Los Angeles Metro, the agency that builds and operates roads and mass transit systems in Los Angeles County, recently released an ambitious 30-year, $400 billion transportation plan that would add 100 miles of new rail transit lines to the region.
According to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, “The Long Range Transportation Plan paves a clear path to a more sustainable, fair, and equitable transportation future—an era that delivers on the promises of Measure M (one of the sales taxes that funds transit) and our back to basics agenda, doubles down on electrification, and opens new doors of opportunity across our region.”
Metro’s long-range plan relies on major capital—new construction—projects. According to Metro, 21 percent of Los Angeles County residents and 36 percent of jobs would be within a 10-minute walk of high-quality rail or bus rapid transit (BRT) options if the plan is completed—up from only 8 percent of residents and 16 percent of jobs currently.
The comprehensive plan also estimates a massive 81 percent increase in daily transit trips and a 31 percent decrease in traffic delays.
The plan does have several good projects. It would add express lanes along I-405 and parts of I-5, I-105, I-605, SR 14, SR 57, SR 60, SR 91, SR 118, SR 134, and SR 170. Reason Foundation has long made the case for priced managed lanes in Southern California and elsewhere, so it is good to see Metro implementing them.
Yet, if the plan is fully implemented, major highways such as I-5, I-10, and SR 60 would have large gaps in their express lanes. Leaving out these important sections will cause bottlenecks. In fact, out of the $105 billion in “roadway improvements” in the plan, only $22 billion would be spent on major highway investments. When you think about how car-centric Los Angeles is, it raises questions about where the other $83 billion in the proposal is going.
Another positive part of the plan, however, is its use of intelligent transportation systems, including integrated corridor management (ICM), which can reduce traffic congestion due to crashes or severe weather by coordinating traffic signals, clearing traffic accidents more quickly, and using dynamic message systems on roadways.
Not surprisingly, Metro’s plan devotes a lot of resources to transit. Despite having already spent billions of dollars on new rail lines, mass transit usage in the Los Angeles region has declined over the last 30 years.
In 2019, fewer than 5 percent of Los Angeles commuters used mass transit. Yet, Metro’s plan spends $80 billion on new transit capital construction, with more than 15 different light-rail projects.
There are just three bus rapid transit (BRT) projects in the plan, unless you include the conversion of the Orange Line BRT to light rail. For comparison, Latin American BRT lines often carry more than 100,000 people per day, but in the United States, Los Angeles’ Orange Line BRT is considered a success at 20,000 riders today. That line could carry far more riders with improvements. But instead Metro wants to convert the Orange Line to rail.
The plan also includes $7 billion for “active transportation” (cycling, walking, and complete streets). Some of these projects are very expensive, such as an 8-mile, $365 million river trail. But the bigger concern is that since these projects connect few residential and employment centers, it’s hard to see many workers using them to commute.
Metro’s plan has an entire chapter on access to opportunity, which is designed to promote low-cost housing. Rather than providing subsidies to luxury-apartment developers, Metro should push to eliminate urban growth restrictions that would make adding housing capacity easier and seek to expand bus service between residential and employment zones.
The plan’s freight components are inadequate. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are two of the three biggest ports in the United States. Additionally, Los Angeles International Airport is the fourth-largest cargo airport in the country. Historically, freight has been a big part of the region’s economy. Yet, this study includes just one paragraph on freight—with a reference to the I-710 corridor, which would add truck lanes that end near downtown instead of continuing onto SR 60 East—which is how port trucks get to the vast distribution centers of the Inland Empire.
The plan spends $169 billion on roadway and transit state of good repair. Transit agencies are realizing that they need to maintain their transit lines to prevent service meltdowns, like those we have seen in New York City and Washington, DC, in recent years. Unfortunately, devoting only 42 percent of funds on routine maintenance and operations may be too little.
But a potentially bigger concern with the plan is that Metro has a history of overestimating tax revenues and underestimating construction costs. In a 2019 retrospective, consultants Tom Rubin and Jim Moore found that Metro overestimated sales tax revenue from Proposition A, Proposition C, Measure M, and Measure R. Of the 11 rail lines on the 1980 Proposition Map, only three have been completed as promised.
Metro also has a long history of understating project costs. The Blue Line, which was estimated to cost $125 million, ended up costing taxpayers $864 million. The Green Line, estimated to cost $174 million, ended up costing $842 million. And the Expo Line, estimated to cost $792 million, ended up costing taxpayers a whopping $2.5 billion.
It’s theoretically possible that Metro has gotten better at estimating costs, but unlikely. When the numbers did not add up in the past, Metro chose to cut local bus service that served transit-dependent riders in order to shift the money to finish light-rail lines that serve wealthier transit-choice customers.
Transit-dependent riders use mass transit five-to-10 times more than transit-choice riders. And since lower-income riders often do not have other ways of accessing jobs, local bus service leads to more economic activity. Cannibalizing bus service for light-rail reduces ridership, increase costs, and harms the riders who rely on, and benefit most, from transit service.
The final problem with Metro’s plan is it assumes a status quo that may not exist any longer. We’re still dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, which has obviously changed travel patterns and mass transit usage. Hopefully, we’ll soon have a vaccine for COVID-19, but many experts expect travel to take several years to hit pre-pandemic levels. Technological developments and the shift to remote working may permanently increase the share of working at home share, which already exceeded transit’s commuting share in 2019. Additionally, with the development of automated vehicles (AVs), the continued growth of ride-hailing services and other innovations, the future of travel may look very different from the 2019-2020 status quo.
Consider, for example, that three of the rail lines in the long-range plan are not slated for completion until 2057. I don’t know what transportation will look like in 2057—37 years from now—and neither does Metro. While there is some hype around autonomous vehicles right now, I feel confident we will have a lot of AVs on the road by 2057. And just as few transportation agencies saw Uber and Lyft coming, I don’t know what new mobility innovations will have been created by 2057. But instead of costly, rigid light-rail lines, Metro should be looking for flexibility and partnerships that will allow it to adapt.
Going forward, there will be a variety of changes that test the assumptions this plan is built on. Metro and taxpayers would be better off going back to the drawing board.