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Santa Monica City Council Member Pam O’Connor Defends City Employees

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

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Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

February 3, 2016 -- Santa Monica City Council Member Pam O’Connor Monday defended the thousands of City government employees who drive and park downtown despite a City campaign to take alternate transportation, contending many of them work hours when such transit isn’t readily available.

In a report released last week, a local activist group found that the City is abusing its own anti-car campaign for downtown, with a record number of City employees coming and going by individual automobile to their offices in a badly congested part of town.

“The City of Santa Monica is a 24/7 operation,” said O’Connor, who served 13 years on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Board and is one of the city's leading proponents of public transit.

“Bus (drivers), police – all those folks are going to have trouble taking public transportation because they work odd hours," O'Connor said. "Not everybody is 9 to 5.”

Santa Monica's largest employer, the City has approximately 2,200 full-time and part-time workers. Although schedules differ by department, City employees are on set schedules, according to the City's Human Resources Department.

The total workforce includes 215 police officers and 305 bus drivers, who work different shifts, according to City data.

The Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City found that each year since 2008, the number of employees using alternative transportation like the bus or car-pooling has dropped 22 percent.

Those findings are a sore point for City officials, who have engaged in a long campaign to convince the public to use alternative modes of transportation to decrease congestion.

Council Member Kevin McKeown also has defended the City workforce’s driving habits, saying the City’s provision of employee parking helps relieve competition for space on public streets and is appreciated by local businesses.

Neither McKeown nor O'Connor addressed what the City was doing to encourage municipal workers not to drive and use alternative modes of transportation.

They also did not explain how providing parking for City workers alleviates congestion downtown and on Santa Monica streets.

McKeown's defense seems to run counter to a concern he expressed at a May 2006 City Council meeting to discuss adding 1,712 new parking spaces Downtown. McKeown wondered aloud if this would actually worsen traffic problems ("Council Opts for More Ambitious Downtown Parking Plan," May 15, 2006).

“Is anybody else tired of ever increasing traffic,” he said. “More easy parking, not only disperses the traffic, it increases the traffic.”

O’Connor attributes the continued reliance on the car to the long-entrenched driving habits of Southern Californians and an urban sprawl that is not conducive to the type of mass transit heavily used in big cities like New York.

“People will always drive cars,” said O’Connor, who has also been involved with the California Transit Association. “They will always be parking and paying for parking. It’s a balance of options we’re looking at.”

The Coalition's report wasn’t the only troubling news for those pushing to get Southland drivers out of their cars and onto public transit and other alternative modes of transportation, such as bicycles.

A report released by County transit officials last week found that public transit ridership has declined in Southern California over the past ten years despite $9 billion spent for new light rail and subway lines in the county.

The region’s largest transit operator, the LA County Transportation Authority lost more than 10 percent of its passengers between 2006 to 2015. Metro now has fewer passengers than it did 30 years ago.

While the decline is picking up speed, the agency plans to spend another $12 billion to expand the system, which will include the arrival of light rail in Santa Monica this year for the first time in more than a half century.

But Metro wasn’t the only loser. Another 16 transit providers in Los Angeles County experienced loses of 4 percent to 5 percent on average each quarter. Bus ridership in Orange County posted a steep 30 percent drop in the last seven years.

In Santa Monica, the Big Blue Bus system has also struggled.

As of last year, the system had posted five years of declining ridership, although officials said it was poised to rebound due to a better economy, changes in operations and the debut in late May of Expo Light Rail.

BBB ridership peaked in 2010, with 22,350,252 passengers. The total for the fiscal year ending July 31 was 18,748,869.

O’Connor said it is too soon to be pessimistic about the decline in public transit ridership. She noted that the extension of light rail from Culver City to Santa Monica is expected to boost ridership.

Other projects are on the horizon, including the Gold Line Foothill Extension to Azusa and ambitious plans for special lines to LAX.

Eventually, Metro riders will be able to journey from Santa Monica to East Los Angeles without any transfers. The new lines “will add to utility and be a real boost to ridership,” O'Connor said.

More buses need to have dedicated lanes to bypass regular traffic, O'Connor said. More focus should also be placed on locating housing and jobs near transit stations.

That should be the case on Wilshire Boulevard, a major thoroughfare that would be ripe for both initiatives, O'Connor said. The City Council, however, has resisted moving in that direction, she added.


Update: Santa Monica City Council member Kevin McKeown Responds to Coalition Findings

In a report released last week, the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City found that a record number of municipal employees are driving to work despite an campaign by the City to encourage workers in the downtown to use altternate modes of transporation. Following is Council member Kevin McKeown's response to the findings.

The City begins where we hope other employers will begin, making sure there is adequate parking so our employees with cars don’t overrun surrounding neighborhoods.

Then, once we’re sure neighborhood parking is protected by providing parking as part of the job, we do our best to lure employees out of their cars by offering transit passes and even cash back if the employee will agree not to drive a car to work, instead using mass transit, carpooling, a bicycle or even shoe leather.

The incentives are there to park off the street or not to park at all, and our goal has always been to minimize the number of City employees driving to work.

SMCLC correctly pointed out that our effectiveness has slipped, and we’re now upping our game to get City workers out of cars, reducing traffic and greenhouse gas emissions.

I’ll work with the rest of the Council and with senior staff to make sure that happens.

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