Save the Metrolink San Bernardino Line from cuts! Demand Action!

© Justin Nelson CC-BY-SA

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Action Alert: Contact your local elected official sitting on the Metrolink and SANBAG Boards and demand real solutions to this financial mess. Identify your representative on either Board and contact him/her through your local city or county jurisdiction.

The Metrolink San Bernardino Line is in fiscal trouble. It is serious enough where Metrolink has declared a state of fiscal emergency which is leading to the undesirable cuts of a midday and late night roundtrip effective in October should this not be resolved. So, what exactly happened and how did it unexpectedly materialize?

Short answer is a funding dispute between the Southern California Regional Rail Authority (a.k.a. Metrolink) and the San Bernardino Associated Governments, a dispute that will demand local elected representatives sitting on both governing Boards to take action and solve in a fair and just matter.

Facts about the Fiscal Dispute

Here's a recap of the drama unfolding in San Bernardino County which threatens service for San Bernardino Line's midday trains 310 and 327, and late evening/night trains 338 and 339. The proposed preliminary Metrolink budget is $273 million ($222.9 million for operations, $50.1 million for infrastructure). Through SANBAG, San Bernardino County citizens pay a portion into this budget each year to subsidize operations. This year, Metrolink has requested $12,467,000 for operations and $7,624,182 for infrastructure from SANBAG which is an 8.8% increase from last year.

According to this chart put out by SANBAG, here are the operating budget items with the largest cost increases over last year:
  • Train Operations, up $1,479,000, a 3.6% increase;
  • Equipment Maintenance, up $4,483,000, a sharp 17.9% increase;
  • Security - Sheriff, an increase of $838,000; a whopping 18.8% hike;
  • Ticket Vending Machine Maintenance, up $697,000; another high increase of 14.1%;
  • Maintenance of Way, $3,719,000 more from last year, up 10.5%;
  • Staff Salaries, a total raise of $815,000, up 7.6%;
  • Indirect Admin. Expenses, another $833,000 hike, up 6.7%;
  • Liability Insurance, up $807,000, an increase of 5.5%
If those increases sound overwhelming, you're not alone. Besides logistics and medical, I don't think the economy as a whole or working private sector salaries has grown in San Bernardino County at those rates. According to SANBAG, money for local operations comes from a kitty called Local Transportation Funds (LTF) combined with the state funding from State Transit Assistance Fund. Based on recommendations from a local comprehensive operational analysis study, SANBAG determined that LTF should be reserved for funding operations and that a sustainable rate of allocation should be adhered to in an effort to maintain efficient transit services: 80% of LTF funds goes to Omnitrans, 20% to Metrolink. SANBAG determined the annual growth rate to be 3%. Sounds reasonable. It's worth mentioning that San Bernardino's Measure I money is for rail infrastructure projects, not operations.

SANBAG concluded that giving Metrolink an 8.8% hike in funds instead of 3% would jeopardize resources for Omnitrans. Back in February, the San Bernardino County bus agency had some fiscal issues of its own and was put into the position to increase fares. However by streamlining operations as SANBAG reported and as The Transit Coalition recommended in this blog, the agency was able to prevent undesirable service cuts. Cost savings were found by finding efficiencies within the agency, reducing Omnitrans core staff by 8, combining 4 departments into two, and reclassifying 4 other core staff positions. SANBAG would like Metrolink to follow this lead. In addition, one of the conditions in the SANBAG subsidy was to "provide direction" to Metrolink staff that the budget cuts "shall not come at the expense of reduced service."

However, SANBAG alone has no unilateral power to direct Metrolink staff nor can it decide on the consequences of not paying the full 8.8% subsidy; that has to be directed by the entire railroad Board. Instead, the cuts were proposed and approved. Not only that, Metrolink plans to take 8 ticket vending machines in San Bernardino County out of service and postpone work on the Rialto Subdivision project. To be fair, Metrolink's Technical Advisory Committee members explored various options to balance the railroad's budget which complies to SANBAG's 3% increase and concluded the proposals would have the minimum impact on riders. Also, if there is a legit low ridership issue, I'd support debating productive alternatives so that affected train riders can continue to get across the San Gabriel Valley efficiently. But low demands to take the train is not the root of the main issue.

