Friday, November 13, 2015

Reflections on yesterday evening's Transit Coalition event: a wake-up call for better governance?

Yesterday evening I attended a dinner talk, hosted by the Transit Coalition, with Metro's Chief Planning Officer, Martha Wellborne .

The food was ample and the attendees were cordial. And yet, I couldn't help but leave disappointed by the limited vision Welborne conveyed for Metro's Measure R transit projects.

I was already painfully aware that the Metro Crenshaw line will be truncated at the Expo Line, a good distance from Hollywood or the Wilshire Corridor (or anything except Leimert Park, really).

I had forgotten, however, that Metro not only had put the Sepulveda Pass rail project on a back-burner but that it was evaluating an "East San Fernando Valley Corridor," following the Sepulveda Pass rail project's logical extension into the valley (up Van Nuys Bulwevard), as an entirely separate project, that was taking priority over the Sepulveda Pass rail link...

Welborne acknowledged that she would "hope" to see the Van Nuys project integrated with the Sepulveda Pass project, indicating that the most viable and fruitful outcome was only aspirational, since one link would be evaluated separately and on a more advanced timetable than the other.

When I asked Welborne, why these projects, and similar sets of projects (e.g. Crenshaw Line and extension, Purple Line into the future) could not be integrated-even at the cost of delaying them further into the future, Welborne brought up the large price tag but added in, even more tellingly, the phrase "politics." People in other regions, she said, might not like billions of dollars pouring into a project on the Westside or Central La.

As she hinted, the Metro agency is responsible to the entire county of Los Angeles, not just its most densely populated areas. Its board, comprised of the five county supervisors and the mayors of Los Angeles and four other cities from different sections of the region, cannot help escape getting caught up in factional politics.

Conflict between the city of Los Angeles and outlying regions of the county requires that projects constructed in Los Angeles' denser, more congested urban corridors (like the Expo Line Phase 2 and Purple Line Extension) be "balanced" with projects in outlying peripheral suburbs (like the Gold Line Foothill extension).

The result is that Metro tends to avoid big price-tag projects (like the Sepulveda Pass Line)-even where benefits far exceed costs. At the same time, money flows towards many half-hearted measures (like the truncated Crenshaw Line, the East Valley Corridor and-in some previously discussed aspects-the Expo Line) as well as lines in areas that lack the housing or jobs density to support transit use. (not all, but much of the foothill extension).

Of course, this means of expansion is by no means sustainable. In order for Metro to adequately serve the LA area's public transit needs, it will need to dissolve or undergo a radical change of structure.

A particularly promising option, better tailored to Los Angeles County's vast (urban) geographies of scale would involve devolving certain transit operations (or construction) to either more localized transit operators. The former could be existing municipal operators, like Big Blue Bus, although I feel (given the sheer number of sizable municipalities in LA County) that geographically-rooted entities, like Foothill Transit (think "Valley transit" or "Westside Transit") would be better equipped for the task.

Metro might "offsource" operations on a geographic basis, giving up operations in areas like the San Gabriel Valley and South Bay and focusing on the denser "Central" area of the LA Basin (i.e. Central and South LA and the Westside).

Alternatively, Metro might choose to devolve a specific type of operation on a countywide level (either to local operators or private-sector contractors), say buses, while maintaining its subway and light rail network, much the way BART operates in the Bay Area. Like BART, Metro could even come to operate a "core" regional rail and bus rapid transit system (of priority routes), while allowing local operators to construct rapid transit projects that serve a more local clientele (the "Munis" of Greater LA).

In order for such a system to thrive, Metro and the local operators would have to agree on an integrated fare system and a certain level of service coordination. The Bay Area, unfortunately, does not offer a good example. Looking abroad however, Seoul, where two private and two public operators divide up the city's massive subway system while conforming to a single fare structure, offers a great example.

Unfortunately, getting two agencies in LA County to agree on anything can be difficult enough.

Maybe my proposed solution is a bit naive. And maybe I am being a bit too hard on Metro (which, as Welborne noted, already has the third highest ridership of any transit agency in the country).

And yet, as Metro prepares to request another half-cent sales tax increase, the eyes of LA (and the country) are on it to see if it can get serious about addressing LA's mobility challenges. And that will require more than a hodge-podge of compromises and stopgaps.

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