Categories
Commuter Rail New York Social Justice

A Chance for Faster Commute Times in the Bronx

» New stations in the Bronx could significantly speed up travel times for people who spend too long getting to work every day. But there must be reasonable service frequencies offered at a reasonable price.

The Metro-North commuter railroad offers convenient service from Grand Central Terminal to Connecticut and Upstate New York. Though all of its trains run through the Bronx, the population there rarely uses its services, because they are simply not designed for transit-reliant city dwellers. They stick to the bus and the subway, despite those modes being slower.

The opening of the East Side Access project at the end of this decade will direct certain Long Island Railroad trains to a new station under Grand Central, opening up capacity at Penn Station for Metro-North trains. This service change offers many opportunities for dramatically improving the commutes of thousands of people in the Bronx — if it is planned right. A potential new service along an existing Amtrak line is up for discussion this month.*

New York, of course, is hardly alone in needing to dramatically improve the use of its commuter rail lines. Cities from Boston to Chicago provide service on rail lines with few inner city stations, miserably low frequencies, and much too expensive fares. But because of Gotham’s huge size and the continued concentration of jobs in central Manhattan, opportunities for improvement there are greatest.

In the case of the Penn Station Access Study (PSAS), the benefits could be enormous.** The proposal is considering whether to invest in four new stations in the Bronx — at Co-op City (a 55,000-person community completed in 1971 and isolated from rail transit stations), Morris Park, Parkchester, and Hunts Point. Certain Metro-North New Haven Line trains, which currently run along the Metro-North Harlem Line into Grand Central, would be redirected onto what is now the Hell Gate Amtrak-only route from New Rochelle to Penn Station, along which the new stops would be built. This relatively cheap project would require little investment in the tracks, which are in reasonable condition and far under capacity.

Penn Station Access proposal for Metro-North, from MTA.

There is strong evidence for the value of improving connections between the Bronx and Manhattan. As the chart below shows, more than 10% of workers in the areas surrounding the stations planned for new service work in West Midtown, directly adjacent to Penn Station. Another 20% or so work in Downtown Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn, and the Upper West Side, all of which would be easier to access through direct service to Penn Station.

Work destinations for residents of four proposed station areas
 Within 1/2 mile radius of proposed stationsWithin 1 mile radius of proposed stations
Total resident workers (within 50 top zip codes)36,226113,930
West Midtown3,81211,489
East Midtown2,5377,835
Downtown Manhattan3,52310,079
Downtown Brooklyn2,6127,939
Upper West Side1,1593,625
Long Island City4561,477
Elsewhere22,127 (61.1%)71,486 (62.7%)
Data: U.S. Census Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics 2010

Moreover, those residents currently have very long travel times to get to their jobs in the city. New Yorkers already suffer from the longest commutes in the country, but residents of the Bronx and particularly Co-op City, which is far from any subway line, are particularly cut off. As the below chart shows, more than 36% of workers who live in Co-op City have commutes of more than an hour, and less than 30% have travel times to work of less than 30 minutes. Despite this fact, people continue to rely on transit for their daily travel, because commuting by car is too expensive and, in New York, just as slow.

Commuting by mode and travel times in the Northeast Bronx
 Co-op CityNearby AreasThe Bronx
Working Population14,9375,952
Transit Mode Share to Work51.8%37.3%58.3%
< 30 min commute28.8%43.0%31.9%
30-39 min commute15.7%16.4%16.7%
40-59 min commute19.1%16.7%19.9%
60-89 min commute22.2%18.7%23.5%
> 90 min commute14.2%5.2%8.0%
Data: U.S. Census 2006-2010 American Community Survey

The clearest explanation for the slow travel times is that the two modes of transit available for Co-op City residents are not particularly quick. The express BxM7 bus runs from Co-op City to East Midtown in 52 minutes, but it is more expensive than subway service and does not provide direct access to the West Side of the island. The Bx26 bus connects Co-op City to the 2 train, which does run to West Midtown, but that trip takes 74 minutes at best, no picnic in the park. The proposed new Metro-North station would connect the neighborhood with Penn Station in just 27 minutes and be linked to a neighborhood bus circulator to ensure that everyone in the area has easy access to the stop.

