Category Archives: Measure R

Getting Ready for Expo

Expo/Western. From the Expo Construction Authority.

Seeing as the Exposition Line has been delayed yet further by technical problems at the Washington/Flower intersection, I thought I’d take a minute this week to talk about how Metro should focus their service in the South Mid City/Culver City area to take advantage of the new light rail service. 

In the next two months, Los Angeles will gain perhaps the most significant piece of transportation infrastructure built in the city since the Red Line. The Exposition Line, even in its truncated Phase 1 form, could truly revolutionize the way hundreds of thousands of Angelinos get from downtown to the West Side.

Initial ridership estimates for Phase 1 are in the 40,000-range. Based on the size of the market, and the demographics of the area, I believe Expo will blow this projection out of the water. With the right measures, Expo could improve upon the already very impressive performance of the Blue Line – projected to carry 15,000 riders when it was built, the Blue Line is now by most measures the busiest light rail line in the country, carrying 80,000 riders per day.  These additional steps to ensure the success of the line, and the fullest possible use of this investment, are simple and would not take much effort to implement. See what you think.

Connecting the Culver City Station with major job centers

1. Target Specific Destinations with Bus Service Changes & Add Phase 2 Shuttle

While the Expo Line will get riders from downtown to Culver City in Phase 1, many key destinations are just beyond this terminus. Effective integration of the 733 bus line on Venice and the north-south bus lines on La Brea and La Cienega will ensure that riders have access to both the Venice area and areas of Wilshire and the Miracle Mile. The Expo Line also presents a great opportunity to modify service on the admittedly lightly used express routes from mid-city to other areas of LA County. Metro already plans to reroute the 534 bus line to the Culver City terminus of Expo, and have the 439 bus stop at the La Cienega Station. Service could also be modified on the 439 to serve the Westfield Mall and other popular destinations in southern Culver City. A huge amount of office space exists in suburban-type 4-5 story buildings along Slauson Avenue and the surrounding area, perhaps a more targeted approach by Metro buses could attract riders who commute to these buildings from downtown or other areas the Expo Line serves. The 534 line could be rerouted to directly serve downtown Santa Monica, although this change may run afoul of service agreements between Metro and Big Blue Bus.

In addition, I believe a very effective strategy for increasing the utility of the phase 1 line is running a shuttle along the approximate route of phase two with limited stops to simulate future rail service. It could follow Venice south to Overland Avenue, cut up to Pico then turn on Bundy to meet Olympic, then finally turn on Cloverfield to meet Colorado. This shuttle could increase ridership and eliminate the numerous transfers and indirect routing of other current bus options from Downtown Culver City to Santa Monica. A big part of the appeal of the Exposition Line is the “air line” (meaning most direct path) it takes between Downtown LA and Santa Monica. Forgoing this more direct routing to get passangers of phase 1 to Santa Monica would significantly increase the utility of the line.

One other instance where direct, convenient bus service is unavailable is from Downtown Culver City and the Venice/Robertson Station to Century City. Thousands upon thousands of people work in Century City, and the addition of an express AM/PM peak express line from the Culver City station would be beneficial. Even with traffic congestion, this route would only take about 10-15 minutes with no stops, thus would provide by far the fastest travel time from Downtown LA to Century City. This stopgap measure would be great until the Westside Subway Extension opens to Century City (and on Avenue of the Stars/Constellation, mind you).

2. Change Metro’s Fare System to Avoid Penalizing Rail Users

I have already extensively discussed Metro’s pressing Fare System Problems. The opening of the Exposition Line will greatly exacerbate these problems. Passangers who need to get to Union Station from Culver City will not only be inconvenienced by needing to transfer to the Red/Purple Lines, but also will have to pay a second $1.50 fare at 7th and Metro Center. Even more preposterously, passengers going from Culver City to Long Beach or anywhere south of Pico on the Blue Line will be required to step off the platform at Pico, pay and additional fare and return to the spot at which they alighted their Expo Line train just to avoid falling afoul of Metro’s fare inspectors. The one-vehicle one-fare policy really will not work in a rail system with multiple transfers expected (let alone the gridded bus system, which is even worse).

A quick and dirty solution would be raising the fare on rail lines to $2.00 and eliminating rail transfers. One $2.00 purchase would entitle a rider to two hours of unlimited access to the Metro Rail and Metro Liner System. Incidentally, this would also solve the issue of the Metro Silver Line’s poor ridership – a terrible fare structure (that’s Foothill Transit’s fault, anyway). Single use TAP cards would constitute fare media, eliminating opportunities for theft and abuse, which were the reasons Metro cancelled bus transfers back in the 1990’s.

