Comparing L.A. Rail With San Francisco Bay Area Rail — Apples & Oranges?

Rong-Gong Lin II at the Los Angeles Times tries to make the case that the Bay Area’s rail system is in decline while L.A.’s rail transit is ascending:

BART’s 44-year-old electric rail system is so decrepit that bay water is seeping into tunnels, ancient power systems surge so much they disable train cars, and even the steel rail itself has cracked and split off during the height of the morning rush hour.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles is in the midst of a major rail system expansion, building so rapidly that Metro’s 105 miles of rail is nearly equivalent to BART’s 107 miles. If two-thirds of voters approve Measure M — which would raise the sales tax by an additional half a penny for every dollar spent — Los Angeles County would see a dramatic expansion of rail over the next 40 years.

At a basic level, it’s hard to argue with the premise of the story: the Bay Area’s rail system is much older than L.A.’s, so the emphasis now is on repair. And yes, L.A. has been on a rail building boom since the passage of 2008’s Measure R.

But it’s otherwise hard to really compare these two regions. For example, it’s misleading to compare Metro’s 105 miles with BART’s 107 miles. The technologies are very different.  Most  of Metro Rail is an at-grade, street-level light rail line more like Muni streetcars in San Francisco. Only the Red/Purple Lines in L.A. are truly BART-like, and they can only accommodate six-car trains, not the ten-car trains with BART, which will limit ridership greatly.

And the current ridership stories are very different, too, with BART surging and LA flat-lining (as the article points out). The reason?  San Francisco has had a lot of job growth in downtown in particular, whereas L.A.’s job growth is disbursed and therefore not always accessible to rail stations.

Finally, the idea discussed in the article that L.A. has an advantage as a single-county transit agency, versus the nine-county Bay Area, strikes me as strange. As I discuss in Railtown, my book on the history of Metro Rail, Los Angeles was hurt by having only one county cover the whole metropolis.  The size and disbursed nature of the region made achieving an electoral consensus on where to site new rail lines almost impossible. In fact, the single-county system of L.A. is probably the biggest reason why the region is a generation behind San Francisco on rail.

But that criticism aside, I think it’s appropriate for L.A. to get excited about the recent progress on rail. But we’ll see what happens with this election: if BART gets its bond passed to fix its system and Measure M fails in Los Angeles, the premise of this story could soon start to fall apart.


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