Leadership to build the transit system voters want
The answer to the subway question appears to be yes, and the reasons are clear: We can not afford to sit in traffic while paying $4 a gallon for gasoline. Our economy and quality of life can no longer afford the luxury of dithering. Now the only question is, do we have the will and the means to accomplish this feat?
The will and the resources to build an effective transit system will need to come from the people of Southern California, who appear to be voting with their feet: They are riding transit in increasing numbers. Since 2000, transit ridership in the Los Angeles area has grown by more than 40%. In conservative, anti-tax Orange County, voters endorsed more Metrolink rail service by voting in 2006 to extend a half-cent sales tax to fund various transportation projects. Riverside County is funding a 21-mile extension of Metrolink service.
The MTA has the opportunity to rapidly expand transit in L.A. County but appears loathe to make the necessary choices. The MTA is asking the federal government for $214 million to install toll-collection points on the Interstate 210 and Interstate 10 carpool lanes. Such a plan will punish carpoolers and charge everyone a fee to drive in lanes we've already paid for.
Unfortunately, the MTA won't push Washington to fund a real alternative to driving in freeway congestion: expanding the Gold Line light rail down the 210 Freeway corridor. Furthermore, the MTA wants to investigate the possibility of passing a transportation sales tax to fund various transit projects. The public sees this and asks, what gives?
L.A. County needs real leadership to facilitate the next generation of critical transportation investments. Unfortunately, local and state leaders have little credibility with voters. They divert bond money voters approved for transportation projects to balance the budget. Any expert on transportation funding initiatives will tell you that leaders must have the trust of voters and that such indecision does not inspire the confidence needed to pass transportation funding measures.
Real leadership, which seeks a resolution to our transportation crisis, must think strategically and forge alliances across political and geographic boundaries. Local leaders must cultivate real alliances with our state and federal partners, not play parochial politics. They must act decisively.
Today, nearly 40 transportation projects need immediate action. Working on those projects in a meaningful way can build the trust voters need to pass transportation improvement initiatives. Many of these projects already have some resources dedicated to them but are not advancing because of bureaucratic inertia. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger can release $250 million in Proposition 1B funds to purchase new rail cars, relieve overcrowding on our trains and expand transit services. The MTA can cancel the unnecessary $50-million contract to install fare-collection gates at train stations. That money could go toward enticing federal matching funds to begin the design work on the Gold Line extension, the Downtown Regional Connector and the final phase of the Expo Line to Santa Monica. The MTA should add the Interstate 710 tunnel and the High Desert Corridor to its Long Range Transportation Plan and endorse legislation that would allow public-private partnerships to finance and build these projects. The MTA should also request bond and federal financing to complete the grade-separation projects in southeast L.A. County vital to creating 30-minute Metrolink service to Orange County by 2010. Real actions, real alliances and real results inspire voters' confidence.
Will we get that "subway to the sea" beneath Wilshire Boulevard? Eventually, sure, but we must first move on our package of shelf-ready projects. Because funding is the issue, we should develop a package of projects with specific delivery targets and put it on the November ballot. The time feels right for overcoming previously insurmountable challenges.
Bart Reed is executive director of The Transit Coalition, a Sylmar-based nonprofit organization dealing with issues of transportation, mobility and land-use planning.
Crunching the numbers on the subway
Here are some numbers that everyone should think hard about. In 2005, L.A.'s Red Line subway averaged about 115,000 boardings a day (woefully less than promised). L.A. County taxpayers spent about $4.7 billion to build it ($300 million per mile) and spend about $78 million a year to operate it. We can now easily find annual costs by using standard depreciation rates and annual costs of capital (I tried 5%). We can then be wild transit buffs and assume that one-third of Red Line riders are new to transit and have abandoned their cars. We can plug in an average fare that they are paying and find a massive fiscal deficit, close to $300 million per year.
Fire up your spreadsheet, Bart.
Let's insist on being transit optimists and go to the other side of the ledger. We'll suppose that the cars left at home would have traveled an average of six miles per Red Line boarding. Each boarding would save the rest of us almost 10 cents a mile in costs associated with congestion, pollution and accidents. On my spreadsheet, this moves us from a fiscal loss of just more than $300 million a year to a net social "benefit" of just under negative $300 million a year. In other words, very little changes because there are so few riders.
You predict that higher gas prices will lead to more people riding transit. I disagree because I remember the oil shocks of the 1970s. If you look at only the annual transit data over those years, you cannot find the shocks. People coped by demanding (and getting) smaller and more fuel-efficient cars. This is beginning to happen again. But let's get really crazy and put 500,000 daily riders on the Red Line. The spreadsheet says that you'll get a net annual social loss of "only" $200 million.
No matter how you slice it, the Red Line is a loser. This is why all of the new subways in the U.S. have not made an iota of difference on traffic in the areas they have been built. Otherwise, why are there complaints about traffic in Miami, Atlanta and Washington?
We need fewer -- not more -- projects like these.
Bart, do you or anyone seriously believe that the Red Line has had any effect on traffic in L.A.'s core? For all of the money woes that I hear about daily, do such projects provide anywhere near a respectable bang for the buck? The data are handy, and the math is simple. Will the numbers get any better when we extend the Red Line to Santa Monica? And even if we call the extension the Purple Line? Retired UC Irvine professor Charles Lave once suggested that those who spin optimistic numbers to sell such projects put their fees in escrow and make them contingent on their forecasts coming true. But the transit optimists only bet other people's money.
Peter Gordon is a professor in USC's School of Policy, Planning and Development.