With a bit of planning and a lot of political will, Exposition Phase 1 will be an invaluable addition to mobility in Los Angeles. The clock is ticking – every day that Metro Operations tests trains is one day closer to opening. With a solid new fare structure for Metro Rail and Metro Liner along with targeting employment zones with special bus service for Phase 1, Expo will be a roaring success.


Neighborhood Entitlement and Transit Projects

Transportation is inherently political. Every part of modern life – from globalization, to the way we shape our cities, to the people with whom we interact – is directly related to the means by which get around. Once the realm of engineers in an office with a scale and a slide rule, large transportation projects have transformed into political behemoths whose main purpose is to satisfy every single possible stakeholder. Whether this means a large constituency of economically disadvantaged people being cut off from a city by a massive freeway (think the 10 in Los Angeles) or even a few San Francisco Garter Snakes near your construction site (BART to SFO), environmental regulations and the public input process for transportation projects are here to stay. This attitude, however, goes up against the main principle of most intraregional transportation projects – that regional investment in a rail line or roadway benefits local residents the most – but critically provides a great benefit to the region as a whole, and thus is worth the collective expenditure. Balancing these two interests – smaller constituencies like environmentalists and immediately local residents, and the larger groups who often foot the bill (regions, states, federal governments) is a critical matter of debate in American transportation policy and the topic of another discussion entirely.

Two upcoming transit projects highlight the dramatic difference between agencies and cities that have taken a constructive approach to neighborhood entitlement, NIMBYism and balancing local and regional interests, and those that have simply failed. These projects are East Link Light Rail in Seattle, Washington managed by Sound Transit, and the Crenshaw/LAX Corridor in Los Angeles, California managed by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro).

First on the Crenshaw Line –

The Crenshaw/LAX corridor in Los Angeles runs from the corner of Exposition Boulevard and Crenshaw Boulevard in Leimert Park to Avaiation Boulevard and Imperial Highway near LAX. It has been a cornerstone of the Measure R transit projects and hailed as a badly needed second north-south transit line through South Los Angeles. As expected, Metro chose the Locally Preferred Alternative as a LRT line that traverses Crenshaw Boulevard until it reaches the Harbor Subdivision, after which it continues along that subdivision (now owned by Metro) until it reaches the Green Line Aviation Station. Most local residents and business owners are satisfied with this plan – the only matter of contention is how much of the line will be tunneled under Crenshaw and the addition of a Leimert Park station near proposed stations at Crenshaw/King and Crenshaw/Slauson. Budgetary obligations have forced Metro to only tunnel the line until about 48th Street, after which the line will run in the median of Crenshaw Boulevard and also consider eliminating the Leimert Park station. After long periods of public comment on the project’s environmental documents (EIR/EIS), Metro agreed to build the Leimert Park station. The $160 million? Metro will find it somewhere (to be decided). Even after this not-so-trivial tradeoff with the local community, Metro has still found itself embroiled in a lawsuit over the EIR. Lawsuits, massive change orders, gross negligence in construction contract writing, and public opposition nearly doomed the Exposition Line to failure and have made Expo nearly three years late and $300 million over budget. Is Crenshaw destined to follow in its footsteps?

East Link:

Yonah Freemark has the situation with East Link summed up well on his post on a Sound Transit’s compromise with the City of Bellevue. Essentially, Bellevue demanded a tunnel for its somewhat dense downtown, despite ample room on streets for the addition of Light Rail. Due to innovative engineering, a higher cost estimate for the surface option than first anticipated and crucially – a mutually beneficial agreement between Bellevue and Sound Transit, the tunneling option is now the Locally Preferred Alternative. This agreement was based upon a potentially precedent-setting decision Sound Transit made – Bellevue offered to pay for about half of the additional cost for the tunnel and Sound Transit, in the spirit of fostering community support and shrewdly avoiding possible future litigation, agreed to pay the second half. This arrangement is the ideal way to address local concerns to a regionally beneficial project. Locals win because they get their tunnel, and they did not even have to pay for all of it. The region wins due to the much lower likelihood of costly, time consuming litigation, and the general goodwill towards the project created by a selective distribution of funding to satiate local constituencies.

