Rail's Condemnation May Haunt Us
The signs already are apparent: The average speed of the bus network has declined. And the population continues to grow.
Op-ed article, Los Angeles Times, June 13, 1999
This weekend's opening of the Metro Red Line extension brings the San Fernando Valley one year closer to long-promised subway service to Hollywood and downtown. But pressure on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to increase bus service and last year's anti-subway ballot measure make it likely that, with the possible exception of the Pasadena light rail line, we will see no further rail construction for a generation or more.
No one has asked, however, if our condemnation of rail has been premature. Will we find ourselves, 10 or 20 years into the next century, in dire need of a multi-modal transit system but unable to restart rail expansion quickly enough?
Unfortunately, there is evidence already that this will be the case.
In the next 50 years, the state projects that the population of Los Angeles County will almost double. MTA already has seen the average speed of its bus network decline over the past 20 years, and ridership has increased in the past five years on rail and those bus lines which have dedicated freeway lanes.
Transit -- especially in areas of high growth -- must receive preferential treatment and exclusive facilities in order to offset the impact of solo commuting. Total person mobility must be improved, not just vehicle mobility.
I have rarely, in recent years, been able to ride express lines between the Valley and downtown without being delayed as buses become stuck in Hollywood Freeway traffic. I had looked forward to summer bringing easy transfers to the Red Line at the new Hollywood/Vine rail station, but public outcry by the uninformed, short-sighted, or bus-centered has forced MTA to continue operating those express lines for another year.
What most fail to understand is that when duplicative bus service can be reduced or eliminated, the time those buses would have spent stuck on the freeway can be used to improve local service. If MTA's plan to eliminate express service between Hollywood and downtown had been implemented, the daily savings would have been enough to add one additional bus in each direction, every hour of the day, on Reseda Boulevard, Vineland Avenue and Sherman Way, and two buses per hour on Ventura and Van Nuys Boulevards --. a welcome improvement requiring no purchase of additional buses!
It already has become more expensive for MTA to operate bus service as more buses are required just to maintain present service frequencies. And even with those extra buses, trips still takes longer because of traffic congestion.
So it is not surprising that ridership on the Red Line increased to an average of 40,000 passengers per weekday when the extension underneath Wilshire Boulevard from MacArthur Park to Western Avenue opened three years ago, or that MTA projects a doubling of ridership with the new segment to Hollywood. The final extension to Universal City and North Hollywood is expected to add at least another 40,000 riders per day. Would that many people ride the subway if it didn't move them efficiently? Of course not.
Many have suggested that busways or exclusive bus lanes are the answer, but the reality is that even the articulated buses proposed for corridors such as Wilshire and Ventura Boulevards can carry far fewer passengers than a two-car light rail or subway train. Because, according to MTA's current fiscal year budget, the operating cost per Metro Rail passenger mile (45 cents) is lower than Metro Bus (54 cents), it makes far more sense to use the higher-capacity mode and increase total person mobility.
Thus we need not -- we should not -- abandon rail. MTA can still develop light rail lines along corridors it already owns. Light rail can expand service from the end of the Red Line in North Hollywood to Warner Center with connections to Metrolink in Burbank and Chatsworth, serving Valley College, the Van Nuys Civic Center, the L.A. Department of Transportation's new park-ride lot in Encino, and Pierce College. It can also be used between USC and Santa Monica with connections to the Blue Line at its eastern end. Light rail can be quickly built because it can be routed along unused existing rail corridors and does not, in most cases, require underground or elevated construction. Stations can be platforms, as is the case with the Blue and Green Lines and Metrolink.
MTA is charged with the responsibility to develop a long-term plan to meet our region's transit needs, and buses are not the catch-all solution. Rail must be an important part of that plan, and we must consider it now, rather than wait until the need is critical. To stay ahead of population growth, construction of transit facilities cannot be deferred. By the time the general public realizes the value of these services, it may be too late, and most certainly will be more expensive.