I Can’t Vote for Measure M

Construction moves forward on MTA's Regional Connector in Little Tokyo.

Construction moves forward on MTA’s Regional Connector in Little Tokyo.

I ride public transit almost every day. I really believe we need to invest in building a better transit system. And I used to think we were doing that, but not any more.

Measure M, the LA County Traffic Improvement Plan, is an ambitious attempt to do a lot of things. By adding another half cent to our sales tax, the County hopes to fund a variety of projects, with a good part of the money going toward enlarging the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s rail system. The MTA has already embarked on an ambitious program of building new rail lines and expanding others. You’d think that would be a good thing, but looking at the facts, I’m really not so sure.

For years now the MTA has been building rail all over LA County. First we got the Red Line and the Purple Line, then the Green, Blue and Gold Lines. The Expo Line was recently extended west, and the Crenshaw/LAX Line is currently under construction. You’d think that with this massive investment in rail, taking public transit would be so easy and fast that everyone would be jumping on board.

But that’s not what’s happening. In fact, transit ridership in LA County is lower than it was 30 years ago. When the LA Times reported this disturbing fact at the beginning of the year, the article sparked a lot of heated discussion. Some claimed that the Times was giving a distorted view. Others looked to the future, saying that stats would get better with time. But in the reading I did, there was one crucial fact that no one commented on. The County’s population has grown by over a million since 1990. To my mind, when you take that into account, there’s only one conclusion you can reach. Our current approach has been a disaster. If the population has grown by more than 10% over the past 30 years, how can we say that a decline in ridership during the same period represents anything but failure.

Another shot of construction on the Regional Connector.

Another shot of construction on the Regional Connector.

There are a lot of different theories floating around as to why ridership hasn’t grown along with the system, and I’m sure there are a number of factors in play. But I think one of the most important factors is the City of LA’s insane approach to planning. I read a lot of the stuff that comes out of City Hall, and over and over I hear the refrain that transit and land use must be considered together. Sounds logical, doesn’t it? It would make sense to think about where you’re putting housing at the same time as you think about where the next rail line goes. In theory, people could just step out of their apartment, walk down to the platform and catch a train wherever they’re going. Who needs a car?

The problem is, when the housing starts at $2,000 a month, and often goes much higher, you’re really not building housing for the people who use public transit. For the most part the people who depend on the MTA can’t afford that kind of rent. And the people who can pay that much are more likely to own cars. What’s even worse, as the rail network has expanded, City Hall’s policies have actively encouraged gentrification around new rail stops. It used to be pretty much anybody could afford to live in Hollywood. Not any more. As the Department of City Planning approves an endless parade of high-end housing projects and chic hotels, as they continue to hand out liquor permits to trendy restaurants and clubs, rents keep spiralling higher and the demographic most likely to use transit is being squeezed out. A similar scenario has already played out in North Hollywood, Downtown, and Highland Park, and you can look for more of the same in Leimert Park and Boyle Heights in a few years. So while City Hall claims to be thinking about transportation and land use together, in reality their policies are driving transit riders farther away from transit hubs.

Construction site for Purple Line extension at Wilshire and La Brea.

Construction site for Purple Line extension at Wilshire and La Brea.

Another problem I have with Measure M is the fact a large portion of the funding goes toward road and freeway improvements, and this is something many people have commented on. There are those transit critics who complain that the MTA is heavily subsidized by our tax dollars, but they never seem to mention that a huge share of our tax dollars also goes to subsidizing travel by car. If we’re trying to reduce our use of fossil fuels and cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, then our focus should be on investing in public transit. But Measure M continues our current policy of investing in both at the same time. How’s this working? Well, our recent experience with widening the San Diego Freeway tells the story. After years of work and millions of dollars, traffic is still awful. We do need to maintain roads and freeways, since busses travel on both, but massive investment in “upgrades” is just encouraging people to keep driving their cars.

I’d love to see us build a transit system that made travelling by rail and bus attractive to a majority of Angelenos. But that isn’t what’s been happenning. Instead, a bizarre tangle of policies has led to a decline in transit use even as the County has continued to grow. The City of LA seems dead set on continuing its drive to build upscale urban enclaves, forcing low-income Angelenos away from transit hubs. And for all the money Measure M would put into transit, it would also spend a lot of money on keeping people in their cars.

