Thursday, August 13, 2020

A New Metro Budget Briefing Raises Worrying Signs for NextGen

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to disrupt life around the globe, government agencies at all levels have been forced to make difficult choices about how to spend sharply curtailed tax revenues. In Los Angeles, as in so many places, the current moment has impressed upon service providers a need to weigh their priorities carefully and decide what can still be funded. Metro, for example, an agency with a nearly $7 billion annual budget and the LA region’s largest funder of transportation services, halted its normal spring budgeting activities in the hope that additional time might lend more clarity to the impact of Covid-19 on the transportation agency’s financial situation – and that subsequent bailouts from the federal government might quickly follow the CARES act. 

So far, though, no additional federal funding beyond an initial $1 billion for bus and rail operations – which covers only about half of Metro’s losses since the pandemic began – has arrived. There are many questions as-yet unanswered about what Metro riders should expect from the fiscal year to come, but, with the deadline for the Board of Directors to vote on the budget approaching at the end of September, a new presentation has been released that casts some doubt on the agency’s commitment to following through with the NextGen bus reorganization.

Detailing the impact that Covid-related shutdowns have had on public transit service so far, Metro’s presentation shows how cuts intended to pare back service to match a significantly reduced ridership during stay-at-home orders led to a reduction of over 30% in bus service hours from April to June of this year. However, as the city and county of Los Angeles began allowing more sectors of the local economy to reopen their doors at the end of May, ridership has already rebounded from the lowest depths it hit in the spring. Metro’s own estimates indicate that ridership is about 25% higher currently than it was when most of the region was locked down. The agency projects there will be about 34 million boardings for the quarter ending September 30, as compared with 27 million boardings for the quarter that ended June 30.

Metro’s presentation indicates an intention to “[add service] gradually each quarter based on projected ridership demand and recovery.” The agency also notes the importance of “follow[ing] principals [sic] established by NextGen.” This is a common theme throughout the document, which attempts to stress unstintingly the importance of scaling up service to meet the needs of the region’s recovery and also to hew to the Vision 2028 strategic plan which was approved by the Metro Board in 2018. 

NextGen – a plan which would dramatically overhaul the region’s bus network to provide frequent all-day service on busy corridors – is a cornerstone of Vision 2028. Indeed, the goals of Metro’s strategic plan, a central intention of which is to reduce the barriers of access experienced by communities who depend on public transportation, are not achievable without a full commitment by Metro to implement the NextGen reorganization. But Metro’s presentation offers contradictory evidence to its claims that the new year’s budget will proceed with NextGen principles in mind.

While Metro says it intends to “ramp up” bus service throughout the year, in fact, what their data show is a 14% increase in service hours between last quarter and this quarter, followed by quarterly increases of 0.7%, 0.1%, and 0.09% respectively. Far from ramping up, service has already leveled off for the year under the current plan, and that has clear impacts for the implementation of NextGen which is scheduled to begin.

In the first two phases of the NextGen plan, Metro has planned on reallocating bus service hours that were already budgeted from lower-performing lines to new high-frequency lines that would run on the busiest corridors in Los Angeles. This meant that from a baseline of 7 million service hours, Metro could dramatically increase access to high quality bus service without the need to immediately increase the number of buses on the road.

However, with the service cuts that Metro appears to be planning throughout fiscal 2021, bus service hours are down a staggering 20% to 5.6 million hours annually. The premise of NextGen is getting the highest quality service that the agency can get out of existing service hours, but, with this budget plan, the baseline has been thrown out and service is cut to the bone. There is simply no way to effectively achieve the reorganization envisioned by NextGen from a service hour deficit of 20%.

Further, in support of the cuts, Metro uses a graph which suggests that service hours have, up until now, remained relatively stable as ridership has fallen, perhaps as justification for making cuts to service now. This undercuts NextGen in the most basic way. Without high quality service, as NextGen properly acknowledges, there is no path for ridership to recover: cuts will never result in riders returning to the system, they can only exacerbate the system’s decline.

The view of service hours as stable is also misleading because it views service hours from a systemwide perspective. Metro serves an enormous area, in which many different conditions coexist, with bus and rail service. Throughout the 2010s, Metro increased rail service hours while either keeping bus service flat or, in some years, reducing it. Covid has only intensified the need to be more detailed in analyses of the provision of service.

As we know that working class communities and particularly Black and brown communities in central and south Los Angeles have been more likely to experience crowding onboard transit, we must also be aware that service cuts in these communities are more dangerous. While Metro has said that in cutting service they were making sure that passengers would “maintain social distancing,” the truth is less clear cut. 

Service cuts can only aid social distancing if riding transit or not is a choice. As the numbers of workers returning to in-person jobs has steadily increased, the only way that Metro can clearly support the ability of riders to maintain adequate space between themselves and others is to provide more service, not less. This, again, is a goal supported by NextGen that is not evident in the proposed service plan for the new year’s budget.

Despite Metro’s claims that it is still dedicated to NextGen, there is no clear evidence in this earliest public document on the budget that it is planning to follow through. No clear funding is identified as being dedicated to NextGen. No acknowledgement is made of the difficulty posed by service reductions in fulfilling promises made to riders. Without decisive Board action to preserve the NextGen plan, Angelenos should be worried that NextGen might end up stalling out completely.


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