Like many transportation related matters, striking an appropriate balance is key in assuaging local concerns while building a transportation system that serves an entire region well. In compromising with Bellevue, Sound Transit has shown an aptitude for the political realities of transit projects while still managing to get the City to pay for a major portion of the tunnel it demanded. I would like to challenge Metro to come up with a similar arrangement for Crenshaw – offer a longer tunnel and the Leimert Park station, hust make a local contribution in the form of a parcel tax on the businesses who gain from the tunnel, or some other means, contingent to the agreement. Meeting the community halfway is the best way to proceed on alignment issues – just look at Expo. Metro refused to budge on the grade crossings at Farmdale and Trousdale/USC. What if the University had chipped in for a grade separated line until Vermont, or custom architecture at the three stations adjacent to campus? Because Metro refused to propose mutually beneficial options in good faith, as Sound Transit has now successfully done, South Los Angeles has ended up with an operationally inferior LRT line that is years late and hundreds of millions overbudget. Metro – it is time to start compromising with communities. Otherwise, see you in court.

It is Time for Beverly Hills to Give Up

Beverly Hills High right in front of Century City from photobucket user rvega1971

Rationalism – a view that reason and experience rather than the nonrational are the fundamental criteria in the solution of problems.

Rationalism – an ideology that led to the free market, democracy, and essentially western thought.

Rationalism – something that the Beverly Hills School District and the small minority of Beverly Hills residents who oppose the Constellation Purple Line Station Option completely lack.

The Westside Subway Extension Project is one of the most important rail transit projects in the United States. When (and if) the stars align and this line opens to VA/405 around 2030, a mass of humanity bigger than almost any other subway line in the United States will flock to Metro’s boxy stainless steel trains. Beverly hills has already agreed to a station at Wilshire Boulevard and Rodeo Drive in the center of downtown, and a station at Wilshire Boulevard and La Cienega Boulevard in the far eastern part of the city. Riders will flock to these two stations due to the high density of jobs and attractions in close proximity. The issue that Beverly Hills still contests is the placement of the first station west of the city in Century City. Two options exist, a station in the center of the commercial district at Constellation and Avenue of the Stars, and a station at Santa Monica Boulevard and Avenue of the Stars. Both options would include the construction of a cut and cover station under streets owned by the City of Los Angeles and leading tunnels built by deep-earth tunnel boring machines (TBM). The key issue of contention is the route of the leading tracks from the east – under the Constellation/Ave of the Stars alternative, the deep bore tunnel will pass over 100 feet below Beverly Hills High School. The Santa Monica station option avoids the High School.

Key in this debate is the solid fact that the Constellation station option will attract a much larger number of riders, due to the location of the station in the middle of the Century City district. Jobs on the southern end of the area would be far more accessible to Metro riders and more workers and shoppers would be likely to take transit if the walk was under half a mile, as opposed to over a mile in the Santa Monica option.

From an engineering standpoint, the Santa Monica option is more of a challenge. A large fault runs down Santa Monica Boulevard, greatly increasing seismic engineering costs. Also, the uninviting nature of Santa Monica Boulevard in the area would require a large amount of street redesign for pedestrian use. Finally, the northern side of the street is occupied by a country club, hardly a big draw for transit riders, and would immediately limit the utility of the station. Transportation planners normally draw a half-mile circle around a station to estimate pedestrian access. If half of that circle is a golf course, it makes sense that many, many less riders will use the Santa Monica Station than a Constellation Station.

Irrational fear and ignorance are the primary responses Beverly Hills High School has provided to having a subway tunnel hundreds of feet below its campus. Numerous schools elsewhere in the world have subway tunnels under them – Berkeley High School in Northern California has a cut and cover subway tunnel just below the surface that has no influence on the regular operation of the school. Other far more vulnerable targets, like the US Capitol, have rail tunnels under them.

Point is, all of the negative factors Beverly Hills High School has perceived to be solid fact are indeed untrue. Metro and LA County need to stop listening to their proverbial whining child and build the Westside Subway in the most effective possible manner – we really only have one chance to do it right. Here’s one vote for the Constellation Station option with hopefully many more to come.

