Metro Makes the Case for Half-Cent Sales Tax Increase

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Yesterday, Metro released rail ridership numbers which saw overall ridership growth of 6% compared to last year’s numbers. The Orange Line also saw growth of 1.3%. Bus ridership fell slightly, but Metro spokesperson Marc Littman attributed that to both May 2007 being a good month for bus ridership and last year’s fare increase. For a full breakdown of Metro’s May ridership, visit the Bottleneck Blog.

Following yesterday’s news, Metro sent out a press release promoting an analysis done by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation (LAEDC) showing the benefits of a proposed half-cent sales tax dedicated to transportation would far outstrip the cost to L.A. County residents.

Highlighting the LAEDC’s findings:

  • The construction would generate $32 billion in local economic activity
  • The construction would create 210,000 full-time jobs spread over a 30-year construction period
  • The tax increase would cost residents just $25 more per person annually
  • Residents will pay about 42 percent of the sales tax

Metro’s press release comes as more and more articles keep appearing in the California press about our jet-setting governor’s staunch opposition to properly funding transit. While Metro cannot lobby for a ballot proposition, they can continue to pass along information that may help voters make up their mind. The Metro Board will vote at their June 26th meeting on whether to place the half cent sales tax on the fall ballot. The proposition will need a two-thirds vote to pass.

In case you were wondering, the state doesn’t seem to be having trouble funding highway expansion projects.

Photo: Salaam Allah/Flickr 

  • MTA Total Budget
    Year – Total From All Funding Sources
    FY04 – $2,268,000,000
    FY05 – $2,626,700,000
    FY06 – $2,558,700,000
    FY07 – $3,036,000,000
    FY08 – $3,126,200,000

    Here is a suggestion – take away the costly construction of highways, and road widening, and shift spending to other modes of transportation.

    With more people using other modes, there is less maintenance needed for our existing roads, further driving down costs.

  • With an ever expanding budget, that has shown growth for nearly a decade, why the f&^k do we need to give them $1.5 billion more? They have enough money! It is locked into the wrong types of transportation projects.

  • I wish somebody would break down what exactly a 1/2 cent sale tax means, or sums up to in regards to purchases at the individual level. $25 for person?

    Raise the fuel tax, tied it to actual usage.

  • Simon

    Metro is forbidden from using their current sales tax money on subways. Also, inflation accounts for fully half of the increase from 2008.

    Also, not all road-based improvements are unnecessary. Maintaining the highway system is legitimately expensive. Some of that money is spent on carpool lanes and other improvements that are genuinely useful.

  • Niels

    Re Simon:

    Completely uneducated on the topic of Californian politics, but wouldn’t it be possible to overturn the decision not to let Metro use it’s current sales-tax-based budget for subways, rather than use this rather unpopular tax measure?

  • Simon

    Well, even if that was over-turned, the current budget just isn’t enough. They’ve already got it devoted to building several light rail lines and more and more of it’s being eaten up by maintenance of the existing infrastructure. They keep having to raise fares to pay for their increased fuel costs. This stuff is just mind-bogglingly expensive (that’s why it’s not really something you can privatize, the benefits are diffused through the economy and the costs are immediate and absolutely vicious).

    Ideally this wouldn’t be a sales tax, it’d be something more progressive, but California is so anti-tax that the only taxes you can get passed are generally consumption taxes because the anti-tax extremists don’t care about those as much. It’s no coincidence that the anti-tax Governor is considering a 1% state-wide sales tax increase, which is a horrible idea and would surely kill even the already slim hopes of this LA county sales tax increase.

  • Wad

    Brayj, Metro is the bursar for the highway funds it gets. It has no discretion as to where that money goes. The state legislature dictates the highway spending, not Metro.

    Simon was right about overturning Zev’s Law (Proposition A of 1998). The law had forbidden using local sales taxes to pay for any new tunneling. It does not ban tunneling within L.A. County. So a new tax would have to pay for any future tunneling. Also, if Zev’s Law was repealed, no new subway construction would be built anyway because, as the Transit Coalition’s Bart Reed has said, the construction funding has been programmed for the next 6-10 years.

