Friday, April 20, 2007

The Murder Bus and Subsidized Transportation

The Pasadena Pundit noted an interesting article from the Contra Costa Times a while back, about public transportation. The article deals primarily with Bay Area controversy, but has a number of larger issues that are directly applicable to our Foothill Cities.

Civil rights groups have a 2005 lawsuit pending against the MTC, charging that taxpayers in 2002 paid a $2.78 subsidy every time a rider boards an AC Transit bus, whereas subsidies for BART and Caltrain rides were $6.17 and $13.79, respectively.

Ah! Clearly some taxpayer groups are rebelling at the outrageous costs of public transportation, costs that invariably end up being foisted back on the shoulders of the average Joe (hey, all that subsidy money has to come from somewhere).

Whoops. Not quite.

Activists behind the suit persuaded local governments, including the Alameda County Board of Supervisors last May, to pass transit equity resolutions urging that money be distributed equitably.

It's not the expense of the transportation that matters, it's the dollars. Everyone just wants to get in on the gravy train of public money.

Of course, this debate has, in different form, been raging closer to home. The MTA, facing a $1.8 billion operating deficit over the next ten years, is planning a major fare hike, a proposal that has raised enormous hue and cry, including allegations of racism, since minorities tend to rely more heavily on public transportation.

Meanwhile, as the chief actors in this sturm und drang continue to rage, the Foothill Transit system has continued to fly (or drive) below the radar (well, relatively below the radar). The system serves all our local cities with fares lower than what the MTA charges currently (to say nothing of the increases). A basic bus trip will only set you back a buck, while two can speed you from downtown to Montclair via the Silver Streak (with free Wi-Fi to boot!). It's a crude measure, but compared to the numbers described for the Bay Area system, it's likely that every bus rider for Foothill Transit demands well over three dollars in subsidies.

The most notorious example of this has to be the infamous Murder Bus. The 187 line runs from Old Town Pasadena to Claremont, largely on Colorado, Huntington and Foothill. One dollar can take you from the Crown City Jewelry and Loan to the lair of the Claremonsters. Not surprisingly, the line is pretty popular among commuters; the AAA says the same round trip in a car would effectively cost you over $30 (think gas, insurance, wear and tear, etc).

Fares, being so low, account for less than a third of costs. According to Foothill Transit, the remaining 73% comes from "Los Angeles County Proposition A and C funds, California State Transportation Development Act (TDA) and State Transit Assistance (STA) funds." Ah, perfect: our tax money gets washed through both county and state bureaucracies before they are kind enough to give it back to us in the form of subsidized transportation. No word on how many dollars you have to feed Sacramento for every one you get back, but Southern California does tend to get the shaft in transportation funding.

The complexities of the issue make all more poignant a quote from the Contra Costa story, from well-meaning legislator Mark DeSaulnier.

"I wanted to do something to help low-income people," said DeSaulnier in an interview in his new office in Martinez this week. "It turns out, I've been a little bit naive about this."

Ah, yes, helping low-income people is a laudable goal. How to actually help them is a little trickier. There's much more to say about the issue, but I'll pause and ask your thoughts. What do you think of subsidized public transportation? Should be be brawling with the Gold Line to make sure they're not getting more dollars per rider than Foothill Transit? Favorite story from the Murder Bus? Let us know via email or in the comments.


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