By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
DASH has changed the way we get around downtown. It used to be that if you went from City Hall to, say, ARCO Plaza, your choice was a hot, hustling, half-hour walk, a slow, expensive RTD bus ride, or taking your car and then trying to expense $8 worth of parking.
Nowadays, you just fish out a quarter, hop on a well-upholstered, air-conditioned DASH busette with a friendly young driver, and off you go. The city owns the minibuses and contracts their operation. The routes are determined by demand. The project's been so successful that DASH lines are now popping up all over town - in South L.A., Hollywood, the Eastside and Fairfax, for instance, courtesy of Proposition A and Proposition C local sales-tax subsidies. The system seems to please everyone, except the transit unions (DASH pays its drivers less than United Transportation Union scale) and the downtown parking mongers. DASH may be L.A.'s only new mass-transit success story so far: The MTA could learn a lot from it about how cheaply and efficiently you can carry more than 50,000 people a day across Los Angeles.
Last week, however, as the City Council considered awarding some new DASH operating contracts, I got a scarier take on the story. It had to do with operating safety.
The disclosures came during the debate over the suitability of two DASH contractors - one the locally- and minority-owned APT, which has run the Crenshaw DASH routes, the other a subsidiary of the international Laidlaw Corp., which also has had the contract for a number of routes. Both firms have friends on the council. At the end of the day, Laidlaw lost out to a firm named ATE/Ryder, while APT is still in the running for its route pending a further committee hearing. But on the basis of the reports delivered last week, it sounded like neither firm should have won.
Councilman Joel Wachs stressed certain staff findings. Laidlaw had been skipping more than 1,000 scheduled trips per month. It was on schedule just half the time. As for APT, most of the tested buses it operated flunked surprise inspections: They suffered from brake, steering and other major problems and were immediately pulled out of service. Laidlaw's mechanical record wasn't much different. Wachs suggested that it might be time for the city to seek more responsible contractors.
Phil Aker, the city Department of Transportation (DOT) planner in charge of the DASH (you want to call it the DOT-DASH) program, later told me that APT is a tiny outfit with limited resources. Laidlaw, on the other hand, is a much larger firm whose performance has shown a long slide, he said. ATE/Ryder, the company taking over Laidlaw's routes, he added, seems to have a better service operation, and he also noted that DOT's automated vehicle-maintenance system is just now coming online.
This is good news. Buses are such humble transportation that we take their safety for granted. We shouldn't. I still remember putting two teenage friends on a southbound bus in Ensenada years ago. They became two of the handful of survivors of a plunge off a narrow road that killed 40 fellow passengers. During its 13 lucky years, DASH has had a prodigiously low injury record. But then, we downtown DASH users may have just been lucky that there aren't too many narrow roads or precipices between ARCO Plaza and City Hall.