The Little Engine That Couldn't : The blind cult of the train could be as dangerous and destructive as the worship of the freeway.

Ribbon cutting and celebration will mark "the biggest thing to hit L.A. since the Olympics," a day when the city that once saw itself as an "autopian" paradise turns away from the freeway to get on board the train.

The train is seen as the way to ease congestion and reduce pollution. Community festivals in Watts and Compton, celebrating the inauguration of Blue Line service to downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach, indicate that it is also seen as an answer to urban poverty. But although trains may symbolize renewal and progress, every indicator shows that in reality they promise to soak up public funds that could do more good elsewhere.

Prospects for the high ridership look poor. The line will carry 54,000 daily passengers by the year 2000, according to the environmental impact work done by the Southern California Assn. of Governments. But SCAG's unrealistic assumptions and inappropriate use of techniques have led to inflated figures with no more statistical validity than a random guess.

The Los Angeles County Transportation Commission subsequently predicted that ridership would be 35,000 per day at the end of the start-up year. The RTD has just released a first-year forecast of only 15,000 passengers per day. The transportation commission, not wanting to lose face by failing to meet the false expectations on which the project was sold to the public, has followed up by dropping its projection to 5,000 to 7,000 daily on the opening day, building to 12,000 with full system operations. It takes a lot of imagination to see that number eventually growing to 54,000.

Most alarming, however is SCAG's conclusion that: "From a county level or even a corridor level, the project has only a very minor impact on traffic." Nor, SCAG maintains, will the system contribute meaningfully to reductions in pollution or energy use. It will not lure many people from their cars, SCAG says, but will mostly accommodate people who would otherwise have taken buses. History demonstrates why. While Pacific Electric's Red Car line, which closed in 1961, did open Los Angeles to development well before the first freeway was conceived, the automobile's flexibility changed the urban form, making it impossible for the Red Cars to serve the needs of the increasingly widespread population. Buses made competitive incursions. Because they cover a wider area, buses can provide a more direct and transfer-free service than rail, giving them a distinct edge in widespread areas like Los Angeles.

Red Car service at its prime took only 36 minutes to reach the heart of Long Beach; it lost ridership as traffic interference lengthened the trip to 54 minutes. Blue Line service, however, will be slower than the Red Cars at their worst. Former Long Beach express passengers will face a longer trip on the train than they did on the bus.

Although light-rail service will shorten trips for the minority of local passengers who can walk to and from stations, bus-train transfers will make trips longer than going directly by bus. This is troubling in South-Central Los Angeles, where on average transit trips are only 3 miles and scattered throughout the area, rather than focused on the Blue Line route. The light rail, quite simply, can only serve an insignificant fraction of the community's needs.

Furthermore, the argument that ridership will grow once connecting service opens is flawed: Light-rail service, stopping at all stations, will be even less attractive for those who need to complete lengthy cross-county trips and transfer between trains than for Long Beach corridor riders.

Projected operating costs for fiscal 1991 released by the RTD add to the concern. Buses are expected to bring in 41% of their costs from fares. But, while annual operating costs for the Long Beach line are budgeted at $33.6 million, rail fares are projected to bring in only $1.5 million. That's less than 5% of costs. The deficit must be borne by subsidy. Even allowing for higher-than-average expected start-up costs, that's a dismal performance, given decades of promises to Los Angeles residents that while there would be higher capital costs for trains than buses, their ability to carry more people with fewer drivers would mean lower operating costs.

While the commission is providing special operating subsidies for the first two years of rail service, the high cost of such service could later mean less money for already overcrowded buses, which carry more passengers over a wider area of South-Central Los Angeles and at a lower per-capita subsidy than the train.

The widely held beliefs that the trolley will provide access to education and employment for residents of depressed communities are unfortunate and naive. First, appropriate low-skill jobs are spread over a wide area, with the trolley providing access to only a fraction of them. Second, the myth that a gleaming train will turn the unemployed--presumably simply waiting for the train to arrive--into productive workers is as insulting as it is unfounded: If there were jobs, residents would hold them now. Compton Councilman Maxcy Filer, one of the few politicians to go against the grain, has said: "It always amazes me that they say we're going to help the unemployment rate in Compton by this train. . . . Well, no, you find the jobs and I'll find the transportation."

The lack of critical attention directed at Los Angeles County rail projects is disturbing. Yes, Los Angeles' transportation problems do need urgent attention. Yes, we should spend more money on public transportation. But the blind cult of the train could be as dangerous and destructive as the unthinking worship of the freeway.

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