L.A.’s Measure M: Long Range Spending Based on Short Term Thinking  

Norm King
Norm King served as city manager in three Southern California cities and is the former executive director of the San Bernardino Transportation Commission.

Los Angeles County is potentially poised to inflict a “forever” sales tax on itself and spend a majority of the funds in ways which cannot possibly produce what its supporters claim.  Advocates appear oblivious to transit ridership trends and new technologies which will make Measure M an expensive and futile experiment.

Metro’s CEO Phillip Washington has stated that Metro’s goal is to convert 20-25% of the county’s population into regular transit riders.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that these new riders will have to be “choice” riders. Choice riders, those who have access to a car and yet choose to ride transit, constitute less than 20% of Metro ridership and less than 2% of total passengers.  The non-choice market is saturated. To achieve a 20-25% market share would require attracting 10 to 15 times the number of existing choice riders. Metro’s transit’s goal is unobtainable and creates false expectations.

Another way to frame the dilemma: the most recent 20 year Regional Transportation Plan adopted by SCAG projects spending around 55% of total transportation funds to support transit to capture a paltry 6% of the total trip market share.

In spite of vastly increased investment transit ridership has declined and lost market share to auto trips.  Since 1970 nation-wide transit supply (vehicle miles of service) has increased 180% but transit ridership has increased only 45%.

Congestion has not been reduced. The cost per passenger mile has risen and greenhouse gas emissions have increased per passenger mile.  Metro boarding in LA County is down 10% since 2006 after spending $9 billion on new rail over the past 30 years.

Gary Toebben, President of the LA Area Chamber of Commerce has stated, “If we invest, the ridership will come.”  To the contrary Metro’s experience has been, “When we invested, fewer came.”  Let him explain why ridership will “come” after spending Measure M’s billions when after spending $9 billion over the past thirty years transit ridership has declined in Los Angeles County.

A revolution is taking place. The idea of a roving van service, electronically routed to efficiently pick up shared-ride passengers for a point-to-point trip, has been around for a few years. Uber and Lyft are building the communication infrastructure to create a scale of demand for such trips not previously thought practical. The UberPOOL and Lyft Line programs will replace low-frequency bus service and offer the convenience of door-to-door travel in a way fixed line transit cannot and will likely be a cost efficient way to provide the poor and non-choice riders with access to a far greater number of job opportunities than traditional transit.

Though highly speculative a recent modeling report from Lisbon projected that replacing conventional car and bus trips with dispatched door-to-door service would provide the same level of mobility using only 3% of the current number of vehicles, cut emissions by one-third, eliminate the need for on-street parking and reduce rail transit ridership by 50%.  Do I think this will happen soon?  No!  But the fact that such modeling is occurring suggests the future will be very different.

Better mileage for autos and fewer passengers per mile of service on transit means that new sedans produce less greenhouse gas per passenger mile than the average transit trip. It will be impossible to claim that on average transit is cleaner than auto trips. Yet the go-to assumption by the majority of the state legislature and certainly the editorial boards of our major newspapers is that transit is always cleaner than the automobile.

Rail transit is very expensive.  The relatively few who use transit – especially rail – are sustained only by massive subsidies payed mostly by non-users to the benefit of users.

There is a degree of double-talk and hypocrisy in the rhetoric surrounding Measure M.  While promising “congestion relief” from Measure M the City of Los Angeles (“Mobility Plan 3035”) and other cities have adopted “road diet” policies aimed at intentionally creating congestion by reducing road space.  It is hypocritical at best and dishonest at worst for public officials to use “decongestion” as a selling point for Measure M and, at the same time, consciously implement street policies which increase congestion.

If past Metro rail investments had increased transit ridership more such investment might be justified.  There is no such track record.  Equally important there is substantial reason to believe that transportation innovations will make some existing public transit modes obsolete or irrelevant.

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