New increases in transit fares voted on last week by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) may not be enough to offset a delay in pending capital rail projects such as the Expo Line and the Green Line extension, says a high-ranking MTA official.
Terry Matsumoto, Metro’s chief financial officer, told The Argonaut that even with the recent fare hikes, the possibility that some light rail extensions may be postponed is a very real one, due to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposal to take $1.3 billion in transit funding to close the state’s burgeoning budget deficit.
“It’s safe to say that (if the governor takes away the transportation funds), there are going to be delays,” Matsumoto confirmed.
The Mid-Cities Exposition Line, known as the Expo Line, broke ground last summer in downtown Los Angeles and is scheduled to arrive in Culver City by 2010, and continue to Santa Monica in its second installment of construction.
The Green Line extension to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is backed by many Westside politicians, including Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, Los Angeles County Fourth District Supervisor Don Knabe, State Assemblyman Ted Lieu and Congresswoman Jane Harman of Venice.
While the Expo Line and another extension from Crenshaw Avenue to LAX are two of MTA’s light rail priorities, the Green Line extension to LAX is not considered to be a top priority on the transit agency’s current capital project list, says Matsumoto.
“It’s not even on the radar screen right now,” said the Metro financial officer.
Ken Alpern, co-chair of the Friends of the Green Line, seemed unperturbed about the possibility that the rail extension to the airport that his organization has championed might be delayed.
“I’m not really concerned (about a potential delay in the extension),” Alpern said. “I think that the increase was enough to allow them to muddle along.”
Other projects that could be pushed back include the Gold Line extension to East Los Angeles, the Orange Line expansion to the West San Fernando Valley and the Red Line subway extension, known as the Purple Line, to Santa Monica, which is the pet project of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Matsumoto said.
Referring to the $1.3 billion that the governor plans to take, Matsumoto said, “Those were funds that we expected to come in because of the economy, and because we don’t plan on having them now, it’s safe to say there will be delays,” he reiterated.
Unlike many bus riders and their advocates, Alpern does not see the fare hikes as being unfair to everyone who uses public transportation — just on those who depend on it.
“If the fares were not raised appropriately, we would hurt those who need public transportation the most,” he said.
There are people who use public transportation, like the disabled, senior citizens and low-income wager earners who cannot afford the fare increase, Alpern says. And then there are others who do not have a high standard of living, but who can still afford to pay the higher rates.
“They own iPods, computers and cellphones, so they are not considered impoverished,” the Green Line advocate contends. “Those who will be hurt the most are the people who truly can’t afford (the new transit fares).”
MTA approved its first increase in rail and bus fares in over a decade in an effort to close the agency’s ongoing debt, which is projected at about $1.8 billion over the next decade. The first boost in fares will come on July 1st. This is will generate about $30 million in new revenues, which is not as great an increase as MTA chief executive officer Roger Snoble and other transportation officials sought.
Closing the budget gap was the primary concern for the board, and increasing fares was the least painful option, say transit officials and members of the county Board of Supervisors, who sit on MTA’s board of directors.
“It was the best compromise that we saw, to increase the fares without a reduction in services,” said David Sommers, Knabe’s press deputy.
The new single-ride cash fee is the transit fare that will increase the least, from $1.25 to $1.50 over the next two years.
The monthly pass, which is popular among many train and bus riders, will gradually rise from $52 to $75 by July 1, 2009.
The day pass will go from $3 to $6 over the same period.
The new rate hikes are a “start” to closing the budget gap, says Matsumoto. “It’s a good first step.”
Alpern, the Green Line extension advocate, feels that state and county officials should look for way to assist low-income riders with the new raise in transit fares.
“MTA has not done enough to ensure that the federal government would be comfortable in providing funds for capital projects,” he alleged. “The county needs to subsidize public transportation needs like they do for highways.”
He also took issue with Schwarzenegger’s plan to raid funds earmarked for public transportation.
“I find it appalling and vexing that a supposedly public-transit governor would abscond with public transportation money,” Alpern said.
Rosendahl bristled at the news that the Green Line extension is not a primary capital project priority to the MTA.
“I strongly disagree with that,” he said. “If we don’t invest more in our light rail infrastructure, the Westside crisis of gridlock will explode even more.”
Discretionary funds from Prop. C could also be used to help reduce the deficit, said Matsumoto. These funds cannot be applied to capital projects.