OPINION: Southern California rail companies lose millions while we sit in traffic

Every afternoon between Monday and Thursday, Saddleback College students circle campus parking lots, burning gas while looking for a place to stop their cars. While students inch their way up Marguerite parkway and around campus lots nine and 10, Metrolink and Amtrak are losing hundreds of millions of dollars.

Both train services pass through Orange County, making stops in Laguna Niguel and San Juan Capistrano. Metrolink’s Laguna Niguel stop is located near Camino Capistrano and Forbes road, directly across the 5 freeway from Saddleback College. The station is about 1.5 miles from the college and bicycles are permitted on trains.

Students commuting from cities with train stations like Orange, Tustin, Irvine, San Clemente or Los Angeles might have found relief from traffic and campus parking lots if the cost of trains were more affordable. Additionally, if Metrolink and Amtrak lowered the cost of fare, their ridership would likely increase, giving some relief to the millions lost.

With gas prices about $2.85 per gallon, a round trip from Los Angeles union station to Saddleback College is about $8 for a small sedan like Toyota Yaris or Honda Civic.

Since January 2015, Metrolink began offering 25 percent discounts for students. However, a discounted round trip from Los Angeles union station to Saddleback College is $18, about the same price as driving a 1999 GMC Suburban.

An Amtrak round trip from Los Angeles to Orange County is about $21. For the same price, a small sedan can travel between destinations about five times.

Metrolink’s total operating loss for 2014 was more than $137 million. The cost to operate the Southern California rail system more than doubled the total operating revenues, according to Southern California Regional Rail Authority Comprehensive Financial Report. Losses in 2013 were slightly less, around $135 million.

The majority of Metrolink’s funding comes from local sales tax, State Rail Bond Funds, State Highway Account Funds and federal and state transit funds, the report said.

The nation-wide rail service Amtrak had a total operating loss of $1 billion in 2014 and about $ 1.27 billion in 2013, according to an independent audit report of Amtrak’s comprehensive financial statements for 2014. The report was dated February 2016.

“The Company has a history of operating losses and is dependent upon substantial Federal Government subsidies to sustain its operations and maintain its underlying infrastructure,” the audit report said of Amtrak. “Without the receipt of Federal Government funding, the Company will not be able to continue in its current form and significant operating changes, restructurings, or bankruptcy might occur.”

Unlike New York, Chicago and most European metropolitan cities, Southern California’s infrastructure consists more of freeways, highways and toll roads than a passenger rail system. The shortsighted infrastructure was put in place when gas prices were cheap and climate change was not yet a concept.

California recently passed a $156.4 billion dollar budget to help fund a high-speed rail project as part of the state’s Cap and Trade Program, according to the Metrolink financial report. The Cap and Trade program targets greenhouse gas emissions in certain areas of California and aims reduce emissions to the levels of 1990. Metrolink, or SCRRA, will start receiving funding for the project in 2015, the report said.

Increased rail infrastructure and the ability to travel free of road rage will likely attract more riders and help dig the companies out of the million lost. But to pull those commuting long distances from comfortable air-conditioned cars, the cost of train fare must rival, or at least compare to the price of gas.