Measure M is one of the most promising ballot measures to pass in Los Angeles County in recent years. It offers $120 billion in long-term sales tax revenue to fund transportation projects — the kind of money that can help transform mobility in the region.
But the money brings perils, too, which I describe in a Los Angeles Times op-ed today:
If history is any guide, L.A. transit leaders have a habit of prioritizing politically expedient projects over ones that would benefit more riders. Faced with NIMBY opposition, our leaders too often cave.
Just look at the Expo Line from downtown L.A. to Santa Monica, a route that remains hampered by slow travel times after transit leaders failed to give the train priority over automobiles along city streets. Additionally, failure to push through with adequate development projects along the route denied this expensive rail technology an easy ridership boost.
Will transportation leaders similarly compromise away good Measure M projects until they go bad?
To answer this question, it’s important to understand what a “good” project entails. Cost-effectiveness — using the fewest dollars to move the most people the greatest distance — is key. Projects should attract maximal ridership, based on existing population, job density and service quality. Potential ridership, based on the feasibility of building more housing, retail and offices within walking distance of stations, is another crucial determinant. (The failure of the anti-growth Measure S in the recent L.A. election adds even more weight to this component.) Finally, projects should maximize reductions in overall driving miles, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
The piece details some immediate tests facing Metro leaders and offers recommendations to ensure that they make smart decisions. The long-term future of LA in many ways will be determined by these short-term actions.
The one area where political observers thought Democrats could work with Trump is on infrastructure spending. Even Governor Brown, who got a lot of attention for savaging Trump right after the election, submitted a wish-list of projects he was hoping would get federal support, particularly high speed rail.
Trump could certainly use a big legislative achievement, and most Republicans are unlikely to go along with infrastructure spending, either because it will increase the deficit or require tax increases. So he’d rely on working with Democrats.
But at the same time, Trump wants to fulfill his promise to build a border wall on the U.S. border with Mexico. And if he doesn’t get money to build it through other means, it’s likely he would include it in an infrastructure bill.
Not so fast, says Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer. In a letter to the senate majority leader, he warned against its inclusion in a budget bill or else it would risk a government shutdown, per Politico. And if it’s not in a budget bill, it may reappear in an infrastructure proposal.
Of course, a faster way to kill the wall might be to get some libertarian groups like the Pacific Legal Foundation to sue over the wall route, where it runs through private property. I know that’s an issue in state like Texas, where the wall would bisect some properties.
So far though, Trump seems like very much the political novice he claims to be, having campaigned on promises that are hard to achieve in practice. His unorthodox style got him an upset political win, but it remains to be seen if it’s actually going to work in the difficult process of getting major legislation passed. And the infrastructure bill seems like just one of those tests.
It was only a matter of time. Once Republicans swept the election in November, they were likely to start using federal transportation funds to kill urban transportation projects. Not only do Republicans tend to dislike public funding for any form of non-car-related transportation, but most transit systems are in Democratic urban strongholds, giving Republicans little incentive to spend dollars there.
California’s high speed rail project is apparently the first up in their crosshairs. Even though state voters approved the system in 2008 and have been largely funding it themselves, what little dollars from the federal government to support the system are now in jeopardy.
Case in point: right before this past holiday weekend, congressional Republicans succeeded in getting the new transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, to effectively kill funding for Caltrain electrification.
The Caltrain project actually has little to do with high speed rail, although eventually high speed rail could use the upgraded tracks to serve San Francisco. But in the meantime, electrifying the popular commuter rail between Silicon Valley and San Francisco would decrease travel times and air pollution and increase capacity, providing a huge benefit to the technology breadbasket of the country, while generating jobs from contractors and suppliers around the country.
The federal government under Obama had already agreed in principle to help fund the line with a $647 million transportation grant, with high speed rail funds used to help support the state’s contribution to the project. But then 13 Republican members of congress wrote Chao a letter demanding that the grant be halted until a full audit of the high speed rail system could occur.
Chao complied on Friday, proving that the administration is keen to play politics with transportation dollars and keep them away from urban areas.
Perhaps most galling for Bay Area residents, Congressman Kevin McCarthy, a leading critic of high speed rail from Bakersfield, wrote an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle full of hypocrisy:
We should work to unwind the messy and unworkable high-speed rail project, and instead try to direct more funds to modernizing needed transit and infrastructure projects — up and down the valley and the coast, in and out of downtown Los Angeles, and along Bay Area commuter corridors.
Which is of course exactly what the high speed rail money would have done with this project.
Meanwhile, the Bay Area’s business community had tried to lobby McCarthy not to hold up the funds, at a fundraiser on February 9th. As Matier and Ross report in the San Francisco Chronicle:
“He [McCarthy] said he supported electrification of Caltrain, but said the problem was that the $647 million was commingled with high-speed rail money and that the line would be used by high-speed rail,” said Bay Area Council President Jim Wunderman.
