I Hate To Say "I Told You So" But ... I Told You So

Back in March, 2001 -- back when I hadn't written a lot of rants yet -- I pointed out the fallacies of what eventually became the Metro Orange Line. And although it was built over my objections and many others', it has become a success ... possibly, too much of a success.

Here is what I wrote seven years ago:

I remain skeptical that a bus-based system can handle the potential ridership; ever since the Red Line was extended to North Hollywood, passengers have been clamoring for an east-west connection and it appears that the number who would ride on this corridor would quickly overwhelm the capacity of even high-capacity buses.

Well, that day came quickly. Total monthly boardings were just under 500,000 one year after the Orange Line opened, and in July of this year the total for the month was over 700,000. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the champion of the busway project (we should never have let him visit Curitiba), points to these figures as proof that he was right to force his "line on a napkin"* into reality. But what he does not, still, realize, is that the Orange Line is carrying passenger loads more typical of light rail (its numbers are comparable to the less-successful Gold Line), while using a less-robust mode.

There are two reasons why I said what I said seven years ago, and why I'm still saying it. The first is that buses -- even the 60- to 65-foot models used on the busway -- have a capacity far below that of a rail car. And all anyone has to do for proof is stand at North Hollywood Station at any time of day (but especially at rush hour) and watch eastbound buses discharge their packed-like-sardines loads, then proceed to the westbound platform and board a similarly-sized load.

The second reason is something I hardly expect Zev to understand, because he doesn't have the background in transit operations to do so. Buses have a typical life of 12 years under Federal Transit Administration guidelines, with a major rebuild (engine overhaul, suspension rehab, etc.) at the half-life point. The Orange Line buses are already showing signs of strain from those passenger loads and will likely need that half-life rebuild within the next year ... significantly short of the six-year mark. By comparison, most of the light rail cars purchased when the Blue Line began service in 1990 are still in service, and didn't have their major overhauls done until last year.

Do the math: If a light rail car can last upwards of 30 years and the Orange Line buses are apparently going to last about eight, that means replacing the buses four times during the life of a single rail car. But Zev's math of "it will cost less to build than rail" didn't take that into account, and good luck getting anyone to make a valid comparison of the actual costs, when equipment maintenance and replacement is factored in.

I said something else back in 2001:

But where the busway proposal would appear most designed to fail is in the area of connecting service; the proposal is based around MTA operating frequent Metro Bus service on the major streets the busway would cross.

Even though I thought this unlikely because there was a lot of political pressure to create a separate "transit zone" agency to take over Metro's lines in the Valley (which, thankfully, never happened because Roger Snoble came in as CEO not long after I wrote that and instead created the "service sectors"), the connecting service never got beefed up around the Orange Line, because of the severe operating deficit that came about as a combined result of the infamous consent decree and Sacramento raiding public transportation funding. Seven of the Orange Line stations are served by north-south local lines that operate only hourly (although a few of those run more often at rush hour), and three of those stations lack full weekend service. It comes as no surprise, then, that the two busiest stations are at Van Nuys and Reseda Blvds., because those two major arterials have both 15-minute or better service and overlay Rapid service.

The breaking point will likely come much sooner than the 2015 deadline for converting the Orange Line to rail. The question now is: How are we going to cope with it when it comes?

(* - This is Zev's own term for the line's origin; he sketched it on the back of an airline napkin on the flight back from Brazil.)

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