Pros and Cons of Expanding Transit

It’s hard to even keep track of all the different projects that the MTA is working on throughout the county. New rail lines are being constructed, old ones are being expanded, and improvements are being made to increase safety and ease of use. The photos below represent just some of the projects that are currently under construction.

In Little Tokyo, work is beginning on the Regional Connector. This will be a 1.9-mile underground light-rail system that connects the Gold Line to the 7th Street/Metro Station. It will also make it easier for passengers to transfer to the Red, Purple, Blue and Expo Lines.

First and Central, future site of a stop for the Regional Connector

First and Central, future site of a stop for the Regional Connector

Material and equipment stored on the site at First and Central

Material and equipment stored on the site at First and Central

Construction on the Crenshaw/LAX Line started last year. This will be 8.5 miles of light rail running from the Expo Line to the Green Line, with below-grade, at-grade and elevated segments.

Crenshaw/LAX Line construction site at Crenshaw and Exposition

Crenshaw/LAX Line construction site at Crenshaw and Exposition

Another shot of the site from Crenshaw and Rodeo

Another shot of the site from Crenshaw and Rodeo

This project could provide a huge boost to businesses along the line, although there are already signs that it could encourage gentrification which may drive long-time residents and business owners out of the area. Click on the link below to see what may be in store for the community once the line is finished.

Plan to Turn BHCP into a 24-Hour Community

There are smaller projects going forward, too. In North Hollywood, a subterranean tunnel will connect the Red Line station to the Orange Line station just across the street. This is a great idea, and hopefully will reduce the number of riders dashing across Lankershim against red lights in order to make a connection.

Construction of subterranean tunnel in North Hollywood

Construction of subterranean tunnel in North Hollywood

Another shot of construction at the North Hollywood site

Another shot of construction at the North Hollywood site

The photos below are a few months old, but they show MTA crews working on the Purple Line expansion at Wilshire and Fairfax. By day, traffic flowed through the intersection as usual. But at night, construction crews would show up with barricades, heavy machinery and blinding lights. This project highlights the problems of constructing a major transit line in a dense urban area.

Crews working through the night at Wilshire and Fairfax

Crews working through the night at Wilshire and Fairfax

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and Fairfax

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and Fairfax

All this sounds great in theory, but this kind of rapid expansion brings plenty of problems with it. I don’t have a car, so I use public transit almost every day. If you ask a simple question like, “Are you glad that the MTA is expanding its transit network?”, I can give you a simple answer like, “Yes.” But if you ask, “What long-term impacts will this expansion have on the City of LA?”, the answers are much more complicated.

In my mind, the biggest thing to worry about is whether or not we can afford all these projects. The MTA is facing a long-term budget shortfall, which could seriously impact its ability to function. Last year they raised the cost of the day pass and the monthly pass by 40% and 30% respectively. But there are almost certainly more increases to come, and it’s uncertain whether riders will pay the higher prices. Here’s an article that LA Streetsblog published in January of this year. It explains that while last year’s fare increase brought revenue up, it may have brought ridership down. If that trend continues, we’re in deep trouble.

MTA Revenue Up, Ridership Down

The MTA is receiving tons of federal funding for these projects, but those funds depend not just on increasing ridership, but also on increasing the share of operating costs covered by fares. If we see a decrease in ridership and/or revenue, we may not be able to count on the money from the feds.

Some people will point to the fact that the LA City Council just voted for a huge increase in the minimum wage, saying that this will enable low-income riders to afford future fare hikes. I don’t buy it. First, the cost of living in LA is increasing at a phenomenal rate. The amount we spend on housing is skyrocketing, DWP rates could easily double or triple, and food is getting more expensive as the impacts of the drought become more pronounced. A significant rise in the cost of public transit will be just one more blow to the bank accounts of minimum wage workers. And there are thousands of MTA riders who don’t even earn minimum wage. LA is the wage theft capitol of the country. Lots of people who work in the restaurant and garment industries are already being paid below the minimum, not to mention the undocumented workers who will take whatever they can get. Many of these people need public transit to get around, and none of them will earn a nickel more after the minimum wage rises.

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t extend the reach of public transit, but I do question whether this massive expansion is sustainable. I guess all we can do is wait and see.

4 thoughts on “Pros and Cons of Expanding Transit

  1. Not only can LA afford its mass transit expansion, its voters gave their over-2/3 majority support in 2008 to finance it. Measure R is providing the bulk of the funding for the Expo 2, Gold Line, Regional Connector, Crenshaw/LAX, and Purple Line extensions. It also is providing billions to freeway expansion, including the I-5 widening project between the I-605 and border with Orange County, which is infamous for traffic back-ups, and the recently-completed HOV lane on the I-405. The generosity of LA voters is making all this possible, and the federal government has been upping its own support of these efforts because our local region is providing so much funding to them.

    Regarding Metro’s operating shortfall, that’s not helped when they add new rail lines, but the funding for operations and for construction are completely, legally separated by dictates in Measure R and federal and state government grants and loans. The operating deficit that Metro faces is not unique to LA and is something that has driven all transit agencies, from NYC to Chicago to DC to Boston, to raise fares in the past couple years. In progressively-minded SF, Muni’s fares are now indexed to inflation and no longer subject to the votes and public hearings that are standard for most regions, like ours. Metro’s structural deficit is not so much a function of its expansion as it is of rising wage and benefit costs that are not covered by revenues that are pretty static.

    If you ever want to go down that rabbit hole in more detail, Metro has posted budget information on its blog, The Source. It can be confusing to people just learning about it for the first time, but it is important to understand when next fare increases are up for discussion (and they will be, because the cost of everything keeps increasing).

    • Thanks for your comment, Luke. Maybe I wasn’t clear in my post, but I do realize that the funding for operations and construction are separate. I understand that the current expansion is being paid for by Measure R and other sources. But the fact remains that this massive expansion of our transit system will lead to a massive increase in operating costs. As you mentioned, fare hikes are inevitable, and I think this could be a problem. On the average, the transit ridership in LA is considerably poorer than the transit ridership in New York or San Francisco. Ridership in LA fell after the last round of rate hikes, and I’m concerned that this trend will continue with future rate hikes. Even if raising rates manages to cover the deficit (which I doubt), it seems likely that it will limit access to public transit for low income riders. Also, if ridership continues to fall, it could endanger federal funding.

      I don’t have a car and depend on public transit for almost every trip I make. I’m not against expanding our system, but I question the wisdom of such an ambitious expansion when it’s clear that the MTA is already having trouble maintaining the current system. I hope I’m wrong, but I feel like the MTA has bitten off more than it can chew. But I appreciate hearing your perspective. Thanks again for commenting.

      • Glad you’re in the know. 🙂
        The challenge, regionally, is how we create a more multi-modal system. Lots of people may still drive for work, but that’s only a handful of the trips that people make (like one-sixth of all their trips). So, for the rest of their trips that may have more flexibility, are we providing them with amenities, like nearby grocery stores, bike facilities, user-friendly sidewalks, and housing that’s close to these and other services? Metro is a massive agency that can only do so much. But the more LA thinks about transportation as moving *people* (as opposed to *cars*) and about trips having multiple purposes (as opposed to just *commutes*), the more that things like transit, biking, etc. have a role to play. And all of that gives people choices, supports our local businesses, and leads to a more sustainable future for our city. Transit is a big piece of that, and it’s more sustainable when we comprehend and support its role in creating a more sustainable city.

  2. No argument there. Hopefully as public transit expands, and other modes of transportation become viable options, Angelenos will start to realize that they don’t need cars to get around.

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