ExpressLanes: Metro Needs a Comprehensive Approach

Metro's ExpressLanes Graphic

Today I used the Harbor Transitway in South Los Angeles. Suffice to say, I am not a happy customer. My trip from the Harbor Freeway/105 Station back to USC campus was quick and relatively comfortable but for two glaring problems: I waited 30 minutes for a bus during the AM peak, and the freeway-level platform is possibly the least inviting, most unpleasant transit facility I have ever used. Metro plans to seriously change service on the Silver Line and change the HOV lanes on the Harbor and San Bernardino Freeways to HOT lanes. The Harbor Transitway, already considered an abject failure in transit circles, could be the make-or-break facility for the ExpressLanes project.

ExpressLanes is a pilot project for HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes in Los Angeles County. Metro will begin charging demand-based tolls to single occupancy motorists who wish to use the Harbor Transitway and El Monte Busway HOV facilities. High occupancy vehicles will still be allowed to use the lanes free on the Harbor Transitway, but on the El Monte Busway, carpools will have to pay during peak periods. All vehicles on the facility will need a FasTrak transponder. Much of the extra revenue raised by ExpressLanes will go to increasing the frequency of the Metro Silver Line to 5 minute headways during peak periods. The purpose of ExpressLanes is to reduce congestion and improve mobility along these two corridors by improving the throughput of the current HOV lanes and providing monetary and time saving incentives for freeway users to take transit.

These principles are all good in my book. Making the best use of current transportation infrastructure is far more effective per dollar than increasing capacity when you have an urban area like Los Angeles which has nearly infinite latent demand. Unfortunately, the current proposal for ExpressLanes will likely not achieve its goals. People who take transit by choice weigh the costs and benefits of transit and driving. Positives for transit on the Harbor and El Monte corridors include travel time, cost, and lack of parking costs. Granted, all three of these depend on having a destination in Downtown Los Angeles. Nonetheless these positives are strong on these two corridors. Negatives are wait time and general attractiveness of the service. These two issues were the defining factors for my trip today – Metro needs to make sure that they do not provide these disincentives for future riders on the Silver Lane with the implementation of ExpressLanes.

Really, it’s easy to increase the general attractiveness of transit, especially on confined corridors like I-110 and I-10, and on a specific set of vehicles, the small-ish bus fleet used to operate the Silver Line. First, Metro must build sound walls around the Harbor Transitway platforms, like WMATA in Washington DC. Next, Metro really needs to up it’s cleaning budget, install public art, and redesign wayfinding at these busway platforms. Metro has done a great job at wayfinding in their newer stations on the Gold Line and the (future) Expo Line.

A little bit of love and elbow grease could massively improve the attractiveness of the Harbor Transitway and fulfill Metro’s goal of improving transit mode share along the Metro Silver Line corridor. It is critical that the ExpressLanes project does not end up like many other transit-highway programs that are essentially greenwashed – like the Harbor Transitway in its original iteration. A little bit of money can go a long way in improving the ghastly Harbor Transitway and making ExpressLanes a success for both motorists and transit riders. Make it happen Metro!

Also, the Metro podium signs are up on some of the Expo Line. I’m getting excited for Expo, are you?

The High Desert Corridor – A Disaster in the Making

In California, new freeway construction is controversial no matter its location. In Northern Los Angeles County and San Bernardino County, a new freeway is starting to take shape, is funded, and will cause the region major harm if planning and construction on the project continue. Bear with me as I begin with a bit of an analogy.

Modern transportation in many ways is miraculous. It is the only way humans can bend time and space. By increasing travel speeds, we effectively reduce distance and time to travel between places. For this reason, new transportation infrastructure can massively affect land use. Areas that used to be two hours away from a job center will suddenly become attractive bedroom communities with the addition of high speed transportation. This phenomenon has held true for everything from the New York Subway, where new elevated lines to Queens and the outer Bronx spurred massive development in the early 20th century, to Southern Orange County’s tollways that speed travel between massive (and if you ask me, disgusting) planned communities in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains.

The High Desert Corridor, a proposed 63 mile freeway between Palmdale and Victorville, will have the same effect as previous freeways to nowhere: massive sprawl. The communities on either end of the proposed route are already low density bedroom communities that are heavily reliant on the automobile. Adding a new freeway between them, thus making countless undeveloped acres suddenly desirable to developers, would significantly increase congestion on the 5, 14 and 15 Freeways and cause Los Angeles County to grow in an ugly, unsustainable manner. I will rebuff all of the arguments for building this freeway and also suggest some more effective ways to improve the mobility of goods and people in Northern Los Angeles County.

