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Just Transportation: Is Los Angeles Making Progress on Transit for All?

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Measure J, which would have raised $90 billion through a half cent sales tax dedicated to transit in Los Angeles County, failed by half a percent on the November 2012 ballot. It needed 66.66% and received 66.11%.

Incredibly, Measure J supporters, including the L.A. Times, argued with a straight face that "Measure J wouldn't increase anybody's taxes" -- it would only extend the tax for 30 years from 2039 to 2069 to allow transit officials to borrow money. How's that again? Who will pay $90 billion under that sales tax for 30 years? That's right, tax payers.

"In a unique display of unity, a broad cross-section of African-American leaders. . . publicly opposed" Measure J, according to the San Marino Tribune. It's incredible that proponents would not secure the support of the black community for a measure that requires a two-thirds vote.

Aside from Measure J, the New York Times recently noted that the planned rail network for L.A. County stirs distrust in the black community because the proposed Crenshaw rail line does not include a stop in Leimert Park, the heart of black L.A., because of limited money. The train will also run at street level through part of the area, which business owners fear will hurt business during years of construction. The Crenshaw line will run 8.5 miles through South Los Angeles towards Los Angeles International Airport at a claimed estimate of $1.8 billion.

The Crenshaw line was originally designed as a bus line at a fraction of the cost of rail. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa crowed in the New York Times that he is responsible for transforming the bus line into a rail line: "All of that happened because I drove it," he said. "This was a busway before I made it into a light rail." Bus provides the same or better service for a fraction of the price of rail. Is that attitude appropriate for someone who apparently is being considered for Secretary of Transportation in the second Obama administration?

A $125-million streetcar project that will run only a few blocks downtown gained more than 70% of the vote in a special vote-by-mail election limited to downtown residents last week. What is the point of adding such a limited rail line when shuttle buses like the DASH could provide more service at a fraction of the cost?

Does rail over bus represent progress?

We asked Tom Rubin*, a transportation expert. The following is a discussion of transit ridership over the past 30 years in Los Angeles.

How does investing tax payers' money in bus compare to rail?

The simple answer in Los Angeles is this: MTA spends more than eight times as much tax payers' money to move people on rail than on bus. You couldn't spend on bus the amount MTA spends on rail.

MTA spends almost twice as much on rail to carry about one fourth as many passengers.

Bus will cost the taxpayers about $950 million for operating subsidies (operating costs less fares), capital expenditures, and interest and will carry about 352 million passengers.

Rail will cost $1.8 billion and carry about 105 million passengers. I'm not including anything for Metrolink or any other L.A. County bus systems other than MTA. Those are MTA's numbers.

Is there anything wrong with government spending more on rail than bus?

There is a limited amount of tax payer money for transit. By paying huge amounts of money for rail to get a few motorists out of their cars and onto a rail line, you are taking away money that could provide more bus service at a fraction of the cost. The real tragedy is you are taking transit service away from the people who have no choice.

Who benefits and who is harmed by investment in rail compared to bus?

MTA rail riders are twice as likely to be non-Hispanic compared to MTA bus riders, and have a median household income that is 83% higher. This comes from the MTA adopted budget FY10, appendix 20, pages VII-58/59.

Why do elected officials support rail projects?

Rail projects cost much more and generate bigger contracts that generate bigger campaign contributions. That's the secret.

What happens when more money is invested in rail compared to bus?

Two graphs are worth 20,000 words.


The first graph clearly shows that, in the periods when MTA pays more attention to bus, total ridership goes up faster than population increase, but when MTA does not do that, total ridership actually goes down as the population goes up.

The first blue line on the left reflects the cut in bus fares to encourage ridership during the Summer Olympics. It worked, ridership went up dramatically, 40% in three years.

The second blue line on the right reflects the increase in ridership while MTA was under a court-ordered settlement agreement to lower bus fares and improve bus service for ten years from December 1996 (FY 1997) through December 2006 (FY 2007).

Here are more details explaining the first graph. There are five clear periods of ridership change in the 34 years up to the current fiscal year. In the three periods when fares were increased, bus service was reduced, and the emphasis was on spending as much money as possible on rail, total riders dropped significantly. In the two periods when the fares were reduced or held constant and the quantity and quality of service improved, ridership increased hugely -- even when MTA was spending half of its funding on rail to carry under 20% of the riders.

