Death by a Thousand Cuts

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Not too long ago I was riding the bus and saw a pamphlet on display. The title was Public Hearing on Proposed Service Changes. Even before I picked it up, I more or less knew what it was about. The “service changes” are mostly service cuts, yet another round of reductions by the MTA.

This isn’t surprising. Last I checked, the MTA was running an operating deficit of over $30 million a year, and that deficit will continue to grow. One solution would be to raise fares, but the last time they did that there was a decline in ridership. Of course, ridership has been going down for a while now. Some argue that the decline may be reversable, and point to the rail extensions that are currently under construction. New rail stops will bring new riders, but they will also increase operating costs. And actually, fares don’t nearly cover what it takes to run the system. I really doubt that increased ridership from these extensions will make a serious difference in the budget picture.

There’s no simple solution here. While I’m not happy about further cutbacks, I know Metro is probably doing the best they can to balance their budget under challenging circumstances. But I’ve gotta say, it’s getting harder and harder to get around LA on public transit. A number of the lines I use regularly run only once an hour. The Rapid busses, which were great to start with, don’t run as often as they used to. I don’t read when I ride the bus, but I’ve started taking a book with me when I’m going somewhere because I never know how long I’ll be waiting to make a connection.

What I’m leading up to here, is that I’m really starting to question the MTA’s long term strategy. For years now we’ve been told that we need to invest in rail to solve our transit problems. Well, we’ve built a lot of rail, and things don’t seem to be getting any better. Looking at the budget issues and the trend in ridership, I don’t believe the rail we’re building now is going to make a huge difference. At some point we have to ask ourselves if this approach is working.

That brings us to Measure R2, the ballot initiative we’ll be voting on in November, which will increase the sales tax to raise billions for transit. About 40% of the projected revenue will go to rail projects, and looking at the results we’ve gotten from rail so far, I’m increasingly skeptical about whether this is the right way to go. Trains are great if you’re travelling in a straight line from point A to point B, but as soon as you get away from that straight line, things start getting complicated. Rail works great in New York, where the system is centered on a very dense urban core. LA is much more spread out, and even though Downtown is attracting more residents and businesses, it doesn’t function as the City’s center the way Manhattan does. There are those who argue we need to build high density hubs along transit lines, which sounds good, but City Hall has been pushing that policy for years and it’s not producing the promised results. Transit ridership is down. If our leaders had pursued a policy of building affordable housing that would make job centers easily accessible by rail, it might be a different story. But renting near rail stops is pretty pricey. A studio at Noho Commons goes for $1,777. Digs at the Jefferson in Hollywood start at $2,238. And I don’t know what they’ll be charging at the Wilshire Grand, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be more than the average transit rider can afford.

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Measure R2 will deliver other things besides rail, and I don’t want to say I’m opposed to it, but at this point I can’t say I’ll vote yes. It seems like there are others who have doubts as well. This post on StreetsBlog breaks down the MTA’s 2016 budget, and raises some important issues. The comments are worth reading, too.

A Preview of Metro’s $5.6 Billion Fiscal Year 2016 Budget from StreetsBlog LA

I also came across this article in the Daily News that talks about how the Valley has gotten less than its share of transit infrastructure in the past, and how leaders on that side of town are worried about getting shortchanged again with R2. One of the points the author makes is that with big infrastructure projects, the longer they’re delayed, the more expensive they become.

What the Valley Would Get, and Not Get, in New Transportation Tax from Daily News

LA County is promoting R2 in order to fund a massive expansion of our rail network. Basically I’m asking if rail is really worth the money, time and trouble. Busses are much cheaper and much more flexible. Also, investing in busses won’t saddle the MTA with a huge debt load the way these infrastructure projects will. Debt service already accounts for a significant portion of the agency’s budget, and expanding the rail lines will make that burden even heavier.

You’re going to be hearing a lot about R2 in the coming months. City, County and State officials are already making an aggressive push to promote it. Again, I’m not saying I oppose it, but as you listen to our elected officials give their spiel, ask yourself if our public transit policy is taking us in the right direction. And if not, is it time to change course?

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