Bad Marriage: Consultants, Public Funds

Charles Lave is an economics professor at UC Irvine

It would be easy to conclude that the MTA rail plans were a good idea ruined by bad management. But that's only half true. It was never a good idea in the first place.

Every competent, impartial analysis over the past 15 years has concluded that the Los Angeles rail system would make no improvement in either air pollution or traffic congestion, because the rail system would not lure people out of cars. It's true that there have been reports that supported building the rail system, but these were written by the engineering consultants who would reap the rewards from the project; hardly impartial opinions.

What we had was an odd marriage between idealistic planners and cynical profiteers. The idealists wanted to improve Los Angeles. They perceived cars as a problem, and were so determined to cure the problem that they talked themselves into believing that it could be done. The profiteers are the engineering companies that go around the country pandering to the idealists. These companies know that new rail systems cannot lure people out of cars; no rail system built during the past 20 years has done so. But like cancer quacks, consistent failures do not bother them. They know there is money to be made by peddling hope.

Local mismanagement added to the MTA's problems. But the real source of our problems lies in the initial decision to build the rail system. Even if the forecasts of construction cost and ridership had been correct, the new rail system still would have been a failure. Total ridership would not have been enough to affect traffic (and effective ridership is even lower since more than 75% of riders are lured out of buses, not cars). Enormous yearly operating subsidies still would have been required. And these operating subsidies still would have forced a cutback in total bus service.

Everything I know about life, I learned from reading Dear Abby. One of the familiar stories concerns an especially cynical kind of marriage between a love-smitten older man and a young woman with her eye on his money. Most rail transit planning results from the same kind of marriage. An old city, rich with federal matching funds and smitten with the idea of rail solutions, becomes engaged to a flashy young consulting firm that dangles the prospect of steel-wheeled delights. The fruit of the union is invariably an under-used rail system soon put on welfare and abandoned by the consulting firm as it moves on to greener cities.

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