Residents near the proposed Morris Park, Parkchester, and Hunts Point stations would see similar benefits, though those stations are closer to existing subway stops and the residents suffer less from long travel times to work.

Alternatives for travel from the Bronx to Midtown Manhattan
RouteMinimum travel time to MidtownPeak Cost (with Monthly card and 40 trips)*Avg Weekday Frequencies (7-9 AM)Avg Weekday Frequencies (11 AM-3 PM)
BxM7 from Co-op City52 min (to 5 Av/51 St)$5.50 ($5.00)9/hour2/hour
Bx26 from Co-op City; (2) train74 min (to Penn Station)$2.25 ($2.60)7/hour5.25/hour
Metro-North from Fordham16-23 min (to Grand Central)$7.50 ($4.45)2/hour2/hour
Metro-North from Marble Hill19-23 min (to Grand Central)$7.50 ($4.45)3.5/hour1.25/hour
Proposed Metro-North from Co-op City27 min (to Penn Station)???
Data: MTA

Based on existing Metro-North service to the Bronx, however, there is reason to question how many people will take advantage of the Metro-North service to these new stations. As the chart above shows, Metro-North trips are considerably more expensive than subway or bus journeys, even over the same distance. In addition, commuter rail service is infrequent both at peak and off-peak times, meaning that customers have to rely on schedules, limiting the travel time benefits compared to slower bus or subway service.

It is therefore unsurprising that the mode share for commuter rail services is so low in three representative Bronx Census Tracts where subway and commuter rail service is offered, as shown in the chart below. With so few trains to actually take to work and such a high cost to do so, no one can justify taking Metro-North. If the new stations in the Bronx similarly run only twice an hour and cost twice as much as the subway, few will be able to take advantage of the time savings into Manhattan the trains will offer. This is a failure of the existing service, but one that we are capable of addressing.

We don’t yet know how much Metro-North is planning to charge for travel on its new service, but it will likely be similar to what is already being demanded of Bronx riders. And frequencies will also likely be limited to just two trains an hour or so. But those policies will seriously constrain the potential ridership at these stations; what’s the point of investing millions in new stops if they’re not used?

Travel Mode Share for Bronx Neighborhoods
Census TractMetro-NorthSubwayCar %Subway %Metro-North %Other % (mostly bus)
399.01FordhamFordham Rd (B/D)12.941.42.243.5
309Marble HillMarble Hill-225 St (1)49.013.212.625.2
429.02Williams BridgeGun Hill Rd (2/5)20.842.80.036.4
Data: U.S. Census 2006-2010 American Community Survey

One could make the argument that people who live further from the center of a city should pay more to travel, as they are benefitting from cheaper housing costs. But in New York City, apartments are expensive everywhere, and most jobs are in the center of the city. The transportation system thus must provide reasonable cost service for everyone to get to work in Midtown or Downtown in a reasonable amount of time. Charging people double the price to take a faster trip or giving them a very slow but cheap alternative, represents a social injustice that relegates people with lower incomes to wasting their lives in transit.

The improvements in Metro-North service that would provide for increased frequencies in service would require more train cars, but directing existing subway passengers to Metro-North would relieve congestion on the subway, which would have positive spill-over effects. Lowering the fare to subway levels for in-city commuters would also require a significant subsidy, but there is no reason to think that a well-managed commuter rail system would cost any more to operate than the subway system if they’re both attracting many passengers.

