Los Angeles’ brand new $930 million Exposition light rail line is carrying so few riders and bringing in so little revenue that it will, at best, take 65 years for the train to earn back its capital investment (not including ongoing operating costs). If the project completes its next phase and establishes an at-grade train that runs through heavy street traffic from Downtown L.A. to the city of Santa Monica, it will not pay for its construction for 170 years.
That’s the most optimistic figure Reason can come up with after two days of counting weekday riders on the Expo Line.
The Expo Line opened the first of its planned two stages last weekend, with service beginning at 7th Street Downtown and continuing to the corner of Jefferson and La Cienega Boulevards in the West Adams neighborhood. The University of Southern California's main campus and the Staples Center are both destinations with easy access to the line. If both phases are completed, the full line will stretch 15.2 miles from Downtown to Santa Monica. (Destination map here)
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Although Los Angeles County’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority claims 44,000 people rode the train during a free-ride opening weekend, this figure either dropped rapidly once the Expo Line began weekday service or was vastly inflated. (Weekday transit use is traditionally much higher than weekend use.)
Observed passenger rates indicate the Expo Line is carrying no more than 13,000 people a day. We have inflated our estimate by presuming that all trains, all day, are running at the observed peak ridership of 50 people.
In addition to falling short of the MTA’s reported numbers, actual ridership on the new train is much smaller than it was projected to be prior to the Expo Line’s opening.
A report on the opening weekend gala in the Los Angeles Daily News referred to a projection that the Expo Line would initially carry 27,000 passengers per day. That figure is expected to grow to 64,000 daily passengers per day by 2030. These figures appear to have been extrapolated from MTA claims [pdf], which presume that completing both phases of the project [pdf] will substantially increase ridership.
To reach the 2030 goal of 64,000 riders, each and every train on the Expo Line would need to run at near-total capacity. The three-car Expo train seats approximately 260 people. The MTA’s estimate of frequency indicates the line makes about 130 journeys from West Adams to Downtown per day. We double the number of train journeys per day to account for round trips. We then multiply that number by the seating capacity to derive the following: If every train runs completely full during both peak and off-peak hours, the Expo Line can move approximately 67,600 people per day. This number can be inflated slightly because not all people go the entire length of the trip.
Reason’s Tim Cavanaugh and Scott Shackford rode the Expo Line for its entire length and checked in on performance at platforms and on trains to get an estimate of total ridership. Our finding is that during both peak and off-peak hours, an Expo Line train carries no fewer than 11 and no more than 50 passengers per journey.
To account for the partial-journey variable described above, we counted both people who boarded the train at the start of each journey and people who entered the train on subsequent open-door stops. (Not all train stations are open, and the La Brea and La Cienega stations are open but under construction.)
We made our observations Wednesday and Thursday during peak and off-peak hours. We made exact counts on trains we rode and used best guesses for other trains we observed. Where possible, we made counts based on videos and photos of trains we were not riding ourselves.
Although we documented boardings and paid for tickets on all trains we rode, we cannot verify that any other passenger paid the $1.50 full one-way fare. Several passengers we interviewed were receiving discounts. There also does not appear to be any apparatus in place for preventing fare beaters from riding the train.
It's worth noting that the Expo Line would not be paying for itself even according to the MTA's rosiest projections. Presume that 64,000 people ride the train each day, and that each passenger does what we did and buys two one-way tickets, for a total of $3 per passenger. That's $192,000 of revenue per day and $70 million in revenue a year.