As for McCarthy’s argument against high-speed rail?
“Same as it has always been,” Wunderman said. “Too costly. It’s not really high-speed rail.”
The move by the feds won’t kill high speed rail though:
Dan Richard, chairman of the state’s High-Speed Rail Authority, said that if McCarthy and the other 13 California House Republicans were out to kill bullet trains, they picked the wrong target.
“The business plan allows us to stop at San Jose,” Richard said. “If McCarthy is trying to blow us up, Caltrain was collateral damage.”
But the message is clear: until Republicans lose power in Washington DC, California is on its own in funding vital transportation infrastructure like high speed rail.
Last year, the Los Angeles Times made a lot of waves when it ran a piece decrying falling transit ridership. They used what I called a misleading chart to make the decline look worse than it really was.
Now the paper is back with more disheartening news about Los Angeles transit ridership, from transportation reporter Laura Nelson:
Trips taken on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s sprawling bus and rail system dropped again in 2016, by nearly 6%, driven by a continuing slide in bus ridership, according to agency data.
Although year-to-year ridership changes are worth noting, the bigger issue is how Metro has fared over time, said Michael Manville, a professor of urban planning at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs.
Since 2009, Metro has opened four new rail extensions at a cost of more than $4 billion. In the same period, rail ridership soared 21%, but bus trips — a much larger share of overall ridership — dropped 18%.
Subway and light-rail boardings rose 4.4%, bolstered by the debut of the Gold Line and Expo Line extensions. But those gains did not cancel out a decline in annual bus ridership, which fell 8.9% to 304 million — the lowest in more than a decade.
While it was a bit easy to dismiss last year’s article, at this point I think we’ve reached the point of worry.
So what gives?
Surprisingly, no one seems to have any firm answers. The theories range from weak transit performance on on-time arrivals, poor overall service (convenience of the routes and time spent waiting), passenger fears about safety, a stronger economy that encourage more people to drive, drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants, and the rise of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.
To be sure, this is a national trend on transit ridership, as is the trend of increasing vehicle miles traveled.
If I had to guess, I would venture that two trends loom largest: the growing economy and the rise of Uber and Lyft.
With nationwide vehicle miles traveled increasing, it seems likely that much of that driving is coming at the expense of transit ridership. With a robust economy, more people can afford to purchase cars and the gasoline to fuel them.
But the rise of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft should not be understated. Anecdotally, I hear about bus riders who can cost-effectively take Uber Pool or Lyft Line to their destinations, saving a huge amount of time in the process if they live far from their jobs and have to transfer multiple times (or catch the bus at non-commute hours when the waits are long).
For low-income people, particularly those on hourly wages, that time savings can quickly equate to badly needed increases in earnings from more hours worked.
But all is not lost for transit investments. As I wrote last year in an op-ed for the Times, transit agencies still have plenty of options. The big three:
- Encourage the building of more homes and offices within walking distance of transit stops
- Reduce fares
- Focus on building bus-only lanes on major boulevards and highways
Honestly, transit agencies should be doing these things anyway. Maybe the alarm bells about falling transit ridership will finally give them the political motivation they need to start implementing.
Two weeks ago I had an opportunity to discuss the history of Los Angeles Metro Rail in a presentation at UCLA, sponsored by UCLA’s Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, Department of History, and Institute of Transportation Studies.
For those who couldn’t attend (or did attend and want to relive the magic), a video recording is now available, albeit with shaky audio the first 12 minutes or so:
And for a written description, UCLA News ran an article describing the talk last week.
Of course for the long version, I recommend reading the book.
The one place California should be building high speed rail immediately is between Los Angeles and San Diego. As I’ve blogged before, the two big cities are too close to fly and too painful to drive conveniently, due to traffic. That makes them perfect for high speed rail. The line would likely be the most lucrative of any in the state.
So of course it’s slated to be the last line built in the statewide high speed rail plan. But transportation researcher Alon Levy makes a case in Voice of San Diego that the current line could be upgraded relatively inexpensively, given new federal rules that allow lighter European trains to run on U.S. tracks:
This means that the region needs to invest in electrifying the corridor from San Diego to Los Angeles, and potentially as far north as San Luis Obispo. Between San Diego and Los Angeles, the likely cost – based on the California high-speed rail electrification cost – is about $800 million.