A note: In public meetings (presentations for Co-op City and Morris Park), the MTA has argued that the primary beneficiaries of the new service will be Bronx residents who work in the suburbs and use the trains for reverse-peak travel. A 2002 study indicated that 82% of ridership from a proposed Co-op City stop would be for people living there but working in the northern suburbs. This fits with Metro-North’s existing rider profile, in which of the 13,200 daily boardings in the Bronx, 2/3 are outbound.

Yet the analysis of existing work patterns show that the vast majority of people living in proposed station areas in the Bronx work in New York City. Only 47 of more than 36,000 employees work in Stamford, supposedly a big destination, and Westchester County cities have employment from the Bronx zones maxing out in the hundreds, a pittance compared to central Manhattan employment. The likely explanation for the choices of today’s Bronx riders is the lack of alternative (there is no subway service out of the city); in other words, the existing performance is not worthy of imitation. If anything, we should be looking for ways to expand capacity along commuter rail lines to allow many more people to benefit from faster travel into work in Manhattan.

* Also under discussion is the re-routing of some Metro-North Hudson Line trains along Manhattan’s Empire Corridor, a new service that would include the construction of two new Manhattan stations, one at 125th Street, and the other at 60th.

** The less likely improvement of Long Island Railroad service in southeast Queens could produce even more travel time savings for riders, but that is on no one’s agenda at the moment, unfortunately.

Image at top: Proposed Co-op City Station, from MTA

Categories
Portland St. Louis Streetcar Urbanism

Don’t Forget the Zoning

» Streetcar projects promise new development along their rights-of-way. But cities must allow new transit-oriented buildings to be built nearby. A look at St. Louis and Portland.

In the United States, streetcars have assumed a dramatic new prominence, in part because of increasing federal support. In dozens of cities, new lines are under construction, funded, or in planning thanks to local political leadership that recognizes the benefits of such investments in relatively cheap new rail lines. While streetcars are typically not the most efficient mobility providers — compared to light rail lines and often even buses, they are slower and more likely to be caught in traffic — they are promoted as development tools. Streetcars, it is said, will bring new construction and the densification of districts that are served by the new rail lines.

But streetcars alone aren’t enough to spur construction of residential and commercial buildings in neighborhoods with transit service. Just as important are the municipal regulations guiding new development. If zoning prevents large buildings around streetcar corridors, how exactly will streetcars lead to new construction?

A comparison of two streetcar projects — one soon to enter construction in St. Louis and the other about to open for service in Portland — shows that there are very different rules guiding what can be built in the two cities. The result may be that one city sees significant new growth along its corridor and the other sees very little, despite both projects being new streetcar lines. Other cities looking to extract value from their transportation investments should consider how their land use regulations may affect new construction.

St. Louis

Unlike most cities building new streetcar lines, St. Louis’ federally funded project will be constructed outside of downtown, in the Loop District four miles from the city center. The Loop Trolley will extend two miles from the Missouri History Museum at Forest Park, along DeBaliviere Avenue, and west along Delmar Boulevard into the independent municipality of University City. The route, which will be partially double tracked, will serve ten stops and is expected to attract about 800 riders per weekday (and 2,000 per weekend day) in the opening year, rising eventually to 2,600 riders a day by 2025.

The project suffers from many of the flaws of other streetcar lines throughout the country — it will have limited frequencies, a non-exclusive right-of-way, and a route that doesn’t directly serve the biggest destination in the area: Washington University.

More important, however, is the fact that zoning in both St. Louis and University City is not adequate to produce “urban infill and transit-oriented development along the route,” as project proponents claim the Trolley will encourage.

In the City of St. Louis, the blocks directly facing the streetcar route are mostly zoned for neighborhood commercial, commercial district, and multiple family dwelling areas. In these districts, buildings cannot exceed three stories or 45 to 50 feet. Non-residential buildings are limited to a floor area ratio (FAR) of just 1.5*. Meanwhile, non-pedestrian-oriented uses, such as drive-through restaurants, are allowed to be constructed. For residential buildings, developers are required to provide parking for one car per unit, and commercial structures over a size limit must provide parking as well.

