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Council Member Wants Free Bus Passes for Residents  

By Jonathan Friedman
Lookout Staff

September 29, 2010 --City Council member Kevin McKeown said at Tuesday’s council meeting that the City should give residents free bus passes for unlimited travel within Santa Monica. An estimated 4,000 residents use the Big Blue Bus, which is approximately 17 percent of the total use. McKeown said distributing free passes would encourage public transit use and it could be funded through development fees.

McKeown’s suggestion came during a council discussion on how to increase revenue for the Blue Bus. There were some other council members interested in the concept, but nobody gave absolute support. Council member Richard Bloom said he did not want to give free passes to those who could afford them, and he wanted to see a cost/benefit analysis of doing this.

McKeown responded, “The point is not to save residents money out of their pocket, it’s getting residents onto the bus and out of their car, which I think is a huge goal we have to embrace … this is a way to do it. If you want to worry about money, look at our traffic challenges in Santa Monica, and let’s cost quantify that.”

Money for this program could come from fees generated through developments in transit areas, McKeown said. Leasing land for transit-oriented development on City properties at Colorado Avenue between Sixth and Seventh Streets and the areas near the future Expo Light Rail Stations at Bergamot Station and Colorado Avenue/Fourth Street were mentioned as possible revenue sources for the Blue Bus.

“I would like to see us think of ways to allow this transit-oriented development to pay back the residents for the impacts by providing them with free mass transit within the city,” McKeown said.

A concept for Blue Bus revenue that received significant council support was adding digital advertisement signs to the sides of buses. City staff estimates digital signs could garner $12 million more than the existing static signs. But this would require a change to the California Vehicle Code. The council directed City staff to work with its lobbyist to get the law changed. Several council members said they did not expect there to be much opposition to this.

Council member Bob Holbrook said advertising revenue could come through computerized announcements that were made when the buses pass certain businesses on the road. City staff members said they had not thought of that concept. Stephanie Negriff, Santa Monica’s director of transit services, said there are no interior written ads on the buses because that is where bus information and PSAs go and there is a lack of interest from advertisers. City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said there could be some legal issues involving free speech, and she could provide information about that at a later meeting.

City staff had provided a proposal for a “congestion mitigation fee” on new developments that would go to the Blue Bus. Former Mayor Dennis Zane, who heads the public transportation advocacy group Move LA, said the developers should pay the City that money in the form of providing bus passes to residents and employees at the development. Council member Gleam Davis agreed.

“If somebody’s doing a development, and they give us a certain amount of money, yes that might underwrite the Big Blue Bus, but it doesn’t necessarily put a single additional rider on the bus,” she said. “Whereas if you give transit passes to people, you have the same subsidization effect because of course the developer would have to purchase transit passes and that puts money into the operating budget, but it also may in fact encourage people to ride the bus.”

City staff was opposed to the idea of raising parking fines as a revenue method. Most council members were in agreement. The lone opponent was Council member Terry O’Day, who said it would bring in money soon, while the other concepts would take some time to be implemented and generate money.

“There is a clear nexus between cars and transit on the road,” he said. “And when we’re increasing the cost for cars, we’re encouraging the use of transit. Those vehicles that are receiving parking citations also impact bus operations.”


"I would like to see us think of ways to allow this transit-oriented development to pay back the residents for the impacts by providing them with free mass transit within the city,"
   Kevin McKeown

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