Bay Area Bus Elections Light Rail Los Angeles Tampa

The Politics of Mode Choice

» Choice of transportation mode for new transit capital projects is often just as much a reflection of politics as it is a statement of “objective” technological benefits.

Would it be an indictment of the political system to suggest that most political leaders making decisions about what kind of technology to use in new transit corridors simply don’t care about the relative merits of various transportation modes? If someone were to develop a definitive formula that established, once and for all, the most appropriate technology for any possible corridor, would it matter?

I raise these questions because when put it in the context of actual decision-making by politicians in the United States, the seemingly endless debate between proponents of rail and buses can sometimes appear downright irrelevant.

Bus rapid transit may provide the same capacity as light rail or light rail may be more effective in producing ridership increases or busways may be cheaper to construct or trains may be better transit-oriented development generators. But if there isn’t significant political support for a transportation technology, it doesn’t matter; the only proposals that are built are those that capture the hearts of the people who decide how public funds are spent.

Last week Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, her region’s biggest cheerleader for better transit, suggested that for new transportation routes, “Bus rapid transit is not acceptable.” The regional transportation agency HART has yet to determine whether it will promote light rail or faster buses for one of the many potential corridors for better transit service. But the Mayor’s statement, backed up by similar nods of approval for trains by HART President David Armijo, suggests that the only politically feasible option is light rail. When voters in the Tampa region go to the polls on November 2nd to determine whether to increase their sales taxes, they will be considering whether to fund rail, not just any sort of improved transit.

On the other hand, up in Maryland, Republican gubernatorial candidate and former Governor Robert Ehrlich Jr. has suggested that he would replace the current (Democratic) governor’s plans for light rail in Baltimore and suburban Washington, D.C. with bus rapid transit projects. Mr. Ehrlich has cited what he claims are the cheaper costs of bus investments, an opinion that may have more to do with reorienting transportation funding towards highways but which still could point towards efficiency in spending, important for any government program.

There are plenty of seemingly reasonable explanations for the rock-hard support of both Ms. Iorio and Mr. Ehrlich for their preferred transit technologies, but the fact is that their statements in favor of one mode or the other are based on emotional responses, not some kind of well thought-through assessment of their communities’ specific needs.

For many politicians in the United States, light rail has attained something of a mythical status, and they’ve been able to transfer the excitement about the mode to their constituents, as proven by the recent proliferation of successfully passed transit sales tax increases usually founded on the assumptions that trains are coming. There’s some good logic to this fact: Trains are sexy and different: For metropolitan areas used to only bus operations, light rail is appealing to the popular imagination in a way that bus rapid transit is simply not because of its similarity to existing services. Even if it is possible to imagine bus lines that are just as performing as light rail, it is hard to communicate that potential to the average person before a vote.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s successful campaign to advance the Measure R tax increase in 2008 and now his 30/10 transit plan, both of whose products will primarily be new rail lines, is arguably founded on both general enthusiasm for rail services in L.A. and the coinciding promise that the plan will bring those offerings to everywhere in the region. Similarly, the increase in local taxes to fund the extension of the San Francisco Bay Area’s BART rapid transit system into San Jose was endorsed by more than two-thirds of voters in the 2008 election cycle, likely because of the emotional appeal people in the area hold for the BART rail system. There are cheaper and arguably more appropriate alternatives, like a bus rapid transit line or an improvement of commuter rail services in the East Bay, but they weren’t considered because of a lack of political will to advance their development.

The fundamental question for proponents of better transit stuck asking themselves what transportation technology to support is this: Is it more important to argue for a mode that is more technically efficient or one that is emotionally appealing? Could Mayor Villaraigosa have found enough support for his plan had it promoted a series of busways? Is Mayor Iorio’s argument in favor of light rail a response to her recognition that only it will be exciting enough to appeal to voters?

More directly: If it is necessary to intrigue both politicians and the public about a new transit system in order to get it funded, the necessary corollary must sometimes be choosing the wrong transportation mode from a technical perspective in order to satisfy political demands.

