By SHELLY GARCIA Staff Reporter The city’s experiment in privately run mass transit is sputtering in the West San Fernando Valley. Smart Shuttle, a two-year pilot that set up services ranging from dial-a-ride programs to fixed-route runs in four regions of Los Angeles, has improved ridership for mass transportation in the West Valley and even attracted riders who never used public transit before. But the number of passengers has not been sufficient to pay for the high cost of operating the system, according to an evaluation conducted by the project consultants. The consultants, led by Long Beach firm O’Melia Consulting, along with members of the Department of Transportation, the L.A. City Council and local business people, are not ready to give up on bringing a privately run system. Many are pushing for a one-year extension of the pilot program when the initial period ends in June. But they all concede the area poses problems not found in other parts of Los Angeles. “The overall service in the West Valley did not generate the interest of the public to sustain it,” said John Gobis, president of Gobis & Co., which helped set up the pilot and evaluate the results. “The areas that have thrived are areas that have a considerable amount of density of population. The West Valley doesn’t have those densities.” The Smart Shuttle program was set up by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the L.A. Department of Transportation and the Southern California Association of Governments to explore alternatives to the MTA transit system. In other cities, vans and group taxis are used in augmenting bus or subway systems. In L.A., four test areas were set up MacArthur Park/Wilshire including Koreatown; South Central Los Angeles; Northeast San Fernando Valley, including Sunland and Tujunga; and the West Valley including Woodland Hills and Chatsworth. Each is operated by a different company with the types of service delivered determined by the individual providers. The program was originally established with $8.2 million in funding, mostly from the MTA. A decision on refinancing the service will not be made for another month. But the evaluation so far shows the greatest success in the MacArthur Park and Northeast Valley pilots, with the West Valley coming in at No. 3. The West Valley Smart Shuttle vans are equipped with mobile data terminals that calculate the time it will take to go from one point to another or to meet up with another van traveling along another route. That way, the driver can determine whether he or she can take a pick-up call or accommodate a special drop-off that isn’t on the fixed route. The technology also allows drivers to tie in with other shuttles to help passengers connect from one route to another. In part because of that flexibility, about 25 percent of those who have been riding the West Valley Smart Shuttle are new to public transit. An average of nine to 11 passengers used the West Valley Smart Shuttle per hour, according to the evaluation studies. That’s far higher than the national average of 2.8 passengers for these kinds of services. But even at those levels, the ridership wasn’t high enough to cover the cost of the start-up technology. Part of the problem may stem from the pricing limitations. The MTA, which funded most of the pilot, limited the fares to a maximum of $2 for those requesting pick-ups and drop-offs not on the scheduled routes. (An MTA bus pass is $42 a month; individual fares are $1.35 in cash or 90 cents with bus tokens.) “We probably underpriced the service,” said Phil Aker, supervising transportation planner at the L.A. Department of Transportation. “The overarching thing we learned was that if you set the fare similar to bus fares, then the idea of a self-sustaining Smart Shuttle just isn’t achievable.” Another problem involved the MTA. At the initial planning stages, the agency said it would adjust its routes, eliminating those with low ridership. But the agency never made good on its promise. MTA officials said the agency backed away from changing routes because of concerns that if the pilot did not continue, riders would be left out in the cold. “There was also some question as to whether the number of passengers on these lines could be accommodated on the Smart Shuttle system,” said Jim McLauglin, director of transit planning for the MTA. Despite these problems, those involved in the Smart Shuttle program said they would like to see the service continue, at least for another year in the West Valley. One possibility may be to reorganize the Smart Shuttle under the city’s taxi franchise, with group ride services viewed as being closer to the kind of service Smart Shuttle is geared to provide.