In University City on the western section of the route, zoning is similarly restrictive. Half a block off the Delmar Loop, where the line runs, “core commercial” zoning is used. In these areas, residential units, bars, hotels, and more are allowed, but they require a conditional use permit from city hall to be installed — a needless complication for uses that are more than appropriate for this kind of area. Buildings are limited to just 35 feet in height, with the exception of certain buildings with large setbacks. But in a walkable area like this, it is more than appropriate to build taller structures right up to the sidewalk line. North of the streetcar corridor, high density residential zoning is in effect, but there no mixing of uses is allowed at all, and FAR is limited to 1 unless buildings are built on one acre or larger lots.

Just a block or two south of the route, in both St. Louis and University City, surrounding land is mostly zoned for single-family homes in “neighborhood preservation areas” that make a mix of land uses and increased building sizes almost impossible to construct.

In sum, even if developers are intrigued by the idea of building along the streetcar corridor, St. Louis’ project is likely to attract little actual construction because of city regulations that limit new construction. Developers wanting to build large structures will be limited by low height limits and requirements to get special permits to provide a mix of land uses. That should put a big question mark over how valuable the project will be from a land use perspective.

Portland

Portland’s streetcar, which has been in operation since 2001, has been the national model for such projects; combined with the city’s large MAX light rail network, it has offered this region a transit-friendly image. Thanks to an infusion of $75 million in federal funds, the city has built a $148 million, 3.3-mile extension that will open for service on September 22. The project is expected to roughly double existing ridership (now about 12,000 on a weekday) and attract 2.4 million square feet of development by serving the Lloyd District and Central Eastside neighborhoods, which are across the Willamette river from downtown. In these areas, there is currently a paucity of urban development and plenty of space for new construction. The project connects to the north end of the existing streetcar, runs across the river, runs south on Grand Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard to the Oregon Museum of Science and Indutry, and will eventually form a loop around the city center when it is connected with the south end of the existing streetcar in 2015.

Portland Streetcar Loop map, from Portland Streetcar

Like St. Louis’ line, Portland’s also has some transportation deficiencies. Rather than offering direct access into downtown, the route requires riders to take a circuitous journey to get there. Trains will run in a right-of-way shared with automobiles. Based on the schedule, trains will run through the area at just 7 mph, an absurdly slow pace even for a streetcar. Compounding the problem is that the service will only be provided into the Eastside at headways of 18 minutes (which is far worse than the 12-minute headways promised in 2008 for the project). If you miss a train, there is little point in waiting for the next one at those frequencies.

Nevertheless, Portland’s project offers far more opportunity for new development around the line than the St. Louis program. As shown in the images below, very high densities — up to an FAR of 12 in the Lloyd District but at least 5 everywhere — are allowed in the blocks directly surrounding the new streetcar extension, and very little has been built there so far, so there are many opportunities for growth. The top image should make us question whether some areas along the existing streetcar loop, such as the Pearl District, deserve to see a serious up-zoning to allow for increasing new development.

Above: The degree to which blocks surrounding Portland Streetcar and extension have been developed. Below: Allowed floor-area ratios by block. Source: City of Portland

With the densities allowed in Portland, significant new construction in the Eastside areas will be possible. Based on previous trends in the city, such development seems likely. In downtown Census tracts (on the west side of the river), the total population has increased massively since 1980, going from 8,671 then to 17,789 in 2010; about half of that increase was between 2000 and 2010 alone. That kind of growth would have been impossible without the increase in transportation options made possible through the construction of the city’s streetcar and light rail systems.

Meanwhile, though the percentage of people living in those areas using private cars to get to work has increased since 1980, when just 26% did (following the national trend), it has declined from 38.3% in 1990 to 36.9% in 2010, indicating that the new development is attracting people who want to live without cars on a daily basis. That’s a success that seems likely to be continued with the streetcar extension.