  • Alright, you are right Wad, Proposition A restricts money from going towards subways BUT Proposition C has no such restriction, and billione more from different sources also are not restricted from going to subways.

    If you’re going to go to the voters with a ballot measure to increase transit spending – why not ask them to vote on a reformation of the existing Propositions instead of another onerous sales tax increase?

    This extra $1.5 billion is just too much. The MTA’s budget is not hurting – it’s leadership and funding structure is.

  • LAofAnaheim

    ubrayj….what cost $1 in 2000, does not cost $1 in 2008. As you see the increase in budget year-over-year, think about inflation, fuel cost, administrative, etc…. It would be useful if you looked at the transit budgets for CTA, NYMTA, BART, etc.. They’re no different than LA, and EVERYBODY is hurting for cash. Why is LA transit budget problems any different?

  • Wad

    Brayj, Zev’s Law restricts any county money from 1980 Prop. A and 1990 Prop. C being spent on tunneling.

    Read Metro’s primer on sales tax receipts and the allocation formula here:
    http://www.metro.net/about_us/finance/propositions.htm

    It’s also important to look at the allocation balance of the propositions. The plurality of Prop. A, 40 percent, goes to discretionary funding. The next largest, 35 percent, is for rail development. The remainder goes to local cities. Prop C returns 20 percent to cities, keeps 40 percent as discretionary, and the remainder is more delineated.

    If you wish to rebalanace these accounts, you’re moving a line-item from one field to another. It’s a zero-sum game.

    You’d probably want to shift resources from unproductive services to productive ones. Rail is the most expensive, but our rail network is about 10 percent of Metro’s system mileage yet carries a little under 25 percent of its total boardings. Would you want to shift it out of discretionary funding, which goes to fund bus operations?

    The 40 percent goes to funding 75 percent of the boardings.

    So what about that 20 percent? Those get returned to cities for meeting local needs.

    This has been the least productive item on the ledger. Prop. A led to the creation of over three dozen new systems, primarily designed for transportation within their city limits. The “Prop. A shuttles” were a political bribe to smaller cities to buy in to the sales tax. The combined boardings of these shuttles are less than the boardings on the Green Line. In other words, one corridor carries about the same riders as a geographic area that would be over a third of the L.A. County population.

    This 20 percent also gives the Prop A shuttle cities a perverse incentive to burn the money in useless bus service. If you look at a schedule and map of a Prop A shuttle, the routes are set up for the convenience of the local senior citizen population. This is deliberate. The routes are set up to maintain no or low growth, so the city would not have to put more resources into the bus system in the unlikely event that it becomes popular. However, the cities always figure that this 25 percent is going to be raided if Metro needs it for more rail development or discretionary funds. The seniors would mobilize against such a move.

    So, on the one hand, the 25 percent produces the least results, yet disproportionately sways political influence over the more productive 75 percent of the ledger.

    You’re theoretically not raising taxes, but you have to make a political move that might not pass in the first place.

    It all comes down to the balance between politics and common sense. It is not an either/or proposition, as you have to allocate between both. Common sense dictates that resources must be allocated to their most efficient uses and returns. Politics dictates that equity must act as a check against optimal efficiency.

    Think about this: Libertarians believe the state has no right or duty to act as a check on (interfere with) private economic transactions. They believe a stateless, laissez faire economic climate is utopian, as it ultimately is more fair to all involved and will rise all standards of civilization. In reality, the libertarian society is a Third World society. Without a political redistribution mechanism, the Gini coefficient is going to be as close to 1 (complete inequality) as possible. However, political theory since the Enlightenment has trended toward diffusion of sovereignty. The more inequality, the more challenges to the sovereignty. If the inequality is not voluntarily checked, it will be involuntarily checked.

    Civilization is the constant monitoring of the balance of these forces. And, there is no correct formula.

  • Before this whole discussion floats off into the air, I will restate that the MTA takes in a lot of money every year.

    After a great deal of study and research, I believe that the MTA could spend its money differently and achieve results that will benefit the region.

    This half cent sales tax measure is a gift of money that the MTA should not receive, in my opinion. The MTA spends a lot of its local return money subsidizing private automobile infrastructure. Even its TDM budget, which exists to shift car drivers onto other modes in order to reduce automobile traffic, is typically used to put people in “shuttles” – which does little to reduce the number of private automobiles on the roads.

    The goals of the MTA, generally, are, even when it comes to transit projects: move more cars, faster; then move more cars.

    The money WASTED on private automobile facilities needs to go to other modal facilities. I think we give this agency quite enough money every year for it to provide the transportation options this county needs. It does not spend that money wisely, and without a restructuring of the way the MTA judges the value of various projects, I will not support an increase in its sales tax revenue.

  • calwatch

    Yes, BUT the vast majority of Angelenos drive to work. They tolerate the current amount of money going to transit, but you are in risk of open revolt if you are suggesting more money be diverted from roadways and into public transit. Look, notwithstanding widening new roads, the roads that we have are already falling apart. And some transit money from Proposition C does go into roads, to improve roadway strength to handle 60 foot articulated buses. Look at Wilshire Boulevard for an example of how a bus every 60 seconds can chew up pavement.

    Incidentally, this is why I’m skeptical that the sales tax measure will pass with the 2/3rds vote necessary. The proponents are talking up the fact that they don’t expect any organized opposition. On the contrary, you can be assured that John & Ken, Doug McIntyre, and the other local radio talk show hosts will be up in arms over this. John & Ken are the most listened to local radio program in the country, with over a million unique listeners a week, about half of whom live in Los Angeles County. Their solution for removing traffic congestion is to have ICE round up and deport every illegal alien, and their proof for their hypothesis was the reduced traffic on the “Great American Boycott”, May 1, 2007. They spent hours talking down the Lee Baca/Bill Bratton public safety sales tax last cycle. If there’s no high profile trial like Sheriff Carona or some gruesome murder or sexual assault to pay attention to (their main interest), they are going to spend hours of time railing against the sales tax increase. And it’s not going to cross that line.

  • Your point about “improv[ing] roadway strength to handle 60 foot articulated buses” is a good example of how transit dollars get misspent.

    Strengthening the road to handle the weight of buses makes sense BUT the policies that guide that road-strengthening project place a higher priority on private automobile speed than on the number of people moving on the roadway, or the interference of private cars with the buses plying the avenue.

    After following this last year’s Call For Projects process closely, and reading through the entire “Rainbow Report” and the MTA’s two funding guidelines, I was stunned to see that a huge chunk of transit money gets diverted towards moving private automobiles faster.

    It is a shame that transit advocacy groups in this region are stuck begging for more money for this, or that, project – instead of focusing on the more powerful lever of funding policy reform at the MTA.

    Removing the influence of traffic engineering road use principles (i.e. “LOS, ADT, and VMT uber ales”) would get transit money flooding back into the projects it ought to be going towards now.

  • Wad

    Brayj, your confusing the sales tax outlays with Metro’s organization structure. In #11, you said the “half cent sales tax measure is a gift of money that the MTA should not receive.” You proceed to say that propositions A and C disporportionately go to supporting driving.

    Metro is an omnibus transportation district, and it is a state agency, not a local agency. Its charter and duties are delineated by the state legislature. The legislature formed Metro as an entity to have transportation planning and operations under the same umbrella.

    As for the sales tax, the the biggest allocation under both is for discretionary spending. Much of that is used to keep Metro’s buses running.

    In the case of money going to automobiles, remember that Metro is allowed to under its structure, and that money spent on something that benefits driving may also have ancillary benefits for transit. If a road project can reduce congestion, the average speed of a local bus may rise.

    Plus, if you look at the local return share and the performance of the Prop. A shuttles, maybe transit service is not the best use of money, even if the cities feel good about their bus systems.

  • Wad,

    “In the case of money going to automobiles, remember that Metro is allowed to under its structure, and that money spent on something that benefits driving may also have ancillary benefits for transit. If a road project can reduce congestion, the average speed of a local bus may rise.”

    Here is the problem.

    Of all possible methods to improve transit, and move human beings and goods in Los Angeles County, the MTA finds ways that primarily, accomodate private automobiles.

    I have looked, and have not found, a reason that this should be the case.