First on the list for many supporters of this project is the notion that a freeway would be safer than the current two lane highway. This argument is the hardest to ignore, but think about it this way – construction of an eight lane freeway (complete with greenwashed HOV lanes) and the inevitable development that will accompany it will induce an incredible amount of travel demand. Metro estimates that 100,000 vehicles will use this freeway daily by 2020, a vast number considering the  rural nature of the route (for now). All of these additional drivers in addition to a higher  70mph speed limit will result in a larger total number of traffic collisions and deaths along the route than currently occur on highways 18 and 138. Although a two lane highway is more dangerous, the massive increase in road users will more than offset any gain in safety due to a freeway in terms of absolute numbers of collisions and deaths.

HDC supporters cite the need for additional capacity between Los Angeles and Las Vegas and a viable bypass route around Southwestern San Bernardino County and Eastern Los Angeles County. The High Desert Corridor will not reduce congestion on Interstate 15 or Interstates 10 and 210 because any additional capacity it will create will be severely limited by the bottleneck of the Antelope Valley Freeway. Truck traffic bypassing the vast majority of Los Angeles’ eastern suburbs will still have to contend with very heavy commuter traffic on the 14 between Palmdale and Interstate 5. In fact, if the High Desert Corridor creates as much sprawl as other quasi-urban rural freeways have in the United States, we can expect traffic on the 14 to become much, much worse than its already poor state.

Instead of focusing on a sprawl-inducing freeway project like the High Desert Corridor, Caltrans, Metro and San Bernardino County need to explore rail-based options that could massively increase freight capacity and passenger throughput without creating incentives to build low density bedroom communities in currently undeveloped areas. California High Speed Rail will operate along the Metrolink alignment from Lancaster to Downtown Los Angeles, presenting an ideal opportunity to grade separate and increase capacity on a parallel freight rail line. A proposed privately financed high speed rail line, Desert Xpress, is planned to go from Victorville to Las Vegas using comparable technology to CAHSR. Studying a possible extension of the Desert Xpress to Palmdale to link up with California High Speed Rail would benefit travelers to Las Vegas far more than building a freeway that does not address current capacity problems on feeder routes. Again, construction of new high speed passenger lines is the perfect opportunity to grade separate and improve capacity on freight rail lines, eliminating the need for more truck trips between Palmdale and Victorville.

High speed passenger and freight rail is not the end-all-be-all, but it has a characteristic that is crucial in building new transportation corridors: the very nature of train stations is conducive to higher density development, while freeway exits encourage more spread out, inefficient building patterns. I hope the agencies and politicians involved with this project will open their eyes and see that the six billion dollars allocated to its construction could be used elsewhere. Even in North Los Angeles County, such funding could prepare the Metrolink line for high speed rail service and vastly improve bus service. Such things may not sound as immediately appealing as a shiny new eight lane freeway in the middle of nowhere, but I can guarantee that an investment in rail and transit will pay big dividends in the future. Sustainable development must be balanced with a need for unlimited mobility for goods and people. Rail offers the perfect compromise, allowing people to live far from central cities in dense communities, yet still commute to the city for work. Rail also offers faster speeds, lower costs and much lower pollution than trucking. Cancellation of the High Desert Corridor would be a win for everyone. What North LA County really needs is a long term investment in rail.

Is the 710 Gap Closure Project So Bad?

Where NIMBY-ism meets the practical needs of an effecient and effective transportation system.

The transit/livability blogosphere is fairly intolerant of dissent, or so I’ve observed. I’m going to go out on a limb here and toss my opinion into the stew of NIMBY-ism, politics and money that surrounds the Interstate 710 Gap Closure Project. Granted, I am an engineer looking at this project, not a community organizer or politician who sees the more subjective aspects to the project – rather here I will concentrate on the engineering, traffic and transportation merits of closing this crucial gap in the Metropolitan Los Angeles Freeway System.

Unlike most other freeway extension proposals in Los Angeles (extending CA-2 to US-101 comes to mind), the I-710 Gap Closure project addresses a critical connection between freeways that would increase the utility of both the existing portion of I-710 south of Alhambra and I-210 in Pasadena and points north and east. In addition, Caltrans already owns sufficient right of way for tunnel portals and ventilation structures, the state along and LACMTA have been studying this corridor for decades and funding would be (relatively) easily obtained.

