Recently, Reason.tv released the video "17 Miles in Just 78 Minutes! Light Rail vs. Reality in LA," in which comedian Watt Smith took Los Angeles’ light-rail system from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Burbank. Smith interviewed passengers, whose observations and opinions were supplemented by “pop-up” speech balloons introducing facts about the true costs of operating the light-rail system.
Steve Hymon at Metro, the city’s mass transit system, has taken exception to the video and posted a lengthy critique of the video titled “Reason Foundation thumbs its nose at Metro; we thumb back!”
I’m happy to engage MTA’s arguments. Hymon’s claims are below in italics.
“The Reason Foundation [which publishes Reason.tv is a] long-time critics of rail mass transit.”
It’s absolutely true that Reason has been critical of rail mass transit for having costs that far exceed its benefits and ridership. But we have been supportive of more efficient and effective mass transit systems such as bus rapid transit systems. See here, here and here, for examples.
“It’s about 29 miles by road—not 17—from LAX to downtown Burbank, according to most of the maps that I consulted.”
The trip was not by road, it was by light rail. Rail proponents like to say rail is not bound to existing road patterns and can connect important locations. The distance the man wanted to cover was 17 miles.
"To the dude in the video: if you seriously got from the LAX terminals to Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank using only buses and rail in 78 minutes, then you’re some kind of Jedi Knight of mass transit. That’s more like a two-hour trip — owing in part to the bus between LAX and the Green Line’s Aviation station."
So Metro thinks he got there too quickly and his trip should have taken longer? Is this supposed to make Metro look good?
“[The video suggests] that light rail is less energy efficient than cars…that’s hardly an undisputed fact and there are other considerations such as pollution. The federal government has found that transit produces a significantly less greenhouse gases than single-occupancy vehicles. Here’s a good report.”
In the video we talked about energy efficiency. Cars use less energy than does light rail─3,445 BTUs per passenger mile vs. 3,465 (that is the amount of energy each mode uses on average to move a passenger one mile). Check out the Transportation Energy Data Book from the Department of Energy if you want more details. In terms of greenhouse gasses, light rail does emit slightly less per passenger mile than does driving alone, but the average cost of providing transit people will get out of their cars for is over $4,000 per ton of CO2 reduced (see here). The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change established $50 per ton as a reasonable cost per ton to reduce CO2 emissions. For a nice summary of the data on both energy use and greenhouse gas emissions from rail transit vs. driving, see here.
"Transit is heavily subsidized — in Los Angeles County and elsewhere. The correct figures: Metro currently subsidizes on average 72 percent of a bus fare and about 76 percent of a rail fare. See page 64 of this year’s adopted budget."
Hymon is right that Metro is heavily subsidized by taxpayers who don’t use it and never will. In the video we used figures calculated in dollars, not percents, and included the cost to build the light system, not just the costs of operating it, to make the same point--riders of the transit system pay a small percentage of the actual costs of their ride.
Does Metro seriously believe that passenger rail would exist in its current form in L.A. if rail riders were forced to pay the full costs of their trips? Contrast that with auto drivers, where there are some subsidies, but where drivers pay the vast majority of the cost of their ride through gas taxes and other associated fees plus the cost and maintenance of their vehicles. Reason has long supported congestion pricing and toll roads that force users to pay the full price of their transportation choices. It is much easier to envision an L.A. highway system that is entirely user-funded than it is to envision a self-supporting rail system in the region. For an analysis of this complex and controversial question, see here.