Los Angeles has released its Draft Environmental Impact Study (DEIS) for the Crenshaw/Prairie rapid transit corridor in preparation for Metro’s selection of a Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) later this year, with completion aimed for 2018. The DEIS demonstrates the dramatic cost benefits of choosing bus rapid transit, rather than light rail, because of lower construction costs and higher projected ridership. Yet those conclusions are based on a misleading difference between the two mode choices — the former would extend to Wilshire Boulevard, while the latter would stop at Exposition, three miles south — a consequence of the limited funds available for transit expansion.
A line running north-south roughly along Crenshaw Boulevard has been studied for years, as it would form a second north-south backbone for the Los Angeles transit system. The passage of Measure R in November 2008 put the project on the front burner, and the selection of a transportation mode for the travel corridor will allow Metro to enter engineering and soon after apply for federal New Starts funding.
The two projects advanced to the DEIS stage and to be considered by Metro when it selects the LPA are an 8.5-mile light rail line extending from the Green Line Aviation Station to the future Expo Line Crenshaw stop, and a bus rapid transit corridor following the same route but continuing further north to Wilshire Boulevard, where it would run east for several blocks to the existing terminus of the Purple Line at Wilshire and Western. Unlike the bus option, the light rail line would act as an extension of the Green Line, allowing commuters to travel without a transfer from as far south as Redondo Beach; it would also allow some Green Line trains to extend north one station to a new LAX Airport stop that would be connected to a people mover linked to terminals.
Considering only the segment shared between the Expo and Green Lines, the light rail option would attract 18% more riders than the bus; it would also be about 25% faster. But Metro can’t afford to extend light rail north of Exposition, because it only has budgeted about $1.5 billion in tax revenue for the project, and the three mile extension to Wilshire, which must be entirely tunneled because of the limited space available on roadways, would add one billion dollars to the cost. On the other hand, the rapid bus line, primarily using reserved lanes, would cost only $550 million to connect Wilshire with the Green Line — and the full corridor would attract some 17,000 daily riders compared to only 13,000 on the shortened light rail line. That’s because Wilshire is the economic hub of the city; it’s hard to imagine justifying a new north-south line that doesn’t come into contact with it.
The high cost of the light rail project can be summarized by this vertical profile of the proposed line — huge sections of the route would have to be placed underground or elevated above the street, and that costs a bundle of bucks.
Metro estimates that the light rail option would garner a “lower than medium” federal cost-effectiveness rating, because, to be blunt, it’s too expensive for a line serving neighborhoods that aren’t that dense. Can Los Angeles afford to build this project without a contribution from Washington? Should it build a project relying fully on local funds?
Ironically, a full-corridor light rail line, running up La Brea from Exposition and reaching Wilshire Boulevard, would attract far more riders and receive a medium-high federal cost-benefit rating, making it a strong competitor for national funds. The corridor’s importance would expand exponentially when the Purple Line is extended down Wilshire, as planned. Yet Los Angeles does not have the resources, at least in the medium-term, to make the longer light rail line a reality. The DEIS suggests that Metro should make preparations for an eventual completion of the line — but that will be in decades.
If the goal of the project is to improve the mobility of people living in southwest Los Angeles and Inglewood, the light rail line as proposed would do little to decrease transit times to downtown, since the Green and Blue lines already provide that service. Meanwhile, the Expo Line connection doesn’t provide access to the heart of the west side, which explains low ridership estimates — only an extension up to Wilshire would ramp up performance.
We’ll take it as a given that Los Angeles does not have the money to do a full light rail build-out along Crenshaw. As a result, it seems clear that a bus rapid transit line running along the whole corridor would provide the maximum number of benefits over the short and medium term, and that Metro has little choice to select that option. On the other hand, as ridership grows, a BRT project would have significant problems coping with additional capacity, as experienced by the Orange Line in San Fernando Valley. The bus would also lack interoperability with the Expo and Green Lines, one of the primary advantages of picking light rail, since it would allow through-running onto existing routes. Does it make since to build a bus line, only to have to replace it with a rail corridor in 20 years? I’m not sure.
One option that does not seem to have been fully considered is starting at Wilshire and then building as far south as possible within the financial constraints, which might mean to the Harbor Subdivision railroad; a future connection to the Green Line would be planned. This poses some serious equity questions, since it would further reward the wealthy west side and delay improvements for poorer Inglewood; this probably makes this option politically infeasible. On the other hand, it would likely attract more riders and reinforce the city’s center, which, amorphous as it is, runs roughly west from downtown and deserves to have concentrated transit service.
Images above: Proposed Crenshaw Corridor LRT, from Metro