Before I go further, note that I am advocating a proposal of an entirely bored tunnel under Alhambra, South Pasadena, Northeast Los Angeles and Pasadena along the alignment highlighted on the map. A surface option is obviously not viable.  In addition, the construction of this tunnel would be accompanied by significant mitigation measures. Each bore would have three lanes, an HOV-3/Bus Lane and two general purpose lanes (GPL). Tolls would be electronically collected from motorists and truckers with dynamic pricing ensuring smooth-flowing traffic in the tunnels at all times. These tolls would help fund extensive bus service. Another mitigation measure would be a connecting structure between the HOV-3/Bus Lane in the tunnels to the El Monte Busway on I-10.

A mitigation measure that could ease the community’s concerns about this project is the demolition of the 110 freeway from its terminus at Arroyo Parkway to near Arroyo Drive. This three mile segment would be turned into a surface-level boulevard, providing development opportunities and removing the physical barrier between Pasadena and South Pasadena. The 110 would empty out onto this new parkway, but also give motorists the option to change over to the 710 freeway in a small-scale, low-speed interchange in the Arroyo Seco.

Such a proposal would connect the three currently unconnected freeway segments in the area and solve the nightmarish traffic problems on surface streets at the north end of the 710, south end of the 710 and north end of the 110.

Yes, the 710 Gap Closure Project would increase VMT. It would also increase carbon emissions, potential traffic congestion on either end of the tunnels on the 10, 710, 110, 134 and 210 freeways and would likely massively increase truck traffic on I-210 between Pasadena and San Fernando due to the convenient new connection between the ports and I-5 north.

The biggest problem I have with the opposition to the 710 Gap Closure Project is its concentration on the small picture of hyper-local issues. Yes, Caltrans will likely need to demolish about 10-20 properties to build the project. I have worked on transit project that have condemned more, potentially including a 32-story office tower. Tunnel boring machines are extremely effective, safe, and can build tunnels at adequate depth to avoid surface noise and vibration from any type of road traffic. This is a message our friends in Beverly Hills need to hear about their upcoming TBM experience for the Westside Subway Extension. Anyway, a little sacrifice from the few residents who stand to lose their homes (note: Caltrans is already their landlord – they bought potentially effected properties in the 1980’s) would benefit the whole region. NIMBY’s have already used their power to (rightfully) force a bored tunnel option for this project. Opposing it in its entirety is taking their power a bit too far.

Why am I still a proponent of a mitigated, bored tunnel for the 710 Gap Closure Project? Transportation policy is about moving people and goods in the most efficient possible manner. Although I’m very much dedicated to increasing the reach and viability of transit, intercity rail, walking and cycling, the automobile is here to stay as a mode of transportation in America. Freight trucks are also here to stay, and rail connections between Southern California and the Central Valley are terrible. To permit the most efficient movement of goods and people, the freeway system around Pasadena needs this reworking. With proper mitigation – extensive bus service, dynamic tolls, limited lane capacity and an HOV-3 requirement, the 710 tunnel would be a great success, improving mobility in the San Gabriel Valley and in Los Angeles as a whole. I would let Caltrans bore a tunnel deep under my house, wouldn’t you?


Rail Transit in Los Angeles – A Map

I did a map like this for San Francisco a while back. Take a look and see what you think. I only included Central/West Los Angeles.

Main features include a Downtown LA Bus Tunnel, new Busways along Venice, Slauson, Sunset, and the Mission Subdivision, a subway/elevated extension down Vermont Avenue, extension of the Crenshaw Line to Santa Monica/La Brea, and the inclusion of a Heavy Rail West Hollywood Line. Finally, on this map I suggest that the Westside Subway Extension should go all the way to Downtown Santa Monica and the ocean.


Rail Transit to Airports: Fair or Not?

Rail transit connections to airports are exceedingly popular in American Metropolitan Areas. Right now, a massive extension of the Washington Metro System is scheduled to reach the far-off Dulles Airport, and BART in the San Francisco Bay Area is preparing to build its controversial Oakland Airport Connector.

Billions and billions of dollars have gone to building extensions to airports, or designing new rail transit lines to connect to airports, like the BART to SFO Extension and Minneapolis’ Hiawatha Line, respectively.

The reason airport connections for rail transit are so popular is, yet again, purely political. Social fairness, or even cost-effectiveness, are generally not high priorities on airport extensions. Yes, it is nice to take the train to and from the airport instead of needing to park a car, but looking at the demographics and ridership numbers for airport stations tells an entirely different story. The cost of flying makes the average transit rider to airports much more affluent and white, and the vast majority of airport stations do not attract large numbers of riders, especially compared to stations in proximity to intercity rail stations.

