The Argument In Favor Of Rail

(Unpublished rebuttal to a Daily Breeze article on Metro Rail.)

It is unfair to categorize the Metro Red Line as "a means to ease traffic congestion." Rail transit's best functions are twofold: First, to provide additional transportation capacity to meet the demand as the region continues to grow; and second, to provide faster service for transit-using citizens who would otherwise have to cope with slower bus-based service when travelling significant distances.

Even County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky admits that Metro Rail is an improvement for those whose travel patterns allow them to utilize it. That it cannot go literally everywhere people might wish it to is an unfortunate reality of any rail transit system; it must be acknowledged that bus service cannot go literally everywhere, either, else there would be bus lines crowding every street, major and minor, in the region.

The original 1993 ridership estimates were based on a system that included the Eastside extension -- cancelled when federal funds dried up, then resurrected as a separate light rail line -- and an extension on Wilshire Blvd. to Fairfax Ave. which will likely not be built for at least another decade. Is it surprising that what was built (about 63% of the planned system) gets 67% of the planned ridership? I would call that a success, given that there is likely greater ridership potential on the unconstructed segments. As for ridership subsidies, a $2.99 per passenger cost with $1.35 coming from fares equals a farebox recovery of 45%, which is not out of line with that of rail systems in other cities ... or of local bus service.

While it is true that the subway alone cannot solve the region's transportation problems, it does have an impact, at least as far as the 132,000 passengers a day who use it are concerned. It would take several thousand private vehicles -- or a few thousand additional bus trips -- to accommodate that ridership. And that figure doesn't even take into account the Blue Line, which is the second highest ridership light rail line in the U.S.

While the Bus Riders Union -- whose answer to every question is always "buy more buses" -- condemns rail as a waste of money, the reality is that the Federal Transit Administration reports that it costs more than twice as much per passenger-mile (61 cents vs. 29 cents) to carry a passenger on a bus than on a subway. And the Bus Riders Union has repeatedly insisted that funds earmarked for rail by the state and federal government be spent on bus service, defying all logic. Nowhere is stated the fact that Bus Riders Union members ride the subway to MTA board meetings: For them to criticize a system that carries them to their protests is hypocrisy of the highest order.

And even if Martin Wachs (director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at UCLA) is right in his statement that the subway draws mostly "bus riders who didn't own cars in the first place," hasn't it still improved those passengers' mobility? Public transit is supposed to move people as efficiently as possible, and Wachs' lack of elaboration about his "alternate transportation system" makes it impossible to determine whether or not his theoretical system would be more productive.

The entire story has not been told: Prior to the opening of the subway extension to the Valley, it took more than two hours for me to travel from my home in Van Nuys to downtown using the predecessor freeway bus service. Now, at rush hour, I can make that trip in a little over one hour. As far as I personally am concerned, that justifies the cost of improving our region's transit service.

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