Sorry. I can’t vote for Measure M.

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and La Brea.

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and La Brea.

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.

So What Are We Really Getting Here?

The new Regional Intermodal Transportation Center at Burbank Airport.

The new Regional Intermodal Transportation Center at Burbank Airport.

I’d heard that the Burbank Airport’s new Regional Intermodal Transportation Center opened some weeks ago, and I’d been meaning to check it out. This morning I went over and took a few photos. It looks nice, but at this point I’m not sure if it’s bringing any huge benefits.

I understand that it’s a work in progress, and I hope the completed project lives up to the PR, but right now it seems like what they’ve got is a massive new parking structure that houses a bunch of rental car companies. The MTA web site says….

“[The RITC] establishes the first direct rail-to-terminal connection at any Southern California airport.”

Actually, the airport was built adjacent to the rail line, which has been there since before WWII, and access to the Metrolink/Amtrak stop is no easier than it was before. Even the proposed bridge to the tracks isn’t going to make a huge difference. At some point the RITC is supposed to house a bus terminal, and that could be useful. Bicycle storage facilities are included in the project, but I’m not sure how many people are going to ride a bike to or from the airport.

Metrolink/Amtrak stop near Burbank Airport.

Metrolink/Amtrak stop near Burbank Airport.

Below is a link to an article on Curbed. It’s a brief piece that just gives the basic facts about the RITC, but the comments are interesting.

New Transit Center at Bob Hope Airport

Some commenters point out that there would be real benefits in extending the Orange Line to Burbank Airport, and I agree completely. There is a shuttle from the transit center in North Hollywood to the airport, but light rail would be so much easier. I think, though, that plan was proposed years ago, and the MTA couldn’t sell it to the community. If I remember correctly, the Orange Line was originally supposed to be a light rail line that ran from Burbank Airport to Warner Center. As I recall, people in Burbank didn’t like the idea, and residents along the Chandler corridor were up in arms about trains running through their neighborhood. Cost was also a factor. So the MTA settled for what they could get, which was an express bus line from North Hollywood to the West Valley.

At Hertz, you're not just renting a car, you're renting a fantasy.

At Hertz, you’re not just renting a car, you’re renting a fantasy.

I don’t mean to dismiss the RITC, because in time it could become a useful transit nexus. But at this point it seems to be more about hype than about real benefit to the community.

From the RITC, a view of the mountains to the north.

From the RITC, a view of the mountains to the north.

Crenshaw-LAX Light Rail Line

A musician in Leimert Park.

A musician in Leimert Park.

Transit politics can be tricky. I’ve started following the discussion over the Crenshaw-LAX Light Rail Line, and I have to say the whole thing is pretty complicated. I think everyone agrees it’s a worthwhile project, but the devil is in the details. A heated debate has been going on, apparently for years, about how many stops would be on the line, where they would be located, and whether the line would run below grade in certain areas. The trains would run south on Crenshaw to Inglewood, turn west at Florence, and then follow Aviation south to LAX. Here’s a link to a map on the MTA web site.

http://www.metro.net/projects_studies/crenshaw/images/Crenshaw-LAX_transit_corridor_map_eng.pdf

The project could give a much needed boost to the area, which the City of LA has neglected for years. Running between the Expo Line and the Green Line, it would provide an important transit link for people in the Crenshaw district and Inglewood. It could also create lots of jobs in neighborhoods where unemployment is high.

One of the key issues is safety. Most LA residents are probably aware of the problems with the Blue Line. There have been over nine hundred accidents at crossings where the trains run at street level, resulting in more than a hundred deaths. This is why many in the community are fighting to make sure this new train runs below grade in some segments. But digging tunnels would increase the cost significantly, and as far as I can tell the city hasn’t actually committed to do this for any segment of the line. The Crenshaw Subway Coalition has posted this document, which outlines their argument against grade level crossings.

The link below offers an interview with MTA Chief Art Leahy and gives a general update on the progress of the Crenshaw-LAX Line.

http://wavenewspapers.com/news/local/west_edition/article_a4586a8c-ce22-11e2-aeb8-0019bb30f31a.html

I’ve ridden public transit all my life, and I have to say that getting around LA is much easier now than it was twenty years ago. The MTA has made a lot of progress in recent years, and following a project like this you realize how difficult it can be to make things happen.