———

Transportation engineers are loath to support new streetcar lines because they cannot understand why it makes sense to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in a rail line when a far cheaper bus service would provide similar, or even more, mobility benefits. From the pure perspective of moving people from one place to another, streetcars are irrational investments.

Some Portland residents have expressed concerns that the streetcar has been excessively subsidized even as bus routes have faced service cuts and increasing fares because of declining revenue. If transportation spending were simply about helping people move around, these would be entirely legitimate claims.

But we can overlook the technical deficiencies of these two streetcar projects by emphasizing their development impacts. The point of the St. Louis and Portland projects is not necessarily to attract many users (though the latter line likely will), but rather to develop a culture of transit use in dense neighborhoods where dependence upon the automobile is not a necessity. Portland has demonstrated that a fixed-route streetcar can encourage development around stops quite effectively, and thus if it is the goal of a city to increase the density of its core areas, streetcars can be a useful tool.

Without appropriate zoning, however, the value of a streetcar project declines tremendously. In places where regulations make building large, mixed-use buildings difficult, transportation projects that will not do much to improve mobility will be incapable of encouraging much construction either.

* A FAR of 2, for example, means if you have a lot of 10,000 square feet, you can build 20,000 square feet of building on site. In an urban district, a building with a FAR of 2 might have 3 to 4 stories, depending on setbacks and surrounding yard areas.

Image at top: Portland Streetcar and MAX light rail line cross path, from Portland Streetcar

Categories
China Metro Rail

Profitable or Not, China Doubles Down on Investments in New Metro Systems

» Central government approves 25 new rail projects in cities across the country, worth hundreds of billions of dollars of new construction.

With China’s growth slowing — a product of internal economic changes as well as the continued poor performance of the U.S. and Europe — the country’s government has decided to accelerate investments in its cities’ rapid transit networks as part of a larger transportation infrastructure program. About $127 billion (or 800 billion yuan) is to be directed over the next three to eight years to build 25 subways and elevated rail lines as a stimulus whose major benefit will be a increase in mobility for the rapidly urbanizing nation.

Though China’s high-speed rail network (now the largest in the world) has garnered most of the headlines when it comes to transportation there, the nation’s investments in urban rail have been just as dramatic and serve far more people on a daily basis. Its three largest metropolitan areas — Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing — feature the world’s fourth, fifth, and sixth most-used transit systems, providing more than five million rides each daily, more than similar networks in New York or Paris. Most of these cities’ lines opened since 2000.

The high ridership of the lines that have been built thus far, however, have not brought operational profitability to these systems, as Stephen Smith highlighted in an article this week. On Shanghai’s very extensive system, just one of eleven lines are able to cover their operations and maintenance costs — let alone pay back initial capital expenses used to build the lines. Meanwhile, construction costs have increased and cities paying for their completion have had to scale back their ambitions.

Yet the government does not accept the premise that a transit network that requires subsidies is necessarily a problem, at least based on its willingness this month to extend advance (and therefore heavily subsidized) loans to municipalities building transit lines. In general, the new national aid, which comes in the form of very reduced borrowing costs, will allow for the fast-tracking of projects already in the pipeline, much as Los Angeles has hoped to do with its transit projects. On average, 42% of financing will be directed from local governments, with the rest financed by banks, all benefiting from the lower bond rates. Costs will be eventually covered through long-term tax revenue.

In addition to funding for Shanghai and Guangzhou to extend their networks, other cities such as Xiamen, Taiyuan, Shijiazhuang, and Lanzhou have been offered national aid. By 2020, China will have 40 cities with metros extending 7,000 route kilometers, more than five times what exists in the United States today. The map below shows where new lines are being constructed, some with and some without help from the central government.

Chinese metro rail system development. Updated 11 September 2012.

