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.

Midnight at Wilshire and Fairfax

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Last week I went to one of the screenings in UCLA’s preservation festival. I think I left around eleven, and then caught the bus on Wilshire. I got off at Fairfax, where I have to transfer. It took a while for the next bus to show up, so I took some photos while I was waiting. It seemed like there was a lot of stuff going on….

Night time is when the MTA crews show up to work on the Purple Line extension. You don’t see them during the day. Just metal plates lying all over the street. But at night these guys set up their barriers and their lights and go to work.

MTA crews work on the Purple Line at night.

MTA crews work on the Purple Line at night.

Just across the street, the old May Co. building is surrounded by scaffolding. It seems that the Academy is finally starting the process of transforming this dinosaur of a department store into a new museum devoted to film. I have no idea when it’ll be completed, but I’m glad to see that work has begun.

Scaffolding set up on the west side of the May Co. building.

Scaffolding set up on the west side of the May Co. building.

I was standing there on Fairfax snapping photos, when a few runners went speeding past. At first I thought it was just some people who lived in the neighborhood out for some exercise. But then another group ran by, and then another, and then it was a steady stream of people racing down Fairfax. My guess is that a couple hundred people went by, but it could have been more.

Runners stampeding down Fairfax toward Wilshire.

Runners stampeding down Fairfax toward Wilshire.

More runners heading down Fairfax.

More runners heading down Fairfax.

As usual, there was a homeless guy camped out in one of the recessed areas along the side of the May Co. building.

A homeless man taking shelter for the night.

A homeless man taking shelter for the night.

And of course there’s Johnie’s, blazing away in the darkness. The banks of lights that surround the building are slowly going out, but those that are left let you know that this classic coffee shop has not gone away. The place has been closed for years, but the flashing lights seem to be insisting that it’s still open for business. That it’s still alive.

Johnie's refuses to die.

Johnie’s refuses to die.

MTA Offers a Helping Hand

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Just a follow-up to a post I did recently on the construction of the Crenshaw/LAX Line. In that post, I mentioned how difficult it was for businesses along Crenshaw to keep their heads above water with street closures and reduced parking. Local merchants have been complaining about a steep drop in revenue, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been listening.

In September the MTA established a fund to aid small businesses affected by the construction. And in October, the MTA approved the creation of the Business Solution Center, which will provide assistance with marketing, financial planning and legal counseling, as well as help in securing loans. Here’s a link to the article in the LA Sentinel.

MTA Awards BSC Contract to Del Richardson & Associates

This is a smart move by the MTA. Sure, the Crenshaw/LAX Line will help the neighborhood in the long run, but it’s important to ensure the survival of existing businesses. By approving these two programs, the MTA has shown a commitment to supporting small merchants as they deal with the challenges of the construction phase.

Transit Trauma

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I don’t own a car. I take public transit everywhere. Generally it works out pretty well, but I wanted to share a few experiences I had recently….

Last week I spent an afternoon Downtown. I had an important meeting that night, and I figured I’d get on the subway at five, which would leave me an hour to make it back to Hollywood. Should’ve been plenty of time. The Red Line arrived just after five and I got on board. But apparently the brakes on that train had locked up, and after ten minutes the conductor still hadn’t been able to resolve the problem.

I had to make it back to Hollywood by six. Now I had forty five minutes, and it seemed unlikely that a bus travelling at rush hour would get me home in time. So I ended up taking a cab, which cost me twenty five bucks, plus tip.

Monday morning I was heading out to the Panorama City, a trip that takes three busses. Unfortunately, at one of my connecting points, I saw the bus I needed speeding past when I was still a block from the stop. It was five minutes early. I had to wait for the next one, which made me fifteen minutes late.

And then there was Wednesday morning. I got to the Red Line station at Hollywood and Highland. I was waiting on the platform when a voice came over the PA saying that there was no service to the North Hollywood station. Due to a power outage, the trains were only running to Universal City. Immediately I tried to think of other options, but there’s only one bus that goes to North Hollywood and it doesn’t run often. I glanced at the monitor above me to check the time. But the monitor wasn’t working.

