Improving Transportation in the San Fernando Valley

Executive Summary

There are two transportation problems in the San Fernando Valley. One is the abysmal quantity and quality of transit (bus) service available to those who must depend on transit. The other is the decreasing utility of a freeway system that is badly congested for many of the daylight hours. These problems have largely separate solutions, though they do overlap in one significant way.

The most cost-effective approach to solving the Valley’s transit problem is to improve the quantity and quality of bus and related kinds of rubber-tired transit service that serve the needs of the transit-dependent. This means increasing the frequency of bus service on major arterials (such as Ventura Blvd., Victory Blvd., and Sherman Way), and increasing its speed via giving buses priority at traffic signals on those arterials. It also means the creation of a limited number of bus transit hubs, to permit “timed transfers”—thereby minimizing total trip times for journeys requiring more than one bus.

Another way to improve transit service is to reduce its cost, by switching from monopoly provision to competitive supply. This is the underlying rationale for attempting to develop a separate Valley Transit Authority or Valley Transit Zone modeled after the successful Foothill Transit Zone. Various political and legal obstacles make the creation of either an authority or a zone somewhat problematical—or would restrict its ability to contract out service. An alternative approach is to get the MTA to more aggressively make use of the contracting authority it now possesses, which is applicable to all new services. Since much new service is needed in the Valley, there is considerable opportunity for lower-cost contracting.

Fixed-route bus service, whether MTA-operated or contractor-operated, will not meet all needs for alternatives to the automobile. Public officials should encourage private shuttle and jitney operators to take advantage of the Public Utilities Commission’s permissive licensing standards so as to offer both commuter and line-haul jitney services to niche markets. Various forms of user-side subsidies (variants on transit passes) could be administered and promoted by transportation management organizations (TMOs) at the Valley’s larger employment centers (e.g., Warner Center, Burbank Media District, Van Nuys Government Center).

Busways are significantly more cost-effective than rail lines. Grade-separated busways offer the potential of significant speed advantages over congested streets and freeways, making (in particular) express bus service more competitive. A detailed analysis of the Burbank-Chandler corridor shows that it is poorly located to be a cost-effective busway. Most land uses along this corridor are low-density, providing little direct ridership for a busway. And building an elevated express busway through this mostly residential area confronts serious political opposition (as well as cost that is unlikely to be justified in terms of transportation benefits).

The best locations for express busways are on the Valley’s major freeways, where they can be combined with HOV lanes (on the model of the highly cost-effective El Monte Busway). Unfortunately, the political process has provided for HOV lanes on the Valley’s relatively uncongested freeways (170, 124, 118), while rejecting them entirely on the congested 101 and leaving their development till last on the congested I-5 and I-405. These decisions also mean that congestion on Valley freeways will continue to increase, with little meaningful relief in sight.

An alternative approach would address both the busway and the congestion-relief problems: build HOT lanes instead of HOV on the most-congested freeways. A High-Occupancy/Toll (HOT) lane permits transit vehicles, carpools of three or more, and emergency vehicles to bypass congested regular lanes at no charge, while letting other drivers pay a market-based fee to gain access. One HOT lane in either direction could be added to the 101 across the Valley for about $178 million, while the planned HOV lane on I-405 through the Sepulveda Pass could be developed instead as a HOT lane for only a few million dollars more than it would cost as an HOV lane. Major congestion relief would be added by building a complete, six-way HOT-HOT connector system at the bottlenecked 101/405 interchange, for $240 million. The combined cost of these major improvements could be financed via revenue bonds to be paid off largely from the toll revenues from these two (101 and 405) HOT lane projects. Ultimately, a similar approach should be applied to the obsolete 101/134/170 interchange and the 101 freeway to downtown Los Angeles, a more complex and costly project.

This kind of highway investment would offer tangible relief to that large majority of Valley residents who will continue to use the automobile as their primary mode of travel, and who cannot cost-effectively be served by mass transit that we can afford to build and operate. It will also create a Valleywide busway network that offers a high-speed alternative guideway system for buses, taxis, jitneys, and emergency vehicles.

The once-grand vision of rail transit lines across the Valley has foundered on the rocks of the reality of enormous cost for very little real benefit—as measured by low ridership as well as minimal impact on either traffic congestion or air quality. And the voters have now underlined their opposition to building any additional subways. But rail’s demise does not leave us without alternatives. An expanded bus system (including new private providers), higher-speed bus service on major arterials, and a Valleywide network of HOV and HOT lanes can give the Valley a much-improved transportation system, and at a price we can afford.

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