What is it with California that it just doesn’t know how to run a railroad?
This column has, on several occasions, covered the abysmal history of the nation’s largest boondoggle, high-speed rail. With every passing day, it becomes increasingly obvious that it will never be completed and all that will remain is a series of concrete pylons in the Central Valley that will become California’s version of Stonehenge.
This past week two news items highlighted another rail disaster unfolding in California. First was the report that a police sergeant with LAPD had his finger bitten off by a homeless man in East Hollywood. The second news item was a request from transit advocates for a $5 billion bailout of California’s failing transit systems. The proposal is being pushed by Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, who said that without the state cash, BART and other big-city transit systems will have to make drastic service cuts.
Senator Weiner is correct about California transit systems being on the verge of bankruptcy, but he is wrong to suggest that the problem will be fixed with a bailout from taxpayers already paying billions for the self-inflicted wounds of poor planning and bad management.
It is indisputable that California’s major transit systems are in trouble, but among the several reasons for that trouble, only the pandemic was beyond the control of politicians. No one disputes the impact that COVID-19 had as millions of Californians were told to stay at home. But even here one must wonder whether California’s chosen pandemic response contributed to the severe economic blow. The economic damage from the pandemic was less severe in other states which remained more open.
In any event, that ship has sailed and Covid is no longer the concern that it was three years ago. But the second big problem for California is the shift toward more at-home work, which has prevented the largest transit agencies from reaching their pre-pandemic ridership levels. Without riders, farebox revenue falls. And while virtually all of California’s more than 200 transit agencies receive government subsidies, the big ones in Los Angeles and the Bay Area have been more reliant on paying customers for a significant percentage of their operating expenses.
Many, if not most, of the problems facing transit systems have nothing to do with pandemics or changing work habits but are matters which can be addressed with better management. For example, riders need assurance that if they come to rely on transit, they are not subject to the threat of work stoppages or strikes. President Biden had to bend over backward to avoid a rail strike in 2022. But labor issues can bring a transit system to a halt, as happened to BART in 2013.
Finally, perhaps the biggest deterrent to increased ridership in our major metropolitan areas is safety. Let’s face it. Riding the MTA in Los Angeles or BART in the Bay Area is putting your life at risk. On MTA, incidences of rape, assault, robbery and murder went up 24% in the last two years and over 20 people have died riding the L.A. Metro already in 2023. The increase in crime became so acute that Metro started a program to hire “Transit Ambassadors” to ride on the trains, provide minimal security, help riders, and direct homeless people to social services.
But even with enhanced security, there are other concerns with large urban transit districts. According to a recent article in Center Square, “Riders described an overwhelming stench, encounters with mentally unstable individuals, avoidance of human waste, trash, open drug and alcohol use, aggressive behavior towards passengers and indecent exposure.” Few, if any, passengers on BART or MTA would describe their rides as pleasant.
In short, until California’s major transit districts start acting like businesses focused on customer satisfaction to bring back ridership, their problems will only grow worse. And they need to show that they’re serious about these improvements before asking for billions more from California’s beleaguered taxpayers.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.