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Metro is spending billions of your tax dollars to build L.A. a world class transit system. Don't let them blow it

This past November, Los Angeles County voters overwhelmingly passed Measure M — gifting Metro, the county’s transit authority, $120 billion over the next 40 years to build a 21st century public transit system. This massive investment carries with it the potential to fundamentally transform mobility in the region. But while the promise is great, so are the perils.

If history is any guide, L.A. transit leaders have a habit of prioritizing politically expedient projects over ones that would benefit more riders. Faced with NIMBY opposition, our leaders too often cave.

Just look at the Expo Line from downtown L.A. to Santa Monica, a route that remains hampered by slow travel times after transit leaders failed to give the train priority over automobiles along city streets. Additionally, failure to push through with adequate development projects along the route denied this expensive rail technology an easy ridership boost.

Will transportation leaders similarly compromise away good Measure M projects until they go bad?

To answer this question, it’s important to understand what a “good” project entails. Cost-effectiveness — using the fewest dollars to move the most people the greatest distance — is key. Projects should attract maximal ridership, based on existing population, job density and service quality. Potential ridership, based on the feasibility of building more housing, retail and offices within walking distance of stations, is another crucial determinant. (The failure of the anti-growth Measure S in the recent L.A. election adds even more weight to this component.) Finally, projects should maximize reductions in overall driving miles, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

It has been four months since voters approved Measure M, and transit officials have already started spending our tax dollars to evaluate new projects. So how are they doing?

So far, so good. But the public should be vigilant.

Planners recently unveiled bus rapid-transit options on Vermont Avenue, which, with around 45,000 daily riders, is the second-busiest bus corridor in the county — a great place to start, given these numbers are on par with many rail lines.

While some are clamoring for rail along this route, bus rapid transit is cheaper and faster to build while bringing similar benefits. Metro is now faced with the choice of either removing dedicated parking and traffic lanes from Vermont to create an exclusive lane for buses, or only partially dedicating a bus lane for certain times or areas.

Both options are better than the status quo, but a fully dedicated lane is clearly the superior choice, offering greater time savings and more ridership. The price tag is higher, but planning compact and convenient private-sector development alongside the transit corridor would boost ridership and give the public a better return on its investment.

Some opponents along the route, however, are already trying to protect automobile convenience at the expense of transit riders. They want to preserve parking and traffic lanes, which would force buses into traffic and lengthen travel times.

For this plan to be successful, Metro — as well as Angelenos who want to see their city transformed — need to fight to prioritize transit riders over automobiles.

A second Metro bus rapid-transit plan to connect the Pasadena Gold Line to the North Hollywood Red Line and Orange Line station is even more politically fraught. The 16-mile corridor would link Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena — a route currently traveled primarily by single-occupant automobiles. Potential routes essentially involve two visions: street-level bus lanes along major avenues in populated neighborhoods, or a dedicated freeway route along California 134 and Interstate 5.

A street-level line offers more promise. It would be slower, but it would attract more riders than the freeway route by serving more neighborhoods. This option, too, is more expensive, but planning compact new development around transit stops could help defray costs and guarantee wider ridership.

Like Vermont, this option faces local pressure. Communities such as Eagle Rock want street-level service. But if Metro meets Eagle Rock’s request, the agency will need the neighborhood’s commitment to allow more offices, apartments, restaurants and other amenities to be built to generate more riders.

Building transit only to face Measure S-like anti-development protest is a recipe for failure. Too often in the past, Metro leaders have caved to local opposition that fights smart transit and the needed development around it.

The good news is that, looking forward, transportation officials have slated Measure M to fund some worthwhile projects, such as the Wilshire subway extension to Westwood and the promising bus rapid-transit lines. But the overall project list has some serious concerns — like the sprawl and traffic-inducing "high desert corridor" highway from Palmdale to Apple Valley and the low-ridership Gold Line rail extension to Claremont.

Even though the money is now in hand for these bad projects, however, Angelenos can still have an influence on how that money gets spent. Just as NIMBY opposition can crater good proposals, advocates for smart transit can and need to fight for better projects. Rigorous, mandatory performance measures must take precedence over politically motivated decision-making.

Los Angeles has an opportunity to create transit-oriented neighborhoods that most cities around the country can merely dream about. Yet to avoid past mistakes, an engaged public needs to ensure that Metro leadership fulfills the promise of Measure M and not the peril.

Ethan N. Elkind researches and writes on environmental law and policy with a joint appointment at the UC Berkeley and UCLA Schools of Law. He is the author of “Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City.”

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