Is the Chinese investment in metros “worth” it? Unlike other countries, China has chosen to de-prioritize cheaper tramway or bus rapid transit systems (though certain BRTs, such as Guangzhou’s, have been very popular), despite the fact that the cost of building subways there has risen to almost the level experienced in developed countries. On the other hand, China’s cities are often larger and denser than their Western counterparts; of the cities planning to build metros, all have more than a million people in their respective regions and most more than three million. Munich, Germany, a city with a very extensive and well-used rapid transit system (and one that most Westerners would not question), only has about 2.6 million people in its metropolitan area.

Does the fact that new Chinese metro systems require operational subsidies pose a problem? It depends on your perspective. From a fiscal point of view, long-term operational aid will impose heavy burdens on local taxpayers, just as is true in U.S. and European cities. This is especially a problem because Chinese cities have intentionally set fares at very low levels (just 2 yuan a ride in Beijing), making it impossible to cover costs. Should China, with relatively low labor costs,* be in this situation?

It seems more likely that Chinese officials recognize that the metro investments, in addition to offering an important economic stimulus, provide positive externalities that outweigh the subsidies that will be required to maintain the systems. By setting fares low, the metro lines are able to attract higher ridership and passengers from across the income spectrum. Even in the densest, most-packed city centers, metro systems allow largely congestion-free mobility that is able to handle far more people and provide faster service than equivalent tramway or BRT programs. There is a reason these projects have proven so popular among China’s citizens. The transportation benefits they offer certainly contribute to economic growth in the center of the cities they serve and likely limit the suburbanization of jobs.

In combination with efforts in cities like Shanghai to restrict automobile use through license plate restrictions, spending on new metros will encourage a huge percentage of the population to remain public transit users, rather than switch to private cars even as incomes increase. Developing countries that have invested less in their rapid transit networks (Bangkok’s 35 miles of lines serving a metropolitan area of 12 million inhabitants comes to mind) have failed their populations by offering them little alternative to automobile use and thus encouraged pollution and road congestion — two problems that already plague China’s cities.

Of course, China’s investment in new transit has not meant a shutdown on road capacity projects. The National Development and Reform Commission (which also approved the metro plans) announced last week that a large amount of funding will also be directed to new highways, leading to the eventual construction of 1,254 miles of new roads.

* On the other hand, the country’s per capita growth has been sensational; it is rapidly adopting the norms of wealthier countries.

Image above: Shanghai’s Line 3 Metro at Caoxi Road, from Flickr user Augapfel (cc)

Categories
Finance Los Angeles

Los Angeles Asks Its Voters to Extend Transit Tax Far Into the Future

» Lacking the federal support to advance its transportation projects forward as quickly as the leadership — and perhaps the public — desires, L.A. County residents will vote on whether to extend a 1/2-cent sales tax for thirty more years.

Residents of Los Angeles may already pay more in sales taxes for the upkeep and expansion of their transportation system than people in any other county in the U.S. Referenda have been approved by voters in 1980, 1990, and 2008, each of which distributes a half-cent tax on every dollar in sales to the county’s transportation system, Metro. Of the total $1.8 billion per year in revenues,* about 40% are spent on expansions to the transit system, with the rest distributed to maintenance and operations of the county’s roads and transit systems.

This very public endorsement of the need to invest in transportation (Measure R, passed in 2008, required a 2/3-vote to be approved, pursuant to California law) has allowed for the planning of the nation’s most extensive rail and fixed-guideway bus expansion program. Earlier this year, the first segment of the Expo Line opened to Culver City; two other light rail expansions are under construction, and several other bus and rail lines are funded. Most importantly, a subway rail extension running under Wilshire Boulevard through West the Westside of L.A., to Westwood and U.C.L.A., is practically ready to begin construction.

But Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has been the staunchest political advocate of improved transit in L.A., has been clear that the program is not advancing quickly enough. Because of the lack of strong federal support, the full extent of the Westside Subway will not be completed until 2036; important improvements for other parts of the county will not be done until later. That’s more than thirty more years with little significant alternative to the traffic-clogged arteries so infamous in the city. Thus the county approved, the state legislature accepted, and the governor signed late last month the bill offering to the public in the form of a referendum Measure J, which will extend the Measure R tax 30 years past its original expiration date, which was supposed to be 2039.

What is to be voted on is not a new tax. Rather, if approved on November 6, it will continue assessing the 1/2-cent sales tax between 2039 and 2069. The outcome may well determine the degree to which L.A. is able to produce a truly appealing alternative to automobile travel within a reasonable amount of time.

Why pass a tax extension now, when the revenues will not begin to be collected for another 27 years? To build more quickly.

Effectively, the mayor wants to be able to “bond against” future revenues — in other words, to take out loans from the investment market that will not be paid back until beginning in 2039, in order to pay for transportation projects now. The tax extension does not appear likely to add to the list of transit projects that will be completed — it will just allow them to be completed more quickly.

Though the measure is practically sure to win a simple majority of voters, whether it will win a two-thirds majority remains to be seen. Measure R passed with only 67.2% of the vote, just enough to succeed, and that proposal actually provided funds for new projects. This referendum, on the other hand, states that it will “accelerat[e] construction of light rail/subway/airport connections within five years not twenty,” as well as improve safety on roads and keep senior, student, and disabled fares low. Will that be enough to convince voters on this matter, especially when certain local officials make the reasonable point that the proposal would “bind our hands until 2069“?

By 2040, will the county’s citizens be content with the transit system they have constructed? If so, perhaps they will be happy to continue paying taxes. If not, will they assent to essentially continue to pay off the debt on an unwanted infrastructure for another thirty years?

The referendum would extend the tax “for another 30 years or until voters decide to end it.” What if disenchanted voters decide to cut off the tax midway through its life? The county will have to find other funds to pay back the loans that were supposed to be financed through the tax revenues (and which have the county’s credit behind them), cutting down on the county’s ability to fund other priorities or requiring a separate tax increase. These uncertainties may limit investor interest in buying the county’s revenue bonds or increase the interest the county is forced to pay to take out those loans.

Moreover, the measure does not specifically guarantee that the projects promised back in 2008 will actually be delivered. Though L.A. has moved forward on a number of its recent expansion projects relatively on time and on budget, several American cities have promised far too much. Miami’s transportation referendum, passed in 2002 and supposed to fund dozens of miles of rail expansions, has produced just 2.4 miles, a major embarrassment and an affront to the voters’ original intent. The referenda results will say a lot about the public perception of Metro’s ability to produce what it has promised.

In other words, it is hardly obvious that a large majority of L.A. voters will agree to Measure J’s passage. Significant public information campaigns will be required if it is to be approved.

Yet the truth is that if L.A. wants an expanded transportation network now, rather than 30 years in the future, it has few options. It can adopt this approach, which has several demerits, as shown above. It could increase its taxes once again, but the sales tax burden is already quite high. Or it could rely on low-interest federal loans to advance projects more quickly. The latter was the solution Mayor Villaraigosa initially proposed in 2010 as “30/10” — 30 years of projects in 10 years. His proposal, which he renamed “America Fast Forward,” was politically popular enough to make it in a certain form (through an expansion of TIFIA to $1 billion) into the federal transportation bill earlier this summer, but that aid will not be adequate to fund all the projects L.A. wants — even if the U.S. DOT prioritizes the county over the rest of the country.

L.A.’s voters, then, have a choice: Take a risk by assuming that people of the future will want the investments being made today and therefore be happy to pay for them, or slow down the rate of transit expansion tremendously.

* Thanks to the recession, revenues per referendum have declined significantly since the peak in 2007, when each tax produced more than $686 million, compared to around $602 million in 2011.

Image at top: Los Angeles Expo Line, opened for service this spring and now serving more than 18,000 riders per weekday, from Flickr user Steve Bott (cc)