All this said, I do not want to imply that the continued discussion about what transportation modes work best is a silly matter; if anything, more research is necessary to answer the questions that continue to enliven debates about the various benefits of different types of transit. If planners can demonstrate conclusively that light rail really does produce higher ridership and more transit-oriented development than bus rapid transit, then they have an obligation to push for its implementation. If, on the other hand, they can show that bus rapid transit can provide all the benefits of light rail at a lower price, then they must do the opposite.

But planners will only be able to make their argument effectively if they are able to frame it in terms that are appealing for the people who control the public’s purse strings, both in the voting booth and behind the mayor’s desk.

Light Rail Los Angeles

Los Angeles’ Gold Line Foothill Extension Approved for Funding, Will Begin Construction Later this Year

» The first rail project funded by Measure R will eventually ensure much larger future investment in Los Angeles proper.

Politicians from the San Gabriel Valley have for years made very clear where they want transit investment funds to be spent in their section of the Los Angeles region, on an extension of the light rail Gold Line from Pasadena to Azusa and eventually Ontario Airport. Yesterday, they got what they wanted: a commitment of $690 million from the board of L.A. County’s Metro transportation authority, with the goal of opening the first phase for service by 2014, three years earlier than originally planned.

The 11.3-mile Foothills Extension project will be the first rail line funded by L.A.’s Measure R, a multi-billion dollar plan for transit improvements that voters approved in November 2008. Construction will begin this June.

The board’s unanimous decision to move this project to the front of the line is a political compromise reached to guarantee future support for the much more expensive subways and light rail lines planned in the western parts of the region, principally in the City of Los Angeles itself. It will settle feelings of resentment from politicians whose constituents live in places east of the city. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents the northeast section of the county, suggested that the vote in favor of the Gold Line extension is a good step in broadening transit investments. “Los Angeles has cannibalized the funds,” the Los Angeles Times quotes him as saying. “This is the first time we have been able to bring ‘regional’ to the front of the plate instead of the back of the bus.”

Politicians in the San Gabriel Valley have shown strong support for the project and it has encountered very little local controversy, unlike, say, the Expo Line currently under construction, which has been met with protests.

By agreeing to move forward with the Foothills program — at the periphery of the metropolitan area — the City of Los Angeles has assembled support for its priorities, including the $4 billion Westside Subway, which is the primary goal of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Mr. Villaraigosa is currently campaigning for a federal loan to advance the projects funded by Measure R within ten years, versus the thirty years originally protected. Failing to support a project in the east side of the county could have spelled major future difficulties for the city’s hopes to spend billions of county dollars on its own lines.

With six new stations reaching the towns of Arcadia, Monrovia, Duarte, Irwindale, and Azusa, the Gold Line extension will lengthen the existing line by about 50% and provide access to a section of the region currently far from either light rail or commuter rail service. A second phase, whose $600 to $700 million cost, would link Azusa to Montclair, with a possible later extension to Ontario Airport.

Despite the apparent excitement of the San Gabriel Valley to see more transit service, the project is likely to be the least cost-effective of all of L.A.’s planned rail transit lines. The original 13.7-mile section of the Gold Line, which connected Pasadena and Union Station in 2003, has suffered from relatively low ridership, hitting about 22,000 daily before the Gold Line Eastside Extension opened with service to areas along the other side of downtown.

Original projections for ridership along the Pasadena corridor assumed 64,000 daily users, then were downgraded to 38,000 a few years later, and finally to 26,000 in final studies. Compared to L.A.’s other rail corridors, the Gold Line is the least used.

There are a few explanations for these difficulties: the line does not directly connect to the core of the downtown business district; much of the route includes stations in the median of the I-210 Freeway, making walking to and from stops less than pleasant; and the route between Pasadena and Union Station takes almost half an hour to complete. Most importantly, perhaps, the areas served just aren’t all that dense.

Downtown connections will improve once the downtown Regional Connector opens (in either 2017 or 2019, depending on financing), which will allow through-running from Long Beach to the Foothills. This is likely to expand the number of riders simply by making it easier for them to get to their jobs without having to transfer lines.

Most of the Foothill Extension will also be constructed outside of the highway right-of-way, increasing the potential for redevelopment around station stops and making the riding experience more comfortable. Nonetheless, the alignment chosen is not ideal: it’s on the wrong side of the freeway from downtown Duarte, and it travels through areas that lack residential or commercial concentration. There are plans for transit-oriented development in many of the affected cities, but whether those projects will pan out is not yet clear.

