Alice in Transit Land : On Some Southland Projects, Logic Seemingly Has Taken a U-Turn

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ford engineers designed the classic '55 Thunderbird, but they also came up with the '57 Edsel. NASA scientists put a man on the moon, but a glitch in the Hubble telescope stumped them for years.

History teaches us that for every act of genius, there is a blooper.

For Southern California, the 1990s have been peppered with historic accomplishments in transportation: Officials reopened the quake-shattered Santa Monica Freeway 2 1/2 months ahead of schedule. They cut the ribbons on L.A.'s Red Line subway, the Century Freeway, the Metrolink commuter train, an Orange County toll road and the Long Beach trolley.

But at the same time, some baffling or plain wrongheaded transit projects and policies have been set in motion.

The lesson to be learned, experts say, is to beware the politics of transportation--a labyrinthine maze in which common-sense planning and logic sometimes lose out to political concerns or even greed. It is a system in which large sums of money are spent with spotty accountability, an equation that occasionally allows shortsightedness and often rewards political muscle, these observers say.

That's why, for example, bus passes for the poor cost more than passes for the general public. And why the planned rail route from Downtown to Los Angeles International Airport would involve riding two trolleys, one subway, a bus and a shuttle.

"You dignify a couple of these decisions to call them dubious. They are amazingly dubious," said James Moore, associate professor of urban planning and co-director of USC's Center for Advanced Transportation Technology. "You are heading fast and deep toward the category of stupid."

Here is a score card of some of the transportation bloopers that cover our landscape, and the reasons they happened:

* Why don't trains go where you want to go? The Red Line subway will stop a half-mile from the L.A. County Museum of Art and the Hollywood Bowl. It goes nowhere near Dodger Stadium or the Great Western Forum. And the last stop of the Green Line trolley--running between Norwalk and El Segundo--will end 1.5 miles from the airport.

In fact, here's your route to LAX from the subway once the Green Line trolley is finished next year: Tote your luggage over to your favorite Red Line station, transfer to the Blue Line, switch to the Green Line until the last stop, take the bus to Parking Lot C, and then hop on the airport shuttle.

In devising the routes of the Red Line and Green Line, transit planners had one main goal: transporting commuters. Officials have said the system is designed to serve those going to work--not sightseers, culture aficionados or sports fans. The number of people who would use the Green Line to get to the airport wouldn't compare to those who would take the trolley to work, they say.

* Why widen a freeway to six lanes and connect it to three lanes? In Orange County, Interstate 5 will be widened from three to six lanes of traffic in each direction--a $1.6-billion extravaganza to be finished in 2001. One problem: when the roadway hits the Los Angeles County line, it returns to three lanes. Ever heard of bottleneck, asks Ryan Snyder, a transportation consultant and vice president of the L.A. Board of Transportation Commissioners.

Caltrans officials said they hope the I-5 will someday be widened in Los Angeles County as well, although the project will not even be considered until 2010. In any case, officials do not think the traffic jams will be bad at the point where the freeway narrows.

This type of planning is what happens when different jurisdictions install a piecemeal approach to solve traffic woes, said Genevieve Guiliano, associate professor of urban and regional planning at USC.

"It's a regional planning problem," she said. "It's a question of different philosophies about how traffic should be managed."

* Why does the MTA need imported granite? The Metropolitan Transportation Authority--currently facing a $126-million operating shortfall and proposing fare hikes--will pick up part of the tab for a trip that sent five contractors and two agency employees to Italy and England to inspect bricks and granite for the agency's new headquarters, which is under construction.

The cost for MTA officials was $7,538. It's not yet known how much was spent for the contractors' travels. In response to criticism, Rob Vogel, project manager of Catellus Development Corp., which is building the MTA's headquarters, has told the agency he will not ask for reimbursement, according to MTA spokesman Steve Chesser.

During the first of two trips to Europe, the agency's development specialist, Robin Blair, and four members of Catellus traveled to Pisa, Italy, from Jan. 10 to 16. They viewed granite samples.

The following month, Blair, MTA supervising engineer Vasan Srinivasan and four Catellus members (three from the previous trip, one for the first time), traveled to a quarry in Savema, Italy. From there, the group went to London to visit a brick factory and "sites where bricks are extensively used," said Shaker Sawires, the MTA's deputy executive officer of operations.

