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.
The total projected cost of both phases of the construction of the line is $2.43 billion. At that rate, it will take 34.7 years for the train to collect enough revenue to pay for the cost of construction. And that math only works if the train carries 64,000 full-fare passengers beginning right now rather than in 2030. The Expo Line has been under development since 1990, but the MTA now hopes that it can be paid for with a half-cent sales tax [pdf] approved by voters (for all traffic-relief purposes, not just the Expo Line) in 2008. This tax is expected to raise $30 billion over its 30-year life.
The train's economics do not appear to be promising. How about its performance as a vehicle?
Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne pans the Expo Line's design, accusing it of lacking a Big Metaphorical Idea. This appears to be related to the "empathy" concept expounded by transit seer Darrin Nordahl, who holds that the purpose of mass transit is to provide its users with a sense of meaning.
But Expo riders seemed generally happy with the train, which boasts broad, tall windows and rides quietly.
Nathaniel Cleveland, seen here traveling westbound through the increasingly empty city, has an eight-block walk to the station at Pico Boulevard, but the Expo Line delivers him directly to his job at L.A. County's Museum of Natural History. He says he would be unable to make such a direct trip taking buses.
Cleveland confirms that he has not at any time been in need of a Big Metaphorical Idea and found the Expo Line unable to supply it.
Gerald Hinkson calls the Expo Line a "good value" that "beats the bus." He would like to see the line complete its second phase.
"I'd have to wait a half hour to 45 minutes for the bus," Hinkson says. "The train comes every 12 minutes or so."
One train rider we spoke with was traveling along the sort of very indirect route MTA authorities hope many Los Angeles travelers can be made to accept. Starting from the station at the corner of La Brea and Jefferson Boulevards, student Dean Olivera was traveling due east to Downtown L.A., then transferring to the Red Line subway to take him along a Northwesterly route to Hollywood.
There already is direct north-south bus service between Olivera's two destinations, on the 212/312 line [pdf] that runs up La Brea Boulevard to the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. But Olivera, who is studying to be a sound engineer, says he dislikes crowded buses.
Most of the riders we spoke with had already taken the Expo Line a few times.
During a rush-hour breakdown, one of us (Shackford) experienced a less enthusiastic crowd. Passengers were stuck for more than 30 minutes, in both a sealed car and at the platform, due to what has been reported as a combination of a relay switch malfunction and a stalled train. The mishap was even noticed by the Los Angeles Times, which called the delay "brief." In the end, the trip the length of the line took almost exactly an hour. (Without delays, the Expo Line seems to complete the trip from La Cienega to 7th in about half an hour.)
At no time did we observe any train carrying more than 50 passengers, nor did any train either of us rode carry more than 50 people over the length of its journey.
If asked to guess, we would estimate the average daylight-hours ridership to be 30 people per train.
Security appeared to be light all along the line. During one day's trip the only policing we could confirm was a sheriff's car patrolling the abundant free parking at the Expo Line's La Cienega/Jefferson station. During peak morning hours, however, there were abundant numbers of MTA employees at each platform, sometimes outnumbering the waiting passengers.
The estimate made in the first paragraph, while farcically intended, is in fact based on the most charitable estimates we can square with observed results. We assume every train over the Expo Line's day (which begins at 4 a.m. and continues until 12:30 a.m. the following day) runs with at least 50 passengers, and we also assume that every passenger has paid full fare of $1.50 each way. The Expo Line's observed performance is much lower than either of those assumptions.
The Expo Line will create hazards by running through heavy traffic, according to USC civil engineer Najm Meshkati. The train itself also appears to be affected by the morning traffic. There were many non-platform stops along the morning trip, though it was not clear whether they were related to the mechanical problems the line was experiencing. Although the train did meet its deadline for opening April 28, it's notable that in addition to the MTA employees working at platforms, there are numerous crews in orange vests still working along the entire length of the rail line.
The opening of the Expo Line has already occasioned the closure of many through streets along the train alignment. Some of these closures have clearly been done at the last minute, such as a concrete-slab roadblock on Exposition Boulevard outside the La Brea station. Marked only by taggers, this barrier contains no information from any official entity regarding its purpose, changes to traffic or parking laws, or whether the blockade will be permanent or temporary.
MTA officials tell the local NBC affiliate that "if people follow traffic lights, there will be no problems."