Why Fare Increases are NOT toxic for Southern California

© Wikimedia/David Iliff CC-BY-SA
We have to confess that LA's Bus Riders Union, under the umbrella of the Labor/Community Strategy Center can be funny at times. The bus transit advocacy group of 200 active members, 3,000 dues-paying members, and 50,000 supporters based on data from its website continues to announce proposals that tend to be laughable according to fair-minded citizens. For years, the BRU has labelled fare hikes "racist". Last month, we refuted that statement with the facts and solutions that would actually combat racial division, poverty and crime in troubled minority neighborhoods--solutions that public officials and the civil rights industry really should take into account.

Last Friday, the BRU published "Stop the MTA's Toxic Fare Increase," connecting the latest fare hike proposals with global pollution. Here's how the BRU views it:

Los Angeles generates massive quantities of greenhouse gases & air toxins from the automobile, with 8 million cars on the road in a county of 10 million people. The only way to reduce these toxins, and save ourselves and the planet from run-away global warming is to massively restrict private automobiles and massively expand public transportation. The MTA's proposed fare increase would generate more greenhouse gases by driving people off of public transit and into their cars.

The BRU is correct on the point that our highways and land use policies need to better support  mobility other than driving alone in a car. Look no further than Southwest Riverside County and the 91 Freeway between Riverside and Orange counties. Traffic congestion is a disgrace during rush hours and many weekends. However, the thesis of the BRU's argument that fare hikes causes greenhouse gases is flat out false.

The spun notion is this: If LA Metro raises its fares, LA will become more polluted because fewer riders will be able to afford the bus and will thus will switch to driving alone, which in turn causes more pollution. That argument is easily refutable and here are the simple facts.
  • Local transit fares have generally gone up throughout recent history since the government began subsidizing trains and buses. There are exceptions, but inflation, artificially bloated infrastructure costs, and decreased spending power of the dollar must be factored into the situation. Remember the days when it only cost a few dimes and a nickel to ride the bus?
  • LA's smog and pollution have gone down since the 1940's. LA's air quality was at very dangerous levels back then, likely as bad as many urban centers in China are today. LA still has ways to go in terms of improving air quality, but the city is much cleaner than it was back then even though fares to ride government-subsidized public transportation are higher today than a few decades ago.
  • Historical stats confirm ridership is sustainable even when fares go up. Generally speaking, transit ridership for any transit agency takes a short-term hit following any fare increase. However, the BRU cannot prove beyond reasonable doubt that a significant number of riders will switch to driving alone in gas-guzzling cars and remain. The Riverside Transit Agency for example had fare hikes in 2005 and 2008. RTA took a short-term dip during the recession, but ridership today is now at record high levels. Metro expects to see these ups and downs following each phase of the proposed fare changes. 
  • High gas prices provides an incentive to take transit and carpool. It was unthinkable at one point a few decades ago, but $4+ per gallon gas prices have led more car-loving Californians into taking public transportation and carpooling. Both forms are high occupancy vehicles which reduce greenhouse gases and traffic congestion.

Do we all see where the BRU's argument falls apart?

Lesser of the Evils: Fare Hikes or Service Cuts?

We do agree that increasing fares is universally loathed and the BRU is using this reality as a front to draw up support and dues-paying membership. It plans to stage a protest this Saturday at LA Metro's headquarters. However what BRU leaders surely know is that two alternative solutions to fare hikes that Metro has at the local level is to reduce waste internally or cut services. The former is very sound, but only can go so far. The latter is very destructive to mobility. When a transit rider learns that his/her bus route is proposed to be cut due to budget problems, paying more to ride it wouldn't sound so bad. Cuts certainly have a more devastating effect on transit ridership. Metro was correct in not proposing any cuts.

As we've mentioned during our analysis of the Omnitran's fare hikes, fiscal solutions that go beyond LA Metro's power need to be debated and considered--answers like gang crime reduction and job growth in South LA and stopping ongoing special interest pandering at the state level that drives up capital infrastructure costs beyond the market rates. By the way, rail transportation infrastructure, in of itself, is not government waste as the BRU falsely claims.

Also what the BRU did not tell its supporters is that Metro has proposed reinstating free transfers as part of the restructuring process, which would actually reduce the bus price for cash-paying riders needing to transfer. To be fair, the price of the monthly pass is one of the sharpest proposed hikes we've seen ($135 or $180 by 2020) and therefore questionable. However, Metro does have plans to work with the private sector, other public agencies, cities, and colleges to provide fare assistance and expand transit pass programs. RTA has similar programs in place. To name one, students enrolled Mount San Jacinto College can ride RTA for free with their current student ID card.

Stopping the "Toxic" Greenhouse Gas Situation

Every U.S. citizen should support a cleaner environment. Civic-minded people should want the Earth to be cleaner. That can be accomplished by supporting policies that would lead to the innovation, research and development of cleaner alternative fuels, renewable energy, and more fuel-efficient cars. In addition, both land use zoning policies and transportation infrastructure should support multiple ways to get around other than driving solo in a car.

There is evidence that such policies are maturing as our transit buses mostly now run on compressed natural gas, more hybrids and electric cars are being introduced into the marketplace, and rapid competitive growth and lower prices in the solar panel industry are allowing more Californians to be self-reliant on clean power. Still, there is work to be done in this field and a fair way to incline the private sector into developing and maturing such technology at a faster rate is tax breaks or rebates.

One project that needs to move forward is the GRID hub in Long Beach, which promises to provide a clean and fast solution to haul freight that is imported and exported at the ports, thus driving out a prime source of LA's present-day pollution which is caused by diesel-running trucks.

These solutions will certainly make the Earth cleaner at minimal taxpayer risk, expand the job market, and will provide for the much-needed, long-overdue marketplace competition against the monopoly powers of Southern California Edison for electricity outside of Los Angeles and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and its swing-producer grip for vehicle fuels.

The need to broadcast Real Solutions to LA's Problems

If the Labor/Community Strategy Center and the BRU want something to protest about to keep LA from becoming "toxic" and if the group really wants to "fight for the soul of the cities", fact-based solutions are what the group of 50,000 supporters should be broadcasting into the pubic square of debate. Efficient transit to get around, proper land use, better planned development, fiscal responsibility, cutting down on pollution, and stopping gang crime are all important issues which require real solutions. Wishful notions like no cars in LA, free-for-all transit buses, releasing 2.5 million convicted criminals from jail, and stopping proven intelligence-driven law enforcement to combat fare evasions and street crime through "1,000 more buses/1,000 less police" are not going to transform Southern California into a better society, period.

That type of ill-advised thinking is self-serving drawn up from the far-reaches of ideological La La Land. And the sad truth is thousands of good LA citizens are fooled into buying this spun way of thinking.

That's another reason why fact-based transit advocacy groups like The Transit Coalition exist.