I ended up getting on the train to Universal City. Once we arrived, it turned out the escalator to street level was out of order. Actually, it’s pretty common for escalators and elevators serving the subways to be out of commission. This morning it meant that the mass of people climbing the stairs had to contend with the people going down the stairs at the same time.

At Universal I had to get on the 224, which was packed to capacity, to get to North Hollywood. I felt like I was riding in a cattle car. At North Hollywood I got on the Orange Line, which was also packed to capacity, to make the trip out to Van Nuys. Amazingly, I was only fifteen minutes late.

Now I’m not bringing all this up because I want to slag public transit. I like public transit. I definitely prefer it to driving. It’s way cheaper and way less stressful. And most of the time it gets me where I want to go more or less reliably. But I have some serious questions about the direction the MTA is taking things.

In September the MTA raised fares. A day pass went from $5 to $7, and a monthly pass went from $75 to $100, a 40% increase and a 33% increase respectively. I realize that this is the first fare hike in four years, and that the MTA is running a substantial deficit. I also realize that tickets only cover about 28% of operating costs, and that anything less than 33% can jeopardize federal funding. But these are still huge hikes. And the while the MTA has postponed further fare increases for the moment, you can be sure they’re coming. On top of that, the Daily News reports that the MTA is considering further service cuts, even though they’ve already cut hundreds of thousands of service hours in the last few years. Here’s the article.

Fare Hikes Won’t Fix Agency’s Deficit

So here’s what worries me. The MTA seems determined to continue raising fares and cutting service as it struggles to resolve its financial difficulties. I have to ask if this is really going to encourage Angelenos to ride busses and trains. I hear a lot of talk about how people have to abandon cars and embrace public transit, but this course of action seems guaranteed to drive people away. That’s already happened with Metrolink. For the last few years Metrolink ridership has been declining, and customers have cited rising costs and declining service as the reason they’ve gone back to using their cars.

The Mayor and the MTA Board have put Los Angeles on the fast track when it comes to building new transit projects, which sounds good in theory. But these hugely expensive projects are years away from completion, and the MTA seems unable to even maintain current levels of service.

There’s something really wrong here. If the MTA wants us to believe that they’re going to be able to manage a vastly expanded transit system, they need to do a better job of managing the system we’ve got now. Otherwise, instead of attracting new riders, they’re going to lose the ones they’ve got.

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.

Reconstructing Crenshaw

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Last week I went down to Crenshaw and Exposition to see what was happening with the construction of the Crenshaw/LAX Line. Work is underway, though it will be years before the project is finished.

A view from the Crenshaw side of the construction site.

A view from the Crenshaw side of the construction site.

Another view from the Crenshaw side.

Another view from the Crenshaw side.

And here's a shot taken from the entrance to the site.

And here’s a shot taken from the entrance to the site.

While I was there I also took a look at the huge vacant lot that runs along Crenshaw just below the MTA’s construction site.

The fence surrounds a large empty parcel just across the street from the MTA site.

The fence surrounds a large empty parcel just across the street from the MTA site.

I was wondering if there were any plans to develop the parcel, so I got on the net and started looking around. Apparently this will be the home of the proposed District Square retail complex. For more info, follow this link to a post from earlier this year on Building Los Angeles.

District Square

Right now it’s just a lot of dirt, but the temporary fence running around this area does offer the candidates in the school board special election a place to post their ads.

School board candidates vying for your vote.

School board candidates vying for your vote.

You can see the barricades blocking off a good stretch of Crenshaw. Also the large signs letting people know that the businesses along Crenshaw are open during construction.

Looking at the barricades set up on the west side of Crenshaw during construction.

Looking at the barricades set up on the west side of Crenshaw during construction.

Projects like this can be really hard on business owners, since the work impacts both traffic and parking. And we’re not just talking about a few months, but years. In the long run, the transit line will probably bring more people to the area and be a boon to local merchants, but in the short term, the construction can cause real hardship.

Heavy machinery parked on Crenshaw.

Heavy machinery parked on Crenshaw.

If you haven’t already read about the Crenshaw/LAX Line, here’s a link to the overview at the MTA’s web site.