The commute times from the end of the line will be a serious problem: once the second phase is built to Montclair, downtown will be a full 75 minutes away, making daily commutes difficult to envision for many people. Even in traffic, that trip takes a total of 70 minutes by car.

Nevertheless, getting people from the San Gabriel Valley into downtown may not be the major goal of the project. Metrolink Commuter Rail can cover the distance between Montclair and Los Angeles in an hour along the San Bernardino Line, though that link is near carrying capacity. The Gold Line’s longer route may be most useful in providing for increased connections between the major cities of the Foothills, a pretty good idea considering that many of these towns already have walkable downtowns acclimatized to transit. But relatively few people are making those commutes, so it’s unlikely the Foothills line will be renowned for its ridership.

Whether Los Angeles should be pushing this project ahead, then, is openly up for question. It may have, however, simply been a matter of political necessity.

Image above: Gold Line Foothills Extension, from The Source

Finance Light Rail Los Angeles Metro Rail

How Feasible is Antonio Villaraigosa’s 30/10 Gambit for Los Angeles Transit?

» Mayor of nation’s second-largest city fights to advance city’s transit planning… by twenty years. It’s a job that necessitates a national infrastructure bank that does not yet exist.

Forget that old cliché about Los Angeles. It’s not the old highway-obsessed metropolis it used to be. In fact, as L.A. matures, it’s densifying, shedding its abhorrence towards public transportation.

The region already has one of the most ambitious transit expansion plans in the country; a new light rail line to East L.A. opened last year, the Expo light rail line from downtown to Culver City is under construction, and dozens of other routes are in planning throughout Los Angeles County. The passage in November 2008 of Measure R, an additional half-cent sales tax for transit, means that these projects aren’t just conjectural.

But L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has always been a strong proponent of new rail and bus lines, isn’t satisfied by the thirty-year timetable that will be required to complete the projects lined up for $13.7 billion in local funding. (Measure R would also fund $27 billion in transit operations, maintenance, and roads projects.) Current financial assumptions indicate that the Mayor’s highest priority–an extension of the Westside subway (Purple Line) to Westwood–wouldn’t be complete until 2032. A fixed guideway link along I-405 between the San Fernando Valley and UCLA would have to wait until 2038.

For Mr. Villaraigosa, this situation isn’t feasible: he wants his subway as soon as possible, rather than force his city’s inhabitants to spend decades more in congestion. But over ten years, Measure R is only expected to bring in about $3 billion for transit capital projects–enough to build the first phase of the subway, but nothing else. Because the Metropolitan Transportation Authority represents L.A. County’s ten million inhabitants, not just the city’s four million, prioritizing a line that would provide service to a tiny percentage of the region’s overall geographic area would not be politically feasible.

In October last year, the mayor suggested an alternative: ask the federal government to loan Metro billions of dollars to complete the majority of the county’s transit projects, in the city and out, in ten years, rather then thirty. The transit authority would then pay Washington back for twenty more years as revenues from Measure R trickled in.

The 30/10 proposal would allow Metro to construct the full Westside extension, but also two easterly extensions of the Gold Line, two new branches for the Green Line, several busways in San Fernando Valley, a link along I-405, and new light rail lines downtown, along Crenshaw Boulevard, to Santa Monica, and via the West Santa Ana branch corridor. The West Santa Ana branch corridor would be served by commuter rail. All by 2020.

It was a brilliant solution to an intractable political problem by ensuring the extension of transit in corridors everywhere in the county within a tight time frame. The fight over which lines to prioritize would simply not have to happen.

This “big bang” strategy would not only dramatically improve the city’s public transportation system by opening rapid transit lines to areas of the county previously ignored, but also act as a stimulus for hundreds of thousands of construction workers currently out of work. But who in Washington would be ready to make such a deal? How serious was the mayor anyhow?

Considering the Mayor’s schedule over the past several weeks, it appears he’s dead-set on the proposal. Last week, he went to Washington to garner the support of several members of Congress, and got it, including from influential Oregon Democratic Representative Peter DeFazio, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit. California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, who is currently running for reelection, announced that she would support the effort. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood signaled that he was open to the opportunity in a meeting in Los Angeles last month.

