For several decades, the prospect of an urban rail system has been held up to the electorate as the key to mobility and clean air, but even cursory examination of system performance reveals that it is neither. The Los Angeles rail plan is essentially a failed experiment in transit provision, and all refinements and extensions predicated on expanding the rail system will only increase the cost of the failure. And the plan is not merely wasteful, but is harmful to existing transit options. The Los Angeles rail system is steadily destroying public transportation services in a city that should be much more respectful of the gap between the transit-optional haves and the transit-dependent have nots.
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (LACMTA) commitment to the region’s rail plan has placed it in a political conundrum. The MTA knows the system is a failure and that further investment in rail is harmful, yet the rail plan has been such a high profile project for so long that the prospect of abandoning the project is a source of political terror.
But alternatives are available, and MTA has the legal grounds to pursue them. The transportation advantages provided by exclusive rights of way are squandered if use of these guideways is restricted to rail cars. The MTA can build busways instead, facilities with greater flexibility, lower costs, and higher capacities than rail lines. If the agency stops rail construction, it can afford to place more buses in service on the elevated Harbor transitway. Existing rail rights of way, including tunnels, can be retrofitted for use as exclusive busways. Seattle is providing excellent service in its downtown bus tunnel. Los Angeles can do as well, even better. Buses can be granted priority access to city streets along the Blue Line right of way and elsewhere.
Southern California is fast becoming a leader in the construction, franchising, and operation of toll roads. Tolls can be used to pay for new facilities, but the real payoff is the opportunity they provide for controlling congestion by requiring drivers to pay the cost of the delay they impose on others. An electronically collected toll turns price into a lever for managing level of service.
Electronic toll collection is not the only technological fix available. Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) focus on expanding the capacity available from the existing transportation network. ITS includes many speculative elements, but also accounts for a number of nuts and bolts measures that focus on realistic system management options. The innovations provided by ITS are difficult to deploy, but may be simplest for public transit systems. The subsidies used to prop up public transit could just as easily be used to underwrite deployment of new technologies for transit.
Better yet, entrepreneurs should be allowed to enter the transit market and compete with the MTA, allowing the Authority to remain a public entity, but forcing it to accept the discipline imposed by market decisions. Many MTA services could be privatized to reduce cost and improve service. If the fare box is the only source of revenue available, then configuring service to capture fares becomes the order of the day.
At the very least, the MTA should proceed aggressively to meet its consent decree obligations to the Bus Riders Union and expand bus service. It should stop manipulating the definitions of funding categories to facilitate more rail expenditures, and it should vigorously fund construction of more High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) and High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes.