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Reason Foundation

Why Rail Will Fail

An Analysis of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Long Range Plan

Thomas A. Rubin and James E. Moore II
August 1, 1996

Executive Summary

In March 1995, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority adopted a Long Range 20 Year Plan—“A Plan for Los Angeles County: Transportation for the 21st Century.” Analysis of the $72 billion plan reveals a multitude of flaws and inconsistencies in predictive models, baseline and scenario results, and against existing data.

Population forecasts—a critical component of planning⎯are internally inconsistent within the plan. The population forecast for the transportation model used a 33.4 percent population growth forecast from 1990 to 2015. This extremely high growth rate assumption resulted in predictions of high growth of travel and forecasts of extremely low freeway and surface street speeds. The financial model, however, utilized a 19 percent population growth rate which produced low tax revenue forecasts limiting funding for transportation improvements. Changing the key variable in this modeling exercise is an unacceptable methodology.

The plan is heavily skewed toward rail, which is made to look more favorable by highly selective accounting. Only local costs—revenues extracted from Los Angeles County—are considered in evaluations of rail cost-effectiveness. The MTA’s year 2015 baseline suggests that about 72 percent of transit passenger miles traveled will be made on bus, and 28 percent on rail. However, close scrutiny of the primary scenario’s speed forecasts implies that this proportion would be reversed, with 29 percent of passenger-miles of transit travel being made on bus and 71 percent on rail. According to MTA’s transportation model, with all rail lines constructed, the five lines with the highest average weekday boardings per station (nationally) would be in Los Angeles.

While the two top light rail performers predicted by the plan do not satisfy its own nebulous criteria for inclusion in the primary scenario, these same rail projects are funded at 130 percent over original cost estimates. And while total Metrolink ridership is less than any one of several MTA bus lines, the long-term plan effectively calls for a $454.3 million reduction in bus funding over the term of the plan. Under even the plan’s most optimistic scenarios, bus revenue service hours would be reduced by over 20 percent relative to 1990. This results in a dramatic funding shift from bus to rail transit in the most crowded urban bus system in the United States. And it’s an expensive shift: precursor documents to the plan report public costs per new transit trip for the 14 rail projects in the plan will range from a low of $16.31 to a high of $98.38.

With regard to air quality, integrally related to transportation planning, the plan ignores data showing that rail projects rate very poorly on air quality improvements compared to almost anything else, and the MTA’s air quality analysis does not consider the possibility that planned reduction of bus service will induce many trips in older, poorly maintained, high-emission automobiles—potentially making air quality worse, not better.

Finally, it does not appear that the plan conforms to even the MTA’s own interpretation of the Federal Transit Authority guidelines, nor are literal models of the FTA’s guidelines used to establish staff recommendations put forth in the plan.

The MTA proposes to spend $417 million over the next twenty years on planning rail projects. It is illustrative to note that at the 1995 proposed operating subsidy of $0.89 per bus passenger, this money could be used to increase bus ridership by 469 million passengers. That is almost as many passengers as the Long-Range Plan indicates would be carried over 20 years if all of the rail lines proposed there were constructed immediately. Of course, given the currently poor quality of bus service in the region, it is doubtful that one could find enough willing riders to provide that many new boardings.

Our analysis concludes that if the MTA’s Long-Term Plan is followed, the MTA will find itself committed to construction of rail lines it cannot afford to build or operate. We recommend the MTA convene a panel of independent external experts to review both the planning process and the plan.


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