  1. First red line FY80-82: Adult cash fares increased from $.55 to $.65 to $.85 (and other fares changed accordingly), which drove quite a few low-income residents away from transit
  2. First blue line FY82-85: Fares decreased from $.85 to $.50, and stayed there for three years, as per the requirements of Proposition A -- MTA bus vehicle revenue hours went up 1.5%, while unlinked passenger trips (UPT -- defined below) went up 40%.
  3. Second red line FY85-96: Fares increased from $.50 to $.85 to $1.35, service levels decreased, and service quality decreased significantly as the fleet aged - and ridership went down an average of 12 million UPT/year, which is approximately the annual ridership of Long Beach Transit, the second-largest transit agency in Los Angeles County.
  4. Second blue line FY96-07: The second "golden" period, when the consent decree kept the cash fare constant at $1.35, but reinstated the $42 monthly pass and, equally important, the semimonthly and weekly passes, while significantly increasing transit service to relieve overcrowding, and buying large amounts of new buses to replace overage buses with poor reliability and expand service - and UPT went up 12 million per year.
  5. Third red line FY07-11: The consent decree ends, MTA increases overall fares, while significantly reducing bus service to concentrate on building new rail lines -- and total, not just bus, ridership, drops significantly.

The above analysis is somewhat over-simplistic, without getting into things like changes in gas prices and the economy, but the transit fares and the amount and quality of bus service are the big factors.


The second graph shows total ridership and breaks it down by bus, light rail, and heavy rail from 1980 to 2013.

Does adding rail lines increase transit ridership?

Adding rail lines does not significantly add new riders, and well over half the riders on the new rail lines are former bus riders. Also, since rail trips require, on average, more transfers than do bus-only trips, the number of actual people who are using transit has gone down more than the graphs indicate, which show declines in unlinked passenger trips. You need more unlinked passenger trips for each linked trip because there are so few rail stations compared to bus stops, which means that there are actually fewer actual bus riders. The best data is that in 1990-92, the ratio of Unlinked Passenger Trips to Linked Trips (UPT:LT) was approximately 1.65:1. Ten years later, it was approximately 2.3:1. (MTA hasn't done the necessary survey since.)

What is an Unlinked Passenger Trip and a Linked Trip?

To define by example, if you take a bus from your home in South Los Angeles to the Blue Line, then transfer to the Red Line and go to North Hollywood, and catch the Orange Line to your job, that's four unlinked trips and one linked trip.

Where does the data in your graphs come from?

All but the last two years of the data is from the National Transit Database, which comes directly from MTA. The last two years are from the MTA Adopted budget for FY13, which is all projection that, in some years, includes a mid-year update if there are big changes from original expectations.

Los Angeles knows how to provide efficient and fair transit when it wants to. It did so for the summer Olympics in 1984. It did so under a court order from 1996 through 2006. "A remarkable moment in American urban history. . . occurred in October 1996. . . A class action lawsuit brought against the [MTA] by a coalition of grassroots organizations on behalf of those who depend on public transit for their basic needs was resolved in an unprecedented and momentous consent decree. It was decided that, for at least the next ten years, past decades of discrimination against transit-depended urban poor, those who could not afford to run a car, would be remedied by making the MTA give their highest budget priority to improving the quality of bus service and guaranteeing equitable access to all forms of public mass transit," according to UCLA Professor Edward Soja in his book "Spatial Justice."

Professor Soja continues: More than $2.5 billion were redistributed to serve bus riders. MTA created the largest clean-fuel bus fleet in the nation. At least a million annual bus service hours were added. More than eight hundred green union jobs were created. Bus ridership increased 12%. Many rapid bus lanes were added. Probably no other metropolitan areas in the United States improved bus service more significantly.

The struggle for transportation justice never ends.

*Tom Rubin served as chief financial officer of the Southern California Rapid Transit District and the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District. He was the lead finance expert in the MTA case and in monitoring compliance with the consent decree. Robert García was one of the lead attorneys in the MTA case from 1994-96.

Top: 256 Meets The Gold Line in East LA. Photo by waltarrrrr used under a Creative Commons license.

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