Friday, July 23, 2010

Happy birthday to LA's Metro Rail

Los Angeles has now had a rail transit system for twenty years. Has it lived up to the promises made by boosters? Not necessarily according to people quoted in this LA Times article:
Rather than bolster ridership, these experts say, the emphasis on rail has come at the expense of the MTA's vast network of buses and may have cost the agency at least 1.5 billion passenger boardings from 1986 to 2006.

"Overall, the push for rail has forced transit ridership down," said Tom Rubin, a veteran transit consultant and former chief financial officer for the MTA's predecessor. "Had they run a lot of buses at low fares, they could have doubled the number of riders."

Officials from the MTA were oddly not available for this story, so they didn't respond to this critique. But here is what the paper explains:
Rail transit advocates contend that it is premature to judge urban rail's performance because the local systems are not fully developed and have yet to substantially benefit from being part of a broad rail network.

In the future, it is possible that more high-density housing and commercial centers will be built near light-rail and subway stations, which could boost ridership. Advocates say that mounting traffic congestion and an aging population also will increase demand.

There is no doubt that it is possible that "more high-density housing and commercial centers will be built near light-rail and subway stations, which could boost ridership." Lots of things are possible in the future, and these are in the range of possibilities. But how long is reasonable to wait for the benefits? The rail system is 20 years old. The population of the region has increased 20% since 1985 yet fewer people ride transit in Los Angeles than in 1985. There is still lots of congestion. Do we need to wait another 20 years to evaluate the benefits of rail in the area? If some of the benefits are delayed because of the incompleteness of the system, what scheduling choices and priorities should have been made years ago to speed up the process? How should we pay for transportation investments that don't return benefits until long after the bills are paid? Would stronger regional planning have improved the outcomes? Mayor Villaraigosa is thinking about some of these issues with his 30/10 plan, but there are many more issues to resolve.

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