The BART SFO Airport Extension is an especially ridiculous project due to the fare policies of the district. A large surcharge is added to all trips to the airport, effectively preventing airport employees from taking transit to work. The situation is so skewed that the airport began running a shuttle between Millbrae Station, the closest BART station with no surcharge, and the airport, so employees could avoid the surcharge.

With low ridership and disproportionately rich riders, airport extensions should not be a priority for rail transit in the United States. Instead, like I say in nearly every post,  rail investment in high-density urban area should be the focus of intercity rail transit going forward. Well-planned urban subway lines, like Los Angeles’ Red Line and the urban portions of the Washington Metro System, are effective at attracting a huge number of riders, and vastly changing land use patterns. The Westside Subway Extension in Los Angeles and many BART extensions I’ve previously suggested are far better uses of taxpayer money than, for example, the complicated and expensive extension of the Green Line (or Crenshaw Corridor) to LAX, the Oakland Airport Connector, or the BART connection to San Jose International Airport at the Santa Clara Station. Miami Metrorail’s airport extension also falls under this umbrella of ineffective transit investment, especially considering how underused the rest of that city’s metro system is.

Urban rail transit is the best use of limited transit capital funds, not suburban extensions and especially not airport extensions. End of story.

Wilshire & Geary: Two Streets and Two Subway Projects

Like many other things, California was the birthplace of modern rail transit in the United States. BART in the San Francisco Bay Area was the first complete, publicly built, rapid transit system in the United States and represented a paradigm shift in the mentality of transit planners. BART ran from the Outer East Bay (Fremont and Concord) to San Francisco and Oakland’s Downtowns. The line to San Francisco is a branch, and the system is rooted in Oakland. This stands in stark contrast to the New York City Subway or Chicago L, which serve the center city extensively and end in the inner suburbs. These cities have heavy rail, diesel commuter systems which use existing freight tracks without grade separation.

The Bay Area got BART instead of a traditional commuter rail system because of politics. President Lyndon B. Johnson was supporting his Great Society idea, injecting a large amount of public spending for grand, shiny projects like heavy rail systems. Diesel locomotives, or even traditional electric locomotives used on the Northeast Corridor, simply were not as cool. Now, the problem when the “cool” factor gets into transit planning is cost. BART continues to expand at the insane cost of 200+ million dollars per mile. More significantly, BART is the only heavy rail (subway) technology that is feasible to build in Northern California due potential to connect to the current network. BART’s trains are over 700 feet long, with far too many seats and too few doors for urban service.

Los Angeles has a heavy rail service also, but it is entirely different than BART. Los Angeles’ Subway, the Red and Purple Lines, only serve the City of Los Angeles and they travel the most dense areas in all of Los Angeles County. This distinction is easy to see in ridership per mile, where Los Angeles has about 9,000 riders per mile, while BART has 4,000. Train lengths in the LA Subway are 450 feet, and cars have three doors and far fewer seats than a BART train. This is the type of true subway both Los Angeles and San Francisco Need.

The purpose of this article is to compare and contrast two streets in two big, dense cities, that both need heavy rail subway lines under them. Also, I will go into the reasons why one of these subways will be built in the next ten years, and the other won’t.

These two streets are Geary and Wilshire Boulevards in San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively. Both streets carry the two busiest bus lines in the United States, the 38-38L in San Francisco and the 20-720-920 in Los Angeles. These lines carry over 60,000 passengers a day, a huge amount for a bus line. Metro cannot physically run more buses on Wilshire during peak hour because of intense bunching. Both of these transportation corridors are East-West with parallel bus service also carrying over 100,000 passengers a day on the 1-2-5-31 in San Francisco and the 2-4-14-16-316-704-714 in Los Angeles. Obviously transit demand in these corridors is huge.

The legacy of BART and the Red Line have dictated the progress on high capacity transit alternatives on Wilshire and Geary. Both Metro and SFMTA are implementing exclusive bus lanes on these streets. In neither situation are exclusive lanes sufficient. Underground, high frequency, heavy rail transit is sorely needed in both situations. Since Los Angeles began with a legitimate urban subway system, instead of a suburb-centric heavy rail system, extension along Wilshire Boulevard is (relatively) cheap and feasible. Under Measure R’s schedule, the Westside Subway Extension will reach Westwood by 2036, although with the 30/10 plan, the entire project may be complete 15 years earlier.