If the city is able to move forward on the 30/10 project, it will set quite an intriguing precedent for the dozens of other cities across the country currently considering major transit expansion proposals. The multi-billion-dollar bridge loan Mr. Villaraigosa hopes to have handed over to Metro would be a unique solution to a problem caused by limited short-term revenues. And it implies that Washington should get into the game of agreeing to act as an investment bank for municipalities that can guarantee a source of income over the long term.

If anything, L.A.’s proposal is the best example yet of a project that could really take advantage of a national infrastructure bank, which could provide low-interest loans to governmental agencies to pursue major projects of future importance. The bank would be able to rely on Measure R as an assurance that it will eventually get its money back, and L.A. will be able to benefit from a quick advancement of its rail and bus systems, creating a veritable rapid transit network that in the United States would rival only New York’s in route length.

But the national infrastructure bank does not yet exist. Nor does the Federal Transit Administration have the funds or mandate to pursue a similar policy. So, unless Congress acts on its own, Los Angeles’ transit plans will continue to be relegated to a thirty-year timetable.

Today, with one senator blocking funding for the Department of Transportation and 2,000 workers currently furloughed, it seems unlikely that politicians in Washington will be able to get their together well enough to fund transit at standard levels, let alone sponsor a national infrastructure bank.

That’s a disappointment, since the twelve projects Mayor Villaraigosa has selected for investment would each contribute to the creation of a strong transit system in America’s second city, something that’s been sorely lacking for decades.

Update, 21 March: The Source revealed last week the Mayor’s plan for the 30/10 project, demonstrating the planned expenditures as well as expected completion dates for each of the projects, as shown in the updated map above. Here are the basics:

  • Current long-range transportation plan assumes $18.3 billion in transit expenditures over 30 years. 65% of funds would come from Measure R, with 23% from New Starts and 12% from other sources.
  • The 30/10 Initiative would allow total expenditures to be reduced to $14.7 billion because of avoided inflation, since projects would be completed in ten years, twenty years ahead of schedule. More cost savings could also be possible because of a cheaper construction market.
    • Of that $14.7 billion, $5.8 billion is expected to be available from existing sources, with around $8.8 billion still necessary, which could be provided through a loan from the federal government.
    • Measure R would then pay back its $8.8 billion in debts for projects completed between 2010 and 2020 with $10.4 billion in tax revenue received between 2020 and 2040.
Bus Los Angeles

Los Angeles Integrates Service on Two Busways, with Plans to Implement Congestion Pricing

» New Silver Line will stretch between El Monte and Artesia Transit Center in just 56 minutes, providing relief for drivers attempting to avoid pricing in HOT lanes.

The implementation of widespread tolling in the United States would cause significant problems as a consequence of increased inequities resulting from the decreased mobility of lower-income car-dependent individuals, who would have trouble paying road charges. There are several ways to combat this issue, starting with providing better transit before new tolls are implemented on roads upon which commuters have come to rely.

Los Angeles is planning to do just that with its new Silver Line bus rapid transit service, which it will open to the public this Sunday. Running 26 miles between El Monte and Artesia Transit Center, the service was created as an integral element of a congestion pricing demonstration program and sponsored by a $210 million grant from the federal government. The new line integrates bus services that formerly operated exclusively along either the El Monte or  Harbor Transitway, in coordination with the implementation of tolls along the parallel I-10 and I-110, though those fees won’t be charged until December 2010.

The decision by L.A. Metro to improve transit a full year before pricing the equivalent roadways will allow commuters enough time to prepare a transition to transit and serves as a model for other cities hoping to raise funds and decrease congestion through the insertion of tolls.

Though Los Angeles is plotting a massive expansion of its rail system over the next few decades, its first foray into rapid transit in the modern era came with the opening of the El Monte Busway between Union Station and El Monte in 1974. This corridor allowed buses to speed from the city’s eastern outskirts into the center city and was one of the first examples of bus rapid transit service in the world. Today, the corridor also serves high-occupancy vehicles and carries 100 buses of various stripes during the peak hour and a total of 18,000 mass transit users a day. In 1996, Los Angeles paid for the construction of the Harbor Transitway running 11 miles south from downtown on I-110 — that line also carries a number of bus services, though it has fewer overall passengers than its El Monte equivalent.