Crenshaw/LAX Transit Project

Let Them Eat Cake

Last week the Board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted to raise fares. The cost of a monthly pass will go up from $75 to one $100, a thirty percent increase. The cost of a day pass will from $5 to $7, a forty percent increase. This is an outrageous example of a clueless elite making decisions with no regard for the needs of the population they’re serving. Citing the MTA’s own data, the LA Times reports that over 90 percent of riders are low income, and 80 percent make an average of less than $20,000 a year.

Supervisor Gloria Molina

Supervisor Gloria Molina

The Board projects a $36,000,000 deficit next year. They say that if they don’t raise fares they’ll be forced to lay off 1,000 workers or cut 1,000,000 hours of service. I don’t buy it. These are scare tactics. Gloria Molina, the one member to vote against the fare hike, offered a motion to investigate ways to cut the budget in order to stave off the increase. She couldn’t even get someone to second the motion. For more info on the meeting and the rate hike, you can access the MTA’s newsletter by clicking here.

It’s true that other cities have higher fares, because other cities have a more economically diverse ridership. In New York and San Francisco, a large number of well-paid professionals use mass transit for their daily commute. Not so in LA. The people who use public transit here are mostly on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. Charging them $300 more a year to ride the busses and trains in many cases literally means taking food out of their mouths.

For me personally, shelling out $25 more a month is not a huge sacrifice. I prefer to take public transit, and I don’t mind paying a little more. And up until now, I was pleased to see the MTA aggressively expanding the transit network. But now that I see the price tag, my feeling is that they’ve been grossly irresponsible. They embarked on these ambitious plans knowing full well that it would put the MTA in the red, and knowing full well they were going to use that as leverage to raise rates. They’ve obviously forgotten who they’re serving.

Eight of the Board’s thirteen members are either serving on the LA City Council or the LA County Board of Supervisors. All of these people make around $180,000 a year. In addition, most of them use cars and drivers that are paid for by taxpayers. Why is it that decisions about MTA fares are made by people who only take the subway when they’re touting some new program or taking part in a ceremony? None of them rides the bus to work. Obviously Molina is the only one who has any concept of who it is she was elected to serve. She’s the only one who seems to care that for a family living below the poverty line, carving $25 a month out of your budget is a real sacrifice. This is going to hurt a lot of families, and the pampered elitists sitting on the MTA Board don’t care.

Mayor Eric Garcetti

Mayor Eric Garcetti

And speaking of pampered elitists, let’s talk about Eric Garcetti. It should be obvious by now that Garcetti doesn’t give a damn about anyone who hasn’t made a campaign contribution. He has a bold vision for an exciting new LA, full of skyscrapers and wine bars, boutique hotels and high-end clubs. And he’ll bend over backwards to keep his wealthy developer buddies happy, handing out tax breaks and giving them great deals on city-owned land. But he can’t even support affordable fares for the vast majority of MTA riders who really need them.

How did this guy get elected?

Looking to the Future

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Not long ago the City of LA released two documents for public review. The Mobility Plan 2035 and The Plan for a Healthy Los Angeles are both intended to create a framework for the city’s future growth. There are many good things in both plans, and I certainly support efforts to improve public transit and develop a healthier environment. However….

I have to say I don’t trust our elected officials. If you take the documents at face value, they present a thrilling utopian vision for the city where everyone will have the opportunity to live a healthy, productive life. But unfortunately, the Mayor and the City Council have shown over and over again that they’re willing to put the interests of their wealthy buddies ahead of the interests of the average citizen.

The thing that makes me suspicious is that both documents talk about land use, and both documents promote higher density. This is not bad in itself. LA is notorious for its sprawling communities and there are many areas where we could reap significant benefits by creating greater density. My concern is that the Mayor and the City Council want to change land use policy not to build a healthier city, but rather to let their developer friends build skyscrapers wherever they like. We’ve already seen our elected officials playing fast and loose with the facts with the Hollywood Community Plan Update. They argued that greater density was necessary because Hollywood’s population had increased, when in fact they knew that the community had lost thousands of residents in recent years. Fortunately the courts set them straight.

But I don’t want to go off on another rant. I do too much of that already. As I said, there are many good things about both plans, and I encourage you to take a look at them. We should all be thinking about what direction we want this city to take. LA seems to be riding a new wave of growth, and it’s important that we make informed, intelligent decisions about how that growth occurs. If we aren’t involved in the process, others will make those decisions for us, and they may not have our best interests at heart.