This situation leaves us with Geary Boulevard in desperate need of heavy rail transit. The organization of the BART District, with equal power shared across Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco Counties, essentially requires equal geographic distribution of BART dollars and extensions. When Contra Costa County got the extension from Concord to Pittsburg/Bay Point, Alameda County got the extension from Bay Fair to Dublin/Pleasanton. San Francisco essentially gained nothing during this time, but that is due to Proposition K, San Francisco’s transportation sales tax, not including any funding for BART extensions. In a new round of extending BART, Alameda County is getting the Warm Springs Extension, and potentially BART to Livermore, while Contra Costa County is getting eBART. Again, San Francisco County is doing its own thing with the Central Subway, Van Ness and Geary BRT and the Transbay Transit Center Program receiving the bulk of the funding.

The essence of the issue with a Geary Boulevard subway is it requires a New Transbay Tube, a mega project on the scale of East Side Access and Access to the Region’s Core Projects in New York City, with a cost that could exceed 6 billion dollars. The issue for BART and the Bay Area is finding a sustainable funding model for this huge project, in my opinion a three way split between San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa, so that San Francisco has a platform on which to build its new heavy rail service to the Richmond District.

Maybe, after enough pushing, BART will become more of an urban network, with higher stop frequency in Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco, and large transit villages outside the urban core.

The Failures of Cost Effectiveness

In my last two posts, I have discussed large-scale modifications of Los Angeles’ Light Rail System, namely large subway segments replacing existing surface tracks for the purpose of increasing capacity by removing two critical bottlenecks on the system: the connection between the Gold Line and the Regional Connector and the divergence at the intersection of Washington Blvd and Flower St. This post will further reveal my position on capital funding of transit projects, and why heavy investment in rail infrastructure expensive and politically difficult, yet far more beneficial in the long term.

Cost effectiveness is a hot term in transit funding these days. The Federal Transit Administration makes an objective review of all projects vying for New Starts funding based on cost effectiveness. This evaluation broadly looks at three things: cost of the project, ridership projections and solvency of the agency sponsoring the project. Ridership is looked at in terms of gross riders, new transit riders and passengers who switch transit modes. Sponsoring agencies get high scores if they lack budget deficits, and have operations money to pay for the New Starts project if built. In this formula, riders who switch from driving to transit are disproportionately valuable for the cost effectiveness score.

This cost effectiveness rating is helpful in weeding out some really awful projects from New Starts money, like the Orange Line Metrorail in Miami, but critically doesn’t account for land use changes and long-term economic impact of large-scale transit projects.

The most modern examples of high cost transit projects in the United States are, of course, the three large heavy rail systems build in the early 1970’s in San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Atlanta. The Washington Metro, widely considered the best of the three, has made an incredible impact on the DC Area in the last 40 years. Downtown Washington has remained a center, and inner suburbs like Bethesda, Silver Spring and the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor have vastly grown in density and livability. Many of the practices followed by the planners of the Washington Metro contributed to this success. These included expensive subways in areas of limited density, like Rosslyn-Ballston, an entire network planned, with construction in phases, and a general vision for the future. A newer extension to Dulles Airport abandons many of these principles, especially the lack of a subway through the Tyson’s Corner area. The reason a tunnel through Tyson’s will not be a part of the extension is the FTA New Starts cost effectiveness requirement, which would have classified the project as “medium” instead of “medium-high”, potentially eliminating 900 million dollars of Federal funding.

In 40 years, Tyson’s Corner could be an entirely different place, with far more density, due to a large investment in rail transit now. Paying a little bit more now could facilitate a huge amount of future economic growth. Situations like the original Washington Metro System and BART in Northern California show the massive growth high-investment rail transit can attract after 40+ years of existence. These situations encourage the high-cost subway alternatives for light rail capacity growth in Los Angeles, which will massively increase total network capacity, permitting the very high frequency rail transit that attracts development. In 40 years, Los Angeles could be an entirely different place, with dense corridors surrounding high capacity rail transit lines. If we concentrate on the upfront costs of projects and neglect the long term benefit of higher investment in infrastructure, we will miss out on a whole new generation of transportation systems in the United States. A dollar now, invested in high-quality infrastructure, will be 10 or more dollars in the future in economic benefit. We just have to overcome political squabbling and funding gaps. An easy solution is to redirect Federal highway subsidies, but that is a story for another time.

Please, chime in. This article is just the beginning of my thoughts and I would like to hear those of my readers.