    When it comes to moving people and goods, private automobiles do not always make sense, and so I would expect the MTA to fund and plan projects accordingly. However, the MTA’s internal policies are so automobile-oriented that the only “transit” projects it can often bring itself to fund are road widenings or are restricted right-of-way projects which are expensive.

    Fer chrissake, look at the CFP’s funding guidelines! Bus projects have points deducted for reducing the LOS on a street! Good grief.

    There needs to be modal equity in the way projects are evaluated and funded. The cost-benefit analysis of transit projects includes asinine measurement of motorist delays in fractions of seconds – but never have I seen one that shows the measurable, positive, impact slower car speeds have in a retail or residential district (for example).

    In reality (outside of the MTA’s budget woes spin zone), there are a great deal of low to no cost solutions to L.A.’s mobility problems.

  • calwatch

    There are a lot of bad transit projects though. Transit Avenidas, articulated buses for Santa Clarita Transit, and useless smart shuttles don’t help anyone. Just last week Yvonne Burke started up what will probably the death knell of smart shuttles.

    And ubrayj02, once again, you don’t understand that most people in Los Angeles County still drive. There is a lot of bitching about roadway quality, even more so than traffic congestion, because congestion has essentially stayed at the same level for the past few years. A lot of the discretionary funds, as Wad says, go into keeping the bus system. If you took a combination of raising fares, eliminating nonproductive service, or contracting service, then you would have more money in that pot. To be fair, some of the Prop C money for “transitways” goes to carpool lanes that don’t have a single bus running on them. But the carpool lane system has proven to be a reasonable investment with the public.

  • M

    Part of the reason some people drive is because of the lack of infrastructure for alternate forms of transportation. It’s a chicken and egg problem. Who is going to budge first?

    There will always be the “forerunners” on the fringes adopting different sorts of transportation while it the infrastructure is very immature, but it doesn’t mean others wouldn’t like to move to that new form of transportation. In the meantime they are trapped in their cars unsure how to get to where they want to go in any other way. Personally I hear a lot of noise that maybe never amounts to any activity from my friends and family. They’d love to take a train or bus straight from the Valley to UCLA and Santa Monica, but unless they want a commute that is longer than getting stuck in traffic and still unreliable, they are sticking to their cars.

    Public transportation becomes infinitely more valuable as the system is built out more. It’s like a telephone. If no one else has a telephone, yours is pretty useless. But if 50% of people have phones, there is considerably more potential for usefulness. Some people don’t use public transportation because they can only get halfway to their destination or the frequency of a bus leaves something to be desired. I seriously wonder how much money it would take to improve the experiences of pedestrians and bikes in Los Angeles to a considerable degree. You can argue all you want about bikes being more energy efficient, a wonderful way to get exercise and whatnot, but if there is no place for people to actually ride and car drivers don’t understand how they should act and what rights the people on the bikes have, that doesn’t help people much. You can say pedestrians have right of way, but when they have to deal with cars constantly getting priority when moving through intersections and no protection against cars, how does that help? How often does a car driver need to worry about trying to figure out how they can cross an intersection and trigger the needed traffic signals? This has happened more times than I remember when I was on foot and on a bike.

  • “I seriously wonder how much money it would take to improve the experiences of pedestrians and bikes in Los Angeles to a considerable degree.”

    According to the City of L.A.’s 2002 Bike Plan, it would take $60 million to totaly build out the city’s bikeway network. The plan predicted that this network would get 5% of L.A. “commuters” to bike.

    $60 million is a drop in the bucket, but hundreds of thousands of cyclists riding to work would be HUGE.

    One problem with funding this is that “transportation” funds get allocated using a car-centric set of guidelines. There are also non-trivial political problems with transportation subsidies for cars that L.A.’s political class has not figured a way around.

    Just because we have unimaginative leaders, and clueless transportation engineers, doesn’t mean we should all keep widening roads and building more car subsidies into our transit budgets.

    5% of L.A.’s commuters could be commuting by bicycle for $60 million – that is CHEAP, fast, aand easy way to reduce the congestion canard from transportation policy debates.

  • Wad

    Part of the reason some people drive is because of the lack of infrastructure for alternate forms of transportation. It’s a chicken and egg problem. Who is going to budge first?

    A lack means an absence or shortage. Does L.A. lack the guideways and vehicles to provide alternate transportation? Well, Metro has 2,600 buses, about 500 rail cars and about 150 track-miles of rail.

    We’re not lacking in infrastructure. We lack the money to expand.

    Damien Goodmon’s “Get L.A. Moving” map put his network of rail lines at $40 billion. That’s a rather conservative number. The Wilshire extension of the subway is going to be at a minimum $5 billion.

    if you think the price is bad, the hardest hurdle to clear is raising the money in the first place. Public projects cannot expand on credit. They must have their share of funds on hand before they are matched by the state and the feds.

  • M

    Sorry, I should have been more specific. I consider sidewalks, bike racks, bike lanes, appropriate traffic signals and community education to be part of the infrastructure that also supports public transportation. These things don’t exist in any sort of coherent system that supports an overall goal in Los Angeles. When one gives up their car, that probably means they are going to have to do a little bit of walking or biking to get to public transportation, car pool sites or their final destinations.

    As Umberto quoted above, at some point the estimate was $60 million to help with some of these issues related to bicycles. I’m not sure what they would be in today’s dollars. That is minuscule compared to the quotes you gave for rail lines, which aren’t our only alternatives. If people could ride bikes safely, that may mean a train stop that was only reasonable for people living within a .5 mile radius is now reasonable for people living within a 2.5 mile radius.

  • The common misconception with Get LA Moving is that it’s just a map or that it is just a road map. It’s not. It’s a specific PLAN to design and build a system and my argument is that such methods drastically reduce costs.

    The cost appears to be “conservative” because it recommends and calculates savings from standardized station design, large bore tunneling, operating multiple tunnel boring machines, shallow open cut stations where possible and 4 car light-rail vehicle length platforms (that are expandable to 6 car heavy rail platforms in the future) among others.

    All of these recommendations/methods are predicated on having the capital to build a lot of rail simultaneously, resources that can only be obtained by getting a considerable commitment from the public – thus the lines to all edges of the county.

    For example, my assumption is the 5 billion dollar figure for the Wilshire subway is the segment costs (the cost of building in 3 or 4 segments). Building to La Cienega, breaking down the tunnel boring machine, dissolving the construction team only to build it back up after after 3-5 years of planning and inflation is expensive. And telling the electorate it’s going to take 10-20 years to build one line just does not inspire them to invest in mass transit rail expansion.

    But to be more clear, of course the cost is a lot more than $40 billion if the map is built piecemeal and a 9-mile line takes 3.5 years to design and build (not counting the environmental process). But with quality construction management that 9-mile project would be substantially cheaper to construct and could be brought online in a matter of 18-24 months if the tunnel boring machines, tracks and station infrastructure were already designed, determined, purchased and available for use.

    I will say that until this polycentric region has rapid transit (and to be “rapid” you have to be moving FAST) to serve our complicated commuting patterns, any “upgrade” that drastically takes roadway capacity only serves to exacerbate the problem.

  • And my big complaint about the investment in our rail lines and to a lesser extent SFV busway is the lack of funding and planning we put into upgrading the 1-2 mile radius around stations to improve the walking and biking conditions. There are places without sidewalks/without adequate sidewalks near a lot of our rail stations. Almost all of them lack bike lanes. It is simply insane to invest hundreds of millions in a system and not upgrade the pedestrian/biking infrastructure around the stations.

    Anyone have a link to the $60 million bike network?

  • The bike network I was referring to was designed in 1996 and re-adopted in 2002 by the City. You can find a copy of the plan online by searching through the Los Angeles City Clerk’s Council File Index at:

    http://cityclerk.lacity.org/cfi/

    Try seraching for 07-3494.

    Or try this link:
    http://clkrep.lacity.org/councilfiles/07-3494_rpt_plan_4-22-02.pdf

    The City is updating its Bike Plan, which will be submitted to the Council in 2009. The LADOT staff working on the plan appear to have backed off the dream of a 5% share of commuters using bicycles on arterial roads. The new bike plan will likely be anemic, unless consultant Alta Planning is allowed to do its thing and plan for a future beyond the short-sightedness of the LADOT’s leadership.