Sawires said it was essential that each person travel. "Each one has a different function," he said.

Nevertheless, from now on, authorization will be needed for all overseas travel by the agency, according to MTA chief Frank White.

This from the agency that became the butt of talk show jokes two years ago when The Times disclosed that the agency's staff spent almost $3 million on catered meals, doughnuts, entertainment and automobile expenses.

Putting aside the issue of propriety in spending taxpayers' dollars, another question remains: Aren't American bricks and granite any good?

Apparently not. "We tried to use local bricks, we made tests and it did not withstand busloads," Sawires said.

By using the Italian-manufactured granite, the agency saved $200,000, said Chesser, who added that 83% of the stone materials used on the building are American.

Only two years ago, the MTA came under fire when it awarded a $122-million contract for rail cars to the Japan-based Sumitomo Corp. At that time, agency officials were blasted for not "buying American." (The contract was later canceled.)

* Does anyone know where the DASH buses go? The routes of the DASH buses, which traverse Downtown, have changed more than 10 times since the service began in 1985. Nor do these buses take a simple approach--a map of DASH routes looks a jumble of bent coat hangers.

"They zigzag and are completely illogical," said Bob Saunders, a travel writer with the Automobile Club of Southern California.

Chunming Yen, a planning associate with the city Department of Transportation, conceded that the maps are difficult for passengers to read.

"It's not complicated to us ," Yen said.

DOT officials say they are trying to devise a simpler map.

* Why do we pay for the rich to take trains?

Taxpayers pay a $21-per-passenger subsidy for everyone boarding the periwinkle-and-white Metrolink commuter trains. The average household income of these passengers is $63,300. (By comparison, the per-passenger subsidy on the bus is $1.17.)

Should we pay these subsidies, asks planning expert Guiliano, when most mass-transit users--who have an average household income of $15,000--ride the bus?

Metrolink officials respond that they are carrying out the will of the voters, who in 1990 approved a county ballot measure and two state initiatives that provided funding for the commuter rail line.

"In asking for good viable transportation for everyone, voters are asking for choices and they are willing to tax themselves to have choices," said Annette Colfax, Metrolink's director of finance and passenger service.

* Why do bus passes for the poor cost more? Concerned about low-income transit users who cannot come up with $42 for a monthly rail/bus pass, MTA officials last year devised a program that allows passengers to purchase semi-monthly passes. Each two-week pass costs $23 . . . or $46 a month.

MTA officials say they have to charge more for the semi-monthly pass to cover the administrative costs. Conceded one of them: "It's probably not the biggest contribution to mobility that we've ever done."

* Why do transit officials spend 20 times more for security on rail lines than on buses? MTA officials spend more than $1 per passenger to provide security on trains and trolleys and a nickel per passenger for security on buses, even though the vast majority of transit users--1.3 million passengers--travel by bus.

"Talk about inequity," said Earl Clark, general chairman of the United Transportation Union.

Transit officials insist they must guarantee the safety of rail passengers if the fledgling system is to succeed.

"The community made a major capital investment of $1.4 billion on the Red Line and nearly $900 million on the Blue Line. Those investments were done to give people a new way to travel," said MTA spokesman Jim Smart. "If you do not secure people's safety, then they won't use that capital investment."

*

What you have seen here, says planner Guiliano, are "illustrations of how politicized transportation decision-making is, and what power local groups have over regional planning. The alignment of rail lines, for instance, is completely political."

The power structure of an agency like the MTA also prompts decisions that are made with an eye to the next election, she said. The MTA, which controls a $3.4-billion annual budget, is ruled by a 13-member board that includes county supervisors, city council members, mayoral appointees, and four officials from smaller cities.

"The fundamental problem in L.A. is that one agency has control over a huge amount of money that makes everything they do very visible," Guiliano said. "It's not helped by the fact that its board is local officials who each want something for their own area."

Because local transportation agencies funded by tax dollars have no competition, they can afford to make mistakes, adds planner Moore. "Since there's no penalty for being foolish, you get foolish outcomes," he said. "If revenues depended on the quality of decisions, then decisions would be better."

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