It is the failure to control the sharp cost increase rates during a soft market economy and the neglect to schedule train departures which better connect to other transit services like the Antelope Valley Line. Also, it was clearly wrong for San Bernardino County to simply refuse to pay its bill and put the Metrolink San Bernardino Line in its fiscal jam. SCRRA member agencies have a responsibility to their taxpaying constituents to ensure that train service is available to keep their transportation
networks flowing. If there's a disagreement or dispute, elected board members need to debate it and agree to form fact-based solutions that won't unfairly tear apart the system. Elected officials should also not accept any excuses.

Think about it: The citizens of Los Angeles County who paid their bill in full and commute into San Bernardino aboard the affected routes will be unfairly negated by this madness. That's where we need to demand leadership from elected officials.

It's very easy to point fingers and lay the blame on one agency or the other. But now we need solutions. Here are two executable ones that board members need to discuss and adopt:

Cost Control

One solution that has worked is in-house streamlining which can keep cost increases in check. Four years ago, then Metrolink CEO John Fenton instituted a simple locomotive shut down policy that saved the agency a whopping $3-4 million per year back then in waste. Fenton reported that just two weeks after the policy was executed--ready for this?--93,000 gallons of gas were saved. At the 2014 summer $4-per-gallon rate, that adds up to $372,000 saved over a two week period or over $9 million annually. Thank you, Mr. Fenton. However, on top of regional streamlining, reforms need to take place at the state level to ensure government labor costs are not increasing at rates higher than the economic growth rates and private sector salaries, especially within San Bernardino County where take-home pay generally remain stagnant. Government salaries and labor costs need to be in line with the private sector, not higher.

That's where those elected in the power structure need to step up, pass resolutions demanding the state to confront the powerful public labor union lobby and propose real solutions to fiscal problems. The City of Murrieta for example has encouraged its citizens to petition the federal government to reform our awful immigration laws over the Central American migration controversy. The City was honest and nothing was spun or ommitted; it acknowledged the problem, did not resort to any excuse making, and encouraged its citizens to take action. Yes, many citizens were angry during the public meetings, but the City provided an outlet for them to contact the federal government and petition for change. So, why aren't we seeing the same plea for statewide government cost reforms which continue to obstruct our services and infrastructure whenever a transit agency runs into sharp cost increases during a soft market economy? Why wasn't Metrolink staff directed to put together such a campaign during the public hearing period?

Better Productivity: MetrolinkMax / Simplified Network

In addition, train schedule adjustments to generate timed transfers at hubs or establishing through-service combined with a powerful marketing campaigns will strengthen productivity of the railroad. The plan is simple; Metrolink can increase revenue by changing from a "segment" system to a "corridor" system. The Metrolink Antelope Valley and San Bernardino Line should be interlined with through-service at Los Angeles Union Station, or at minimum, a timed transfer between the lines by adjusting train schedules to better match each other. The increased station pairs would boost productivity and revenue. Other rail systems have demonstrated that this formula would be good for Metrolink.

Demand Board Officials to Take Action and Leadership

It's long past time for the special interests to stop obstructing our public services with inflated costs. You want higher salaries for public workers and more working hours? Pass fair and just laws that promote a robust market economy which ensures that these raises, additional work, good retirement packages, and efficient public services are fully paid for with the increased tax revenue without the need to increase tax rates, impose new fees, hike fares, or cut services. A strong free market with efficient and streamlined oversight ensures that these are all paid for since companies will actually need workers and will thus have to pay more to hire them in the job market. Have the state and the labor union lobby proposed fair solutions like that? Tearing apart of the Metrolink San Bernardino Line is not the answer.

We need leadership and fair solutions on this fiscal dispute so that the Metrolink San Bernardino Line can be saved from these cuts. Identify your representative on either Board (Metrolink Board; SANBAG Board) and contact him/her through your local city or county jurisdiction. It is time for us to hold our elected representatives accountable to get these cost increases in check.