Here are links to both plans.

Mobility Plan 2035

Plan for a Healthy LA

Transit Tempest

MTA advertisement on Wilshire Blvd.

MTA advertisement on Wilshire Blvd.

On Saturday the LA Times ran an article on the Purple Line extension that was real eye-opener for me. Let me say up front that I absolutely support the extension, and I’m glad the MTA is expanding our transit network. But I hadn’t realized how disruptive the construction would be, and I have to say I sympathize with the residents who are up in arms. They’re looking at years of noise, dust, traffic and general chaos. Even some of those who want to see the Purple Line go farther west are freaking out now that they’re realizing what it means for residents and businesses in the Wilshire Corridor.

If all goes well, the first phase of the project will be completed in nine years. That will only take the Purple Line to La Cienega. It will be over ten more years before it reaches its ultimate destination, the VA campus in West LA. I want to repeat the phrase “if all goes well”. Those of you who were around in the nineties will recall the mixture of disbelief and disgust that Angelenos felt during the construction of the Red Line, when stories about delays, cost overruns, incompetence and corruption appeared regularly in the news. The actual timeline for the Purple Line could easily end up stretching beyond current estimates, and I have no doubt it’ll cost way more than the MTA is telling us.

I am really glad the MTA is moving aggressively to expand our transit system, not just along this corridor but all over the county. I hope, though, that they’re letting residents know what they’re in for, and taking the time to listen to citizens’ complaints. The people who live along the Wilshire Corridor are going to be dealing with some real problems over the next two decades. The City of LA and the MTA need to do everything they can to minimize the disruptions.

Here’s the story from the Times.

Purple Line Construction

MTA construction site at Wilshire and Fairfax

MTA construction site at Wilshire and Fairfax

The Devil Is in the Details

Aerial view of Regional Connector station at First and Alameda.

Aerial view of Regional Connector station at First and Alameda.

To show you how clueless I am, I hadn’t heard anything about the MTA’s proposed Regional Connector project until a few days ago. This is a major undertaking, and it has major implications, not just for the downtown area but for all of LA. Briefly, the purpose of the project is to link together the Gold Line’s Little Tokyo Station with the Red Line’s 7th & Metro Station, which could make things a lot easier for transit riders. For a more complete explanation, here’s a link to the Regional Connector page on the MTA’s web site.

MTA Regional Connector

And if you’d like to see what the completed project would look like, click the link below to see proposed designs, as well as maps laying out the location of the stops. I thought some of the comments were interesting, too. A lot of people are less than thrilled with the way the stations are laid out.

LA.StreetsBlog

As with any project of this size, there are pros and cons. Overall, I think the Regional Connector could be tremendously beneficial. But there are also potential problems, and three different groups are suing the MTA over the project. One issue is that a number of local businesses will be displaced. Even businesses that don’t have to worry about being demolished are very concerned about being able to function during construction. Many of these are family-run enterprises, and a significant loss of customers over a period of years could kill them.

I spent some time this morning checking out a number of articles on the Regional Connector, and often the comments were the most interesting part of the story. A lot of downtown residents are totally gung ho on this project. Many of them dismiss the concerns of the local businesses as though the owners are worrying over nothing. A few of the commenters are so angry about the lawsuits that they suggested a boycott of the businesses involved. I wonder how these commenters would feel if an enterprise they’d worked for years to establish was threatened with extinction.

I also wonder if the people who are so enthusiastic about this project remember the last time the city built an underground rail line. I’m referring to the construction of the Red Line, which ran way behind schedule and way over budget, and caused massive problems when they were tunnelling under Hollywood Boulevard. The street actually sank six inches during this period, and the digging also affected water lines. There was also evidence of massive corruption and sub-standard work by the contractors. Here’s a link to some of the comments posted at the LA Times during this period.

LA Times – Red Line Comments

I do think the Regional Connector could be really good for LA, but we have to show a healthy skepticism about any project of this size. The picture the MTA paints makes it all sound great, but there’s a big difference between creating digital renderings and actually getting it done. Don’t forget, they’ve burned us before.