACMTA claims to be "America's Best" and has been named "Outstanding Transportation System" by the American Public Transportation Association, a title which means the MTA has increased mass transit options. The reality remains that our mass transit system is far beneath the standards of the mass transit systems of other big cities in the world.

Every year there are reports in local papers citing studies which claim that the average Los Angelino spends 90 something hours per year stuck in traffic. Yet, where are the studies documenting how much time Los Angelenos who primarily rely on mass transit lose waiting for infrequent buses, buses that move slowly because they're packed, or having to wait extra time because they've been stranded by buses which were too packed to pickup additional people? Where is the study which figures out how many thousands of young people in Los Angeles find it very difficult if not impossible to live life to the fullest because they don't own a car and have to rely on an inadequate mass transit system?

In a society where everyone is compelled to own a car, perhaps it's not the traffic that is that bad, perhaps it's the mass transit that is worse, and improving the latter will improve the former. Yet the MTA's proposed fare hikes and service cuts undermine its own success and its mission of providing an "efficient and effective transportation system for Los Angeles County."

It is remarkable to observe that a mayor such as Antonio Villaraigosa that talks an excellent game regarding mass transit, who even made the claim that traffic costs the Los Angeles economy $11 billion per year during his campaign, either does not have the vision or the balls to challenge the irrational and impractical view that opposes any and all tax increases, and instead would prefer to see poor Los Angelenos pay $8 for a day pass, for the mass transit system to remain inadequate, and for traffic to be inevitably adversely affected. He often goes to Washington to seek money for our region but as the statistics show, he has not been very successful in procuring funding for our mass transit agency. What he ignores is the opportunity which our region has to create additional funding for mass transit far beyond what the federal government currently gives us.

Compare and contrast the prospect of increasing the gas tax to fund mass transit and other transportation needs to the tortured, contrived to perpetuate vested interests solution which the elitists of our society are proposing; that a series of toll roads which will charge drivers anywhere from $3 to who knows how much, as well as charging people by the mile. The current toll road being proposed that will cut through San Onofre state park is illustrative of the problems associated with this approach, among them being environmental degradation including the possible destruction of endangered species.

As further evidence of how limiting subservience to this faux populism which opposes any and all tax increases is consider Arnold Schwarzenegger's astoundingly unrealistic and idiotic response in this video during last year's gubernatorial debate regarding what policies California should adopt in response to rising gas prices. Mr. Schwarzenegger seems to be suggesting that Californians who are economically challenged by high gas prices should buy a hydrogen car!

Such torpidness, unfortunately, translates into bad policy and bad decision making. An example being Arnold Schwarzenegger's recent decision to withhold $1.1 billion from the sales tax on gas from mass transit agencies. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a champion of the philosophy which opposes any and all tax increases, but the result of applying such to policy making is that the state of California has taken on $60.5 billion in debt since he took office.

In conclusion, consider what Roger Snoble, LACMTA CEO told Mass Transit magazine in their April 2005 issue, "Somewhere along the line, buying a house in the valley and having three or four cars can't be the answer...we just can't sustain those cars. We're already in a gridlock, and it's going to get worse."

The solution is not to impose a sado-masochistic fare structure, but to transform the transportation system of the society and redirect resources to create a more ecologically and economically sustainable alternative, of which mass transit is the foundation.