As the map below demonstrates, current services along the two busways are not integrated. While both serve downtown, they do so in separate corridors and there are no through buses from El Monte to Artesia Transit Center. Downtown, stations for the El Monte lines are distributed on virtually every block and those for the Harbor Transitway hardly make it into the heart of the business district. More importantly, perhaps, the services along the lines are not branded in unity but instead as a panoply of MetroExpress lines. At the end of each corridor, buses continue on to destinations like Cal Poly Pomona and Palos Verdes Estates.

This makes the service difficult to understand for irregular and new riders. Even though both transitways are included on the primary Metro map along with the rail lines, the non-transitway alignments of their routes are not shown, making it effectively impossible to understand where the buses go once they’ve existed the busways on either end.

Existing Transitway Service along L.A. Busways

Planners at Metro saw a great opportunity in integrating services between the two busways, but had hesitated to do so for years because of limited funds for new transit investments. The original plan was to connect the two corridors with a limited access busway through downtown; the Harbor Transitway was designed with ramps to make such a line possible, but it has never been a priority for the region’s decision makers.

With the federal congestion grant, Metro finally found adequate motivation to put together a new service that uses both of the transitways. The Silver Line will be able to make the 26-mile commute between El Monte and Artesia in 56 minutes. If Metro brands the service appropriately, it could act as an interim version of the planned rail-based Regional Connector, moving people from south L.A. to El Monte without a transfer.

The line could be far easier to understand than existing transit services by dramatically improving the legibility of the two busways by demonstrating their connectivity to downtown destinations and by showing the interconnectivity between the two lines. In addition, instead of the dual corridors and large number of stops currently used by Harbor and El Monte services, the Silver Line will have a limited number of well-marked stations every few blocks.

Instead of continuing on to further destinations at the end of each transitway, buses will simply stop there, requiring customers to transfer to local buses that replace the former express lines along the routes for the final segment of the journey. To some degree, this will inconvenience users, since they will be forced to transfer at El Monte or Artesia to other buses; but the sacrifice is worth it, since the Silver Line means better connections and faster speeds.

Metro has effectively created a rapid transit route out of a series of disjointed express bus services — a feat that probably should have occurred a decade ago considering when the Harbor Transitway opened. Nonetheless, the Silver Line’s opening is good news and expands the perception of Los Angeles’ transit offerings at a minimal cost. By marketing the corridor as a highly intelligible rapid line, Metro will likely increase ridership and expand the number of people using the service as an integral connection in the overall transit network.

Silver Line Service

In the short term, the Silver Line will be handicapped by the fact that it must run along the street downtown between the two transitways. But by December of 2010, the relevant streets will benefit from transit signal priority, potentially speeding the already pretty quick service. Unlike many bus rapid transit lines, this one actually deserves the “rapid” designation. The service will open using existing 40-foot buses, but by next year it will benefit from new, specially labeled 45-foot buses meant to imitate the design of the successful Orange Line busway in San Fernando Valley. Those new acquisitions, paid for with the federal grant money, will allow higher frequencies, though customers will already get roughly 10-minute headways throughout the day along the line.

The ExpressLanes project, Metro’s congestion relief program, will convert HOV lanes along both transitways to HOT lanes, allowing single-occupancy cars to move along reserved lanes as long as drivers pay the toll. Metro will adjust pricing dynamically to ensure that lanes do not overflow — a situation that occurred the last time (in 2000) that Metro was asked to open the El Monte busway to more drivers, slowing down bus service dramatically.

The Silver Line may be confused with Foothill Transit’s Silver Streak, which operates between downtown and Montclair along the El Monte transitway. One hopes that Metro does a good enough job in differentiating its vehicles that commuters don’t confuse the two similar services.

Light Rail Los Angeles

Gold Line Extension Ready for Service in East Los Angeles

East LA Civic Center Station

» Though originally planned as an extension of the heavy rail Red Line, light rail will be good for East L.A. when it begins operations Sunday.

