Fools Gold: New Light Rail System Not Worth the Price
by Mario Bolo
More than 2 decades after the first sales taxes were raised and more than 0 million dollars later, the long awaited Los Angeles-Pasadena light rail system finally opened for business this month. As a daily public transit user, I decided to investigate the latest addition to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s 73 miles of passenger rail service. With the MTA’s recent decision to balance its deficit on the backs of LA’s poorest residents, at the very least we should be getting better service to compensate for the planned fare increase.
No such luck in northeast LA. Phase 1 of the “Gold Line” is a 13.7 mile route from Union Station to East Pasadena that makes 13 station stops in about 36 minutes- averaging just 23mph. Trains are scheduled to run every 10 minutes during rush hours, and every 12 minutes for most other hours of operation.*
In comparison to the MTA’s notoriously overcrowded buses that creep along through the Los Angeles metro area, stopping every 2 or 3 blocks for passengers and red lights, there’s no doubt the Gold Line represents a new era for car-free residents in the adjacent neighborhoods. Yet there is an even better alternative for people wanting to make long distance commutes. The 16 mile Ventura Boulevard Metro Rapid bus line also takes 36 minutes to go from its start to finish, thanks to limited bus stops and sensors that keep lights green for 10 seconds longer, and red lights up to 10 seconds shorter. Not only does it complete its longer trip with 2 more stops in the same amount of time, the waits are comparable to those for the Gold Line, or shorter. A bus is scheduled to arrive every 8-10 minutes at Warner Center during rush hours, but every 5 minutes starting at the East bound Tarzana station. After 8:30A.M., a bus is scheduled to arrive every 10 minutes, as opposed to the Gold Line’s 12 minute intervals during the same time of day.
Originally MTA promised that commuters could expect 6-7 minute intervals between trains. Now that the project is finished, MTA is saying that they do not have enough electricity to add another 49 tonne train on the line. To improve frequency, the LA Times notes in their July 26 article, that the “ MTA would probably have to spend much more than planned.”
Not only do the Metro Rapid buses provide faster, more frequent service, the infrastructure to install them is astronomically cheaper. The first 42 miles of Metro Rapid was put in place for .2 million that covered the cost of adding separate bus stops and a signal priortization scheme for buses. Compare that to 0 million for 13.7 miles of Gold Line. The latter amounts to ,014,599 per mile, while the former is 5,238 per mile. As for the rail cars themselves, they were bought for .36 million each, as compared to 0,000 for 2 buses that can hold the same number of passengers.
When I raised these objections to a representative of the Gold Line he said that when traffic is gridlocked, the Gold Line will be the only thing moving. First, the 110 and 134 are not the most congested highways in the metro area. Second, sharp increases in bus and rail fares scheduled for this coming January are not going to help break LA’s dirty little habit. In fact ridership rose 40% and peaked at “1.6 million boardings on weekdays--in the early 1980s, when the cash fare was lowered to 50 cents after Los Angeles County voters approved the first of two transit sales taxes.” With the fare at .35 in 1999, ridership had dropped to 1.1 million boardings on weekdays, despite the addition of the subway and light rail systems, and despite the addition of an extra 2.3 million people to the county over that time period.** In addition to low fares, excellent service can also get people out of their cars. With the installation of the Metro Rapid line on Wilshire -Whittier Boulevards, ridership has increased 42% on those streets.
Given that the Gold Line offers nothing new in service that a Metro Rapid bus line can’t provide, the hundreds of millions extra spent on this light rail system should be cause for public outrage. If the MTA really had a commitment to helping L.A.’s poorest residents, and not padding the pockets of contractors, it would show an interest in using 0 million to reduce fares, or improve service with more buses. While it looks like Phase 1 of the Gold Line is a done deal, the next time the MTA pushes an initiative proposing a regressive sales tax for Phase 11, let's give them an overwhelming “NO” vote.
* In a July 26 LA Times article titled “Hopes for Urban Revival on L.A.-Pasadena Line” the Gold Line Boosters mistakenly point out that intervals between trains during non-rush hour times will be 15-30 minutes, instead of the 12 minutes listed on the mta.net website. What would it take for them to have doubts about light rail?
** When adjusted for inflation, the fare of .50 cents was almost 52% cheaper for bus riders in 1982 than the fare of .35 was for bus riders in 1999.