The benefits are considerable. Electric trains emit no local pollution, while diesel is an unusually dirty fuel, contributing to Southern California’s poor air quality. New EPA rules, the Tier 4 standards, have required rail agencies in the U.S. to buy cleaner-burning diesel locomotives. The Pacific Surfliner has recently bought Tier 4-compliant locomotives, but many intercity and commuter rail routes around the country are interested in such trains, so they could likely fetch a good price by selling them now on the second-hand market. While these locomotives are cleaner than the legacy ones they replace, they are almost as heavy, and are unsuitable for a fast operation.
Levy also recommends specific track upgrades, such as running trains along I-5 to avoid Miramar Hill, which slows down the trains considerably as they wind up it. Ultimately, with these improvements, train times between the cities could clock in at less than two hours — competitive with driving even without traffic. And with full high-speed rail service, the estimated travel time would be closer to 1 hour and 20 minutes.
Local leaders in the three affected Southern California counties should act immediately to invest in these upgrades. A multi-county bond issue could probably provide the sufficient dollars, and I’m guessing it could get public support with the right campaign.
Meanwhile, the benefits for the local rail transit systems in the two cities would be immense. Passengers getting off the high-speed trains in Union Station would be more likely to hop on a Metro Rail train to Pasadena, Long Beach, Hollywood or Santa Monica, while train passengers in San Diego could take the trolley around the region, boosting ridership on both systems.
The upgrade is really a no-brainer when it comes to boosting train service. It will just take the political will and the dollars needed to finance it.
With so much transit news happening in Los Angeles, I’m pleased to be speaking tonight at UCLA on “The Past and Future of L.A’s Metro Rail.” The talk is sponsored by the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, Department of Public Policy, and Department of History.
As I blogged about in announcing the event, you can register for the event here. However, the room appears to be filled. But if you are unable to attend in person or could not get in off the registration list, you can now sign up for a live recording of the talk.
For those of you who can attend, I look forward to seeing you tonight and talking rail (and if you bring a copy of Railtown, I’ll be happy to sign it for you!).
After just passing a landmark sales tax measure in November to boost transit investments, Los Angeles now risks throwing all that progress out the window this March.
Local NIMBYs have placed Measure S (as in “Sucky”) on the ballot then, in order to effectively stick the city in formaldehyde to benefit current property owners. They claim it will save the city from an “overdevelopment” housing boom and corruption of City Hall leaders by developers.
Far from experiencing a housing boom, Los Angeles is almost 30 years into a prolonged housing slump.
Data from the American Community Survey shows that between 1940 and 1990, L.A. built between 150,000 and 250,000 homes each decade. In the decades since, we’ve averaged fewer than 100,000. The 2010-2019 decade isn’t looking any better. As of 2015, only 13% of the city’s housing stock was built after 1990.
He notes property owners have an incentive to clamp down on supply through this initiative:
A 2015 report by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office claims that L.A. County built 1 million fewer homes than were needed to keep housing prices in line with average U.S. growth rates over the past 30 years. The latest data from the Census Bureau puts L.A.’s rental vacancy rates at historic lows of less than 3%, which has empowered landlords to raise rents on existing homes and has driven up the cost of new development. Of the most crowded 1% of census tracts in the U.S., about half are in L.A. County. These are the symptoms of a housing shortage, not an oversupply.
Some might argue that the problem isn’t too little construction, it’s just that L.A. is full up. We’ve run up against the mountains, the ocean and neighboring jurisdictions. But in reality, a city is only full when it chooses to be, and bad luck to anyone who doesn’t already own property when that choice is made.
Meanwhile, he cites Seattle as a city that is building smart around transit. As a result, it’s largely been able to stabilize rents through targeted density.
It will be a shame if this measure passes and dooms future generations in the region to stifling housing costs or long commutes, all while turning Los Angeles into a third world-style bastion of inequality, as only the wealthy can afford homes. I hope that reality never comes to pass, but it will take defeating this measure in March to prevent it.
For those in Los Angeles, I’ll be giving an evening talk on Wednesday, January 25th on the past and future of Metro Rail, based on my book Railtown. The event is hosted by UCLA’s Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies and will take place from 5:00 – 6:30pm in Room 5391 of the Public Affairs Building. It’s co-sponsored by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, Department of History, and Institute of Transportation Studies. More information and registration is available on UCLA’s event page. I’ll have book copies available for sale and to sign. Hope you can attend!
And speaking of Railtown and UCLA, I’m belatedly sharing this 2016 review of the book by UCLA assistant professor of urban planning Michael Manville in the Journal of Planning Education and Research. Manville starts with some compliments:
This is a good book. Anyone who thinks they might like it probably will. Elkind is a talented writer and synthesizer of information, and the story itself is one that (for transportation nerds, at least) has long begged to be told. Elkind has scoured the archives and interviewed many of the participants in his story. I have lived in LA for more than ten years, studied transportation there, and rode many of its trains, and I still learned a lot reading Railtown.
