Last week, the Metrolink Board of Directors punted on the decision on how to balance their budget through either fare hikes, service cuts, or a mix of both until sometime in 2010. While some riders breathed a sigh of relief that Metrolink didn’t fill their Holiday Stockings with some regressive transportation policy; it seems inevitable that the Board is only delaying what will ultimately be an unpopular and difficult decision.
However, there is a third way. Yesterday, I had a lengthy phone conversation with The Transit Coalition’s executive director, Bart Reed, about his group’s plan to save Metrolink. The plan is simple, Metrolink can increase revenue by changing from a "segment" system to a "corridor" system. Instead of having all routes begin and end in Union Station the segments are combined to create larger corridors. The segments that currently end in Oceanside and Montalvo would be combined as would the current red, green and blue segments. Basically, the trains run through Union Station after a stop instead of just stopping there.
But can that really increase the number of passengers to such a level to avoid hikes and/or cuts that could cripple the agency for years? The Transit Coalition thinks it can:
"When riders know they can get from one place to another without the uncertainty of having to transfer, ridership goes up twenty-five percent," promises Reed, "In the northeast corridor it used to be that you couldn’t get from Boston to Washington without a transfer and a delay. When they connected the Washington to New York and New York to Boston segments into the Northeast Corridor, ridership shot up."
Under the Coalition’s plan, the system would become more efficient not
just because it would open up the system more, but also because it
would save the agency millions of dollars in efficiencies. The cost of
labor would go down as would, because of reduced idling time in Union
Station, the cost of maintaining and running the trains. Meanwhile,
the "corridor" service could also compete with freeways in a way the
current segmented system cannot. Reed jokingly asked how many people
would drive on freeways if they had to pull over for twenty minutes
between interchanges as some Metrolink passengers have to wait to
The Transit Coalition’s plan could have a remarkable impact on the system as it allows for the "opening" of the lines in such a way that a student in Sylmar wouldn’t have to fret a connection to go to class at Cal State. Also, a corridor system allows the agency to re-brand itself to businesses and individuals that haven’t taken advantage of the system in the past. A cash-out parking plan may become more viable for some large employers that haven’t taken advantage of the transit system to move their employees. While "Go Metro" advertisements are ubiquitous around the county, some employers, such as the Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank that could be served by Metrolink, aren’t targeted with nearly the same energy by Metrolink. Reed pointed out that there are hospitals, industrial centers, and other major employers up and down all the lines that could and should be targets of marketing campaigns.
"Everyone talks about Metrolink ridership being in crisis, but the agency only lost seven thousand riders between September 2008 and September 2009," Reed continued, "If Metrolink could sell five hundred more tickets in each segment just to major employers that would make a huge difference."
In a lot of ways, the Transit Coalition’s proposals would allow the agency to take the next step to becoming a real regional agency and could change their financial bottom line in such a way that the doomsday cuts and hikes that have been proposed aren’t "necessary." It remains to be seen whether the Metrolink Board, or their new CEO, have the vision and leadership to embrace it.