Full Disclosure Now Before Busway Is Built
Unless all expenses associated with Burbank-Chandler are addressed, we could wind up with an option that costs more and doesn't meet needs.

Op-ed article, Los Angeles Times, August 27, 2000

The Metro Red Line has been serving the San Fernando Valley for only a couple of months and the public already is asking for better connections to it. One plan that would accomplish this is the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's proposed busway on the former Southern Pacific Railroad Burbank-Chandler right of way.

The busway proposal is contrary to a decade's worth of discussions centering on extending the Metro Rail system, either as a subway or as a separate light rail line, on that corridor. Because it is not feasible to extend the subway now, many people had presumed that Burbank-Chandler would be used for light rail. But the MTA board of directors appears committed to the busway, claiming it would be as effective as light rail but cost less. Having reviewed the proposal, busways in general and MTA studies of this corridor, I cannot agree.

History does not favor busways. In Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh, ridership on busway routes has steadily declined as rail service has attracted passengers in numbers greater than the bus service loss. This was a factor in the MTA's 1996 Major Investment Study on east-west transit options, which ranked a busway last overall among the available options. The busway option ranked third from the bottom in terms of projected ridership, just ahead of putting more buses on existing routes without a dedicated busway, or doing nothing at all. When the study was released, the MTA board eliminated the busway option, yet it hasn't said what has changed in four years to suddenly rank it as the most desirable.

I suspect that Mayor Richard Riordan and Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky -- both MTA directors -- would point to the success of Curitiba, Brazil's busway system. Curitiba is not the shining example they have claimed it to be. Its profit comes from jamming 300 people onto buses the size of light rail cars that here would draw public (and Bus Riders Union) protest if they carried 125 passengers. Why do people pack themselves like sardines into this system? Because Curitiba does not make provisions for them to drive to work; commuters are transit-dependent. And, it should be noted, the Curitiba government is now planning rail transit. Apparently buses aren't the solution after all.

Even presuming that the riders the investment study projected for a light rail line between North Hollywood and Warner Center would be equally attracted to a bus-based system, there are hidden costs. A bus carries far fewer passengers than a light rail vehicle, so more trips would be needed. At peak hours, this would require a vehicle every two to five minutes. The Los Angeles Department of Transportation has indicated it could not provide signal preemption at grade crossings that frequently, so buses would either have to wait for signals -- increasing travel time -- or grade separations would have to be constructed at major arteries. Without grade separation, we would need more buses, not to mention a new bus yard. Existing MTA yards in Chatsworth and Sun Valley could not accommodate the additional equipment. So either way, there are expenses not covered in the proposal.

I also would like to know the source for the new buses; difficulty acquiring them has been a point of contention between the MTA and Bus Riders Union.

And why, after Riordan introduced a resolution before the MTA board in 1994 calling for rail on Burbank-Chandler as "the most cost-effective to operate and maintain" and "having the greatest regional benefit," does he now believe that a busway would be better?

But the greatest hidden cost, mentioned nowhere in the busway proposal, comes from the 1990 decision by the MTA's predecessor, the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, to purchase the right of way. The California Transportation Commission provided $44.8 million in Proposition 108 funds for that acquisition and stipulated that the state would receive a "then present value refund" if LACTC or a successor public entity did not use the corridor for "the intended public passenger rail project," because Proposition 108 funds must, by law, be used for rail transit. In other words, if the MTA decided not to build rail on Burbank-Chandler, it would have to repay the state. With interest, that would be at least $60 million, using a conservative estimate.

Although the busway would seem, at first glance, to be less expensive than light rail, these additional expenses that the MTA has not addressed may well bring the initial cost of the project closer to that of rail. And if that is the case, light rail again becomes the most cost-effective option, in the long run.

The public is entitled to full disclosure by the MTA of these costs before the busway proposal moves forward, else we may wind up with a less desirable system with unrealized potential. Ridership on the Red Line proves that if you build rail, the people will ride it. But build a busway and you may well fulfill the predictions of politicians who claim there is no potential ridership for rail.

Note: This is -- thus far -- the only op-ed article I have written for the Times that attracted letters to the editor.

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