  • Joe Linton

    The LA City Bicycle Master Plan (approved in 1996, then re-approved as a “technical update” in 2001 and 2007 – the technical update was to ensure that the city meet the requirements to be eligible for state Bicycle Transportation Account funding) is here: http://www.ci.la.ca.us/PLN/Cwd/GnlPln/TransElt/BikePlan/B1intro.htm
    (it’s also in the council file… but this is a more web-friendly version, I think)

    While I think that the city has been somewhat timid in the scope that they gave Alta (I characterize it more as “see how much you squeeze out without causing a ruckus” as opposed to “make our city bikeway network really great for bikes”), I think that Alta will do a great job. I think that we’ll have a good plan and that the limiting factor on getting it implemented won’t be that we have a bad plan (nor will it be that we don’t have enough money), but that we lack political will to implement bike facilities that take any space away from cars.

    So… in my opinion, that means that we bicyclist need to be visible and advocate for implementation of facilities already in the plan. In a time of budget shortfalls, I think it’s most productive to advocate for cheaper facilities – basically bike lanes, which are fairly cheap – the city can do these within the existing road re-striping budget.

  • Joe Linton

    Also responding to Metro Vaquero (way up there above in the comments). Yes – vehicle taxes and gas taxes are preferable – as they give incentives for good behavior. The coalition Move LA (headed by former Santa Monica mayor Denny Zane) did polling on all these. Any of these measures would require a 2/3rds majority vote countywide to pass. The gas tax and vehicle tax poll around 30-40% (and that’s a year ago – before the recent [and perhaps welcome] spike in gas prices), so they’re very hard to get the voters to pass. On the other hand, a sales tax initiative polls around 60% which is more likely winnable (especially in the Fall 1008 election where lots of dems are likely to turn out to vote for Obama).

    I, along with the Bus Riders Union, am somewhat skeptical about the sales tax proposal. To sweeten the pot with cities, some of the money ~10% goes back to cities (called “local return”) for use on their transportation projects. Any guesses where LADOT will spend this money? Hint: I will bet anyone a hundred dollars that the majority of it will not go to bikes, transit, or pedestrians… and LADOT actually has bike projects… how do you think San Fernando, Calabasas, Hawaiian Gardens, Torrance, Malibu, San Gabriel, etc. will spend theirs? To sweeten the pot with drivers, another ~10% chunk goes to highway projects… some of these might not be awful (car pool lanes), but, in my opinion, even freeway car pool lanes are still mostly taking us in the wrong direction (and they cost buku bucks for little gain in mobility or reduction in pollution.) There’s money for transit (bus and rail) but, to me, it feels like Metro leadership is more interested in building as much rail as possible, than it is in expanding bus capacity on our streets – for example, the only bus improvement project in the Metro Long Range Transportation Plan is the Wilshire bus-only lane – already funded by the feds – no plan to improve or expand bus service. No provision for bikes or peds (when asked by LACBC staff, Metro staff responded that the local return money could be spent on bikes… but that’s up to a bunch of individual cities – no guarantee that any of it will actually go to bikes.)

    It may be a very good thing in the long run to have additional sales tax dollars going to Metro to improve our transportation… but it’s going to take advocates pushing for effective, smart projects to get Metro to do the right thing with the money.

  • Wad

    Damien, the construction methods you have described in order to build Get L.A. Moving are very sound. This looks to be very much like the plan Madrid, Spain used to build out its network.

    It may be implemented here, but there’s a greater chance it may not. Government procurement policies end up driving up the total prices, even though they are set up as a device to check dishonesty.

    My next question is, what will be the funding share of the $40 billion, if we commit to it. The more we must rely on state or federal funding, the less likely the overall project costs will stay $40 billion.

    Federal funding is especially burdensome. Not only is federal funding more competitive, meaning a lot of resources have to be spent just to get money in the first place, but a surprisingly great deal of money is lost just to be compliant within federal guidelines. And this is not even acknowledging Buy American specifications.

    The other thing is what do you do when the $40 billion mark has been breeched? As I’ve told you, building all those lines on your map will have wildly varying results. Is every line in your network vital, or are you willing to scrub some of the lower-performing lines from the map? This is something that has to be done before the shovel hits the ground.

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