LA Rail Transit Celebrates 20 Years of Service–Despite Inability to Meet Forecasts

The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority and its supporters are set to celebrate 20 years of expanded passenger rail service, lauding the system’s ability to transport more than a billion passengers since new lines in the 1990s. Planning began in the mid-1980s after residents approved a sales tax increase to fund the new rails lines, which now include the Red Line subway and light rail lines connecting Los Angeles and Long Beach, Norwalk and Rodondo Beach, and Pasadena and East Los Angeles. Two other light rail lines are in the works.

According to the Los Angeles Times:

On an average weekday, MTA officials said, the agency’s rail lines handle more than 327,000 boardings, while buses average about 1.2 million. Since the Blue Line opened in 1990, agency figures show that the systems have had more than a billion boardings.

But [rail transit critic Tom] Rubin and professor James Moore, chairman of USC‘s department of industrial and systems engineering, say the development of MTA’s subway and light-rail lines and its impact on bus service is responsible for lowering transit ridership for almost two decades.

They note that traffic congestion continues to rise in the region. Studies by the Texas Transportation Institute show that the time motorists spend in traffic has increased on average from 44 hours a year in 1982 to 70 hours in 2007. That has maintained the longstanding reputation of Los Angeles and Orange counties as the most congested in the nation.

Strangely missing from the Los Angeles Times report is any reference to how the rail system has fallen well below forecasts made to justify the initial investments. A report produced for the Federal Transit Administration, Contractor Performance Assessment, September 2007, reveals that ridership for the LA Red Line subway were less than half the projected boardings once the line was up and running (see tables 7-8 on pages 30-33).

Nevertheless, advocates will always point to the potential of these rail projects to meet their projectsion…eventually. As the LA Times reports:

Rail transit advocates contend that it is premature to judge urban rail’s performance because the local systems are not fully developed and have yet to substantially benefit from being part of a broad rail network.

In the future, it is possible that more high-density housing and commercial centers will be built near light-rail and subway stations, which could boost ridership. Advocates say that mounting traffic congestion and an aging population also will increase demand.

Since 1985, the MTA has been planning and building a 79-mile rail network that now includes the Red Line subway as well as light-rail service, such as the Blue Line between Los Angeles and Long Beach, the Green Line between Norwalk and Redondo Beach, and the Gold Line linking downtown Los Angeles, Pasadena and East Los Angeles.

Construction is underway on the light-rail Expo Line between downtown Los Angeles and Culver City. The MTA plans to extend the subway to Westwood and the Gold Line eastward to Azusa. Still another light-rail line has been proposed for the so-called Crenshaw Corridor.

While advocates have a theoretical argument, the real question is whether these investments should have been made in the 1980s for a transit system that wouldn’t be ripe for becoming effective as an meaningful alternative for travelers until the capital costs were fully depecriated 30 years down the road? LA may be achieving the populaton densities to make transit work in some areas, but this bolsters the case of critics who argue that rail transit didn’t (and doesn’t) make sense for LA.

Moreover, there was an opportunity cost as Moore and Rubin point out: bus service. Funds were shifted from bus to rail, and, as a result, bus service (and ridership) sufferred significantly. Again, from the LA Times article:

According to figures from the Federal Transit Administration, the MTA had about 497 million passenger boardings in 1985, when the agency did not have any rail service. As the rail program developed during the 1990s, the figure bottomed out at about 375 million boardings by 1996. The boarding numbers includeFoothill Transit, which broke off from the MTA in 1989.

Transit use finally met or slightly exceeded the 1985 level in 2006 and 2007, but dipped to about 487 million in 2009, largely due to the recession. Rubin and Moore noted that the MTA has not been able to increase its market share even though the population of Los Angeles County has increased roughly 20% since 1985.

Rail isn’t the only form of transit, and LA has squandered billions of dollars on a transit system that is both inefficient and unproductive. The LA case should be studied as an example of how ill-advised transit investments can impede the efficient development of alternative modes. Right now, it seems that transit supporters are celebrating its perseverence in the face of its ineffectiveness, not as a model of how urban regions should plan and implement effective transit options.