L.A. Metro's Light Rail Arguments Off-Track

MTA blog explains (inadvertently) why Los Angeles has nation's worst travel time


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.

"We can confirm the video's keen observation that trains are more crowded during rush hour. However, the trains don't run all night, as the cute thought bubble alleges."

One of the pop-ups says the train "runs all day and night at much lower capacity." That's a bit vague, for sure. It would have been better to simply note that non-rush hour trains run throughout the day with very few passengers.

"A new 40-foot CNG(compressed natural gas)-powered bus costs about $450,000 and a new 60-foot CNG bus about $750,000 — not the $300,000 figure shown in those clever bubbles!"

The video's producers relied on a 2007 Federal Transit Administration report that said a new transit bus cost around $320,000 to $340,000. They assumed that, buses, like cars, would be getting relatively cheaper over time. Maybe market efficiency bringing about lower prices doesn't apply to government bus purchases.

More to the point is the larger claim in the video: "For $50 million of the $5.15 billion the MTA plans to spend on expanding a Wilshire Blvd. rail line, it could almost double the fleet of buses." Depending on the cost of those buses, that would come to between 111 and 166 new buses. Either way you count it, you could still get a lot of new buses for a small fraction of the cost of extending that one rail line. That was our point.

"It's totally fair to question how much bang taxpayers get for the bucks they invest in any type of transit, rail included. But chew on this: if we got rid of the rail system in L.A. and put everyone on buses and put more buses on local streets and freeways, is there anyone that really thinks traffic or transit would improve?"

If you simply eliminate rail and don't do anything else, no, traffic wouldn't get better. But who is suggesting that? If L.A. spends its money wisely, or better yet, partners with the private sector so they'll help pay to build a network of variably-priced toll lanes that are guaranteed to be free flowing at all times, including rush hours, you can offer express bus service that reduces commute times and is dramatically cheaper than rail.

Census data showed 6.2 percent of Los Angeles area workers used transit to get to work in 2009. The number was a decline from 6.4 percent in 2008. But transit gets nearly 60 percent of the region's transportation money!

A 2006 Reason study showed the problem of giving too much of the region's transportation money to modes of transportation that aren't carrying the vast majority of workers:

Los Angeles has the nation's worst Travel Time Index (TTI), 1.75. This means that driving times during LA's peak traffic are 75 percent longer than during off-peak times. In 2030, LA is still expected to have the nation's worst traffic, with the TTI increasing to 1.94 and travel times during peak hours increasing to 94 percent longer than during off-peak hours.

Los Angeles could significantly reduce congestion and have room for the expected growth by adding nearly 3,700 new lane-miles by 2030 at an estimated cost of $67.7 billion, in today's dollars. That's a cost of $192.22 per resident each year. This investment would save a whopping one billion hours each year that Angelenos now lose sitting in traffic, at a cost of $2.62 per delay-hour saved.

While $67.7 billion may sound like an unattainably large investment, it is actually just 58.7 percent of the planned transportation spending under the long-range plans of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), which is the Los Angeles area's Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). Those plans call for $115.4 billion over the next 25 years—$48.5 billion on highway improvements and $66.9 billion on mass transit. While some of the planned highway improvement funding may be used for capacity expansion, the majority is often allocated to preserving, maintaining, and operating the highway system. About 4.7 percent of the LA labor force now uses mass transit to commute. And yet, transit accounts for 58 percent of the area's planned spending over the next 25 years.

What's most amazing – read: depressing – is that despite spending all that money on transit through 2030, L.A. didn't expect transit's share of commuters to rise significantly. Thus it will have more people on roads sitting in even worse traffic jams because it has spent 60 percent of its transportation dollars on a mode of transportation used by less than 10 percent of the region.

Which underscores the video's main point: Spending the lion's share of the region's transportation money over the last 20 years on a light rail system has been a failure. Metro's budget far exceeds its value. And for the vast majority of L.A. workers, light rail is still a lousy way to make a typical trip. No matter how much spin the MTA puts on, there's no getting around that.

Adrian Moore is Vice President at the Reason Foundation and co-author of Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive Twenty-first Century (2008).