In most cities, the construction of a $900 million light rail line between downtown and a heavily transit-dependent neighborhood would be seen as a great step forward in the process of expanding the region’s transportation options.

For East Los Angeles, however, the Gold Line East Side Extension’s opening is bittersweet. While it is true that this new six-mile line, an extension of the Gold Line from Pasadena to downtown with eight beautiful stations, will be a boon for people who live in one of the city’s poorest and least-connected neighborhoods, an alternative originally planned more than twenty years ago would have been even more beneficial to the community.

In 1987, Los Angeles transit planners mapped out the city’s future transit system, highlighting a line running east-west from Westwood to East L.A. as the central spine. This heavy rail project, whose first phase opened as the Red Line between MacArthur Park and Union Station in 1994, lost its appeal as costs rose exponentially and after an explosion raised fears about the system’s safety. Los Angeles County Supervisor Zeb Zev Yaroslavsky campaigned to kill more spending on subways in the city, eventually winning a referendum to do just that, despite the fact that the federal government had already committed hundreds of millions of dollars to an East L.A. extension from Union Station. Congressman Henry Waxman put a stake in the project’s heart when he successfully convinced Congress to eliminate future funding for underground trains in the city to please his wealthy Westside constituents who did not want a line under Wilshire Boulevard.

So the plans for an east side subway died, replaced by Metro with a partially federal-sponsored light rail project that runs just 1.7 miles under Boyle Heights, with the rest along the street; construction began in 2004. Now that the city’s citizenry has approved a new funding source and Mr. Waxman has removed his block on subway funding, it looks like the Westside will get its subway after all — but not East L.A.

This comes to the major detriment of transit users in the affected neighborhoods. While the Gold Line light rail trains will require 22 minutes to traverse the six-mile route between Atlantic Boulevard and Union Station (from where it will continue on the existing Gold Line route to Pasadena), Purple Line heavy rail trains can travel from Union Station to Wilshire and Western — about five miles — in just thirteen minutes. It seems reasonable to suggest that heavy rail, operating entirely in a subway, would have saved thousands of commuters ten or more minutes a day over what they’re getting with light rail. This may seem inconsequential, but if the Westside subway and extensions of the East L.A. line to El Monte or Whittier are ever built, those ten minutes could have meant significantly shorter daily work trips for hundreds of thousands of people.

For the moment, planners expect only 13,000 daily users on the line in 2010 — a number that would have been likely higher had the travel time been shorter. Ridership is also limited by the lack of a direct connection between the light rail Blue Line and Union Station, a deficiency that will be solved with the eventual construction of the Regional Connector downtown. That project will also allow through-running from West L.A.’s Expo corridor, all the way to the East L.A. Atlantic Station terminus.

If light rail is not ideal, however, the huge cost savings of running the route principally overground may have been worth it, especially since East L.A., though dense, is certainly no high-rise neighborhood. A heavy rail line through the community may not have ever attracted a sufficient number of users to make it a good idea. On the other hand, experience in cities like Washington, D.C. suggests that heavy rail stations even in less dense areas can attract significant surrounding development and very high ridership. One wonders if it’s fair that the rich Westside gets the best standards of transit, while East L.A. gets something significantly less performing.

The Gold Line will be a successful element of the Los Angeles cityscape, but the project probably could have made a far more serious dent in the region’s car culture had it been designed differently. Yet Los Angeles will be able to build more projects overall because of the savings here. And Metro has a cornucopia of proposals on its plate.

And the Gold Line Eastside Extension, named after America’s first Mexican-American congressman, Edward R. Roybal, is a handsome addition to this neighborhood. Each of the stations was designed by an artist and is distinctive, making each a jewel in a somewhat blighted neighborhood that was partially demolished to make way for the construction of the Pomona and Santa Ana freeways. Those roads remain huge obstacles whose close adjacency to the light rail line’s route may actually reduce ridership, but there’s not much to be done on that account. In addition, current County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who was a major supporter of the project, is upset about the fact that the line is above ground — she fears that trains will run over pedestrians — but her concerns are overstated considering the success of similar projects in other countries and even in Los Angeles itself. There’s nothing to fear from the Gold Line, but it could have been better.

Image above: East LA Civic Center Station, from Flickr user waltarrrrr