However, he also offers some pointed critiques:
The book’s great weakness, to me, is that it takes rail’s necessity as a given. In doing so, Railtown assumes away the great unanswered question of modern rail: Why do we want it? What problem does it solve? There are times in Railtown…where rail seems almost an end in itself. Any proper city has rail, so rail is successful when we successfully build it. But in a city with scarce resources and vast needs, that is no way to justify enormous public expenditures.
It’s ironic to read this complaint because it is the exact mindset that I criticized early rail leaders for having in promoting rail. For me, rail is a necessity for Los Angeles because it provides the best transportation infrastructure around which to channel future growth in the city (with the big unanswered question as to whether or not local leaders will allow that growth to happen). Otherwise, future growth will either be disorganized and stuck in urban gridlock or pushed out as car-dependent sprawl. And at the densities that Los Angeles would need to build new housing to meet market demand and accommodate existing and future residents, only rail can efficiently move those large numbers of people (again, assuming the density comes to fruition).
It’s also worth mentioning that a corridor like along Wilshire Boulevard already has the density needed to support rail and is a prime candidate for such a project as-is, just given the existing conditions there.
Manville then continues with the critique that rail won’t address the region’s underlying transportation challenges:
More train riding is not the same as less driving. Why should LA (or any city) descend into debt to subsidize rail when it could just stop subsidizing cars? Angelinos drive as much as they do because their government routinely widens roads, requires parking with every new development, and most of all lets drivers use the city’s freeways and arterials—some of the most valuable land in the United States—for free. The projects described in Railtown are distractions from, not solutions to, these problems.
I wholeheartedly agree with Manville on this point. If the goal is to reduce traffic congestion, rail is not the answer, and I never make that claim in the book. The preferred solutions for addressing the traffic problem in Los Angeles would involve congestion pricing and ending subsidies for driving, as Manville describes.
But there’s no reason why the region can’t do both: build alternatives to driving like rail transit and also stop subsidizing auto driving. In fact, both are needed simultaneously, and I don’t see any evidence that rail distracted the public from these other solutions. The reality is that rail is the politically easier thing to do, so it gets done first. But subsidies for autos will be easier to remove once there is a viable alternative in place, so rail could provide the conditions necessary to earn public support for the steps Manville envisions. After all, San Francisco was able to stop subsidizing cars and become a “transit-first” city only after it developed a robust transit system, which included BART.
Big transit news in Los Angeles from the outgoing Obama Administration: the federal government is giving L.A. Metro $1.6 billion to build the second phase of the Wilshire Boulevard subway to downtown Beverly Hills and Century City. The money is mostly in the form of a grant but also includes a $300 million loan.
This rail project is the most important in Southern California — if not the western United States — given the densely populated nature of this corridor (most dense west of the Mississippi River). The project has languished for decades due to political resistance from those living along the corridor as well as the high price tag for a subway, as I documented in my book Railtown. That resistance has finally been overcome due to frustration with traffic and pro-transit demographic changes in Los Angeles County.
As Metro’s The Source blog describes:
•The money is for the 2.6-mile second phase of the Purple Line Extension that will run between Wilshire/La Cienega Station and Century City. Two stations are included in the second section: Wilshire/Rodeo in downtown Beverly Hills and Century City at the corner of Avenue of the Stars and Constellation Boulevard.
•The first section of the Purple Line Extension is under construction and will run for 3.9 miles between Wilshire/Western Station and Wilshire/La Cienga with stations at Wilshire/La Brea, Wilshire/Fairfax and Wilshire/La Cienega.
According to Los Angeles Times reporter Laura Nelson, Metro CEO Phil Washington also just made a big promise about finishing the entire line to Westwood/UCLA quickly, given the recent passage of Measure M by L.A. County voters:
Metro CEO Phil Washington: “Our plan is to do the entire Purple Line before the Olympics. … If it doesn’t happen by 2024, you can fire me.”
— Laura J. Nelson (@laura_nelson) January 4, 2017
It’s good news for the region for this long-overdue project. And it’s also important to keep in mind that this is partly about Los Angeles getting its tax dollars back from the federal government. Californians pay more in federal taxes than they receive, so it’s nice to see that money coming back for much-needed infrastructure. Let’s hope the new congress and administration keep that in mind when they consider federal spending going forward.
Transit advocates will now need to ensure that the project gets built quickly and under budget. The hundreds of thousands of commuters and residents along the corridor deserve it, and the rest of the region deserves not to have cost overruns sap funds for other needed projects.
But in the meantime, it’s an announcement worth celebrating, especially as a parting gift from an outgoing, transit-friendly presidential administration.