LA Metro's rail expansion plan under Measure J and R can lead to less transit ridership

Last week's LA Times article revealed important facts about Measure J that its proponents thus far have chosen to ignore: Like previous plans to fund rail construction, Measure J will accelerate cuts in existing bus service and fare hikes. We look to history to see what this would mean for overall transit ridership. As voters are asked once again tomorrow to extend a regressive sales tax measure funneling another $90 billion in addition to the $40 billion already committed through Measure R into their transportation plan, will LA Metro's rail expansion plan deliver skyrocketing transit ridership for the region and reduce greenhouse gases and air pollution as touted by it's proponents? Our answer is "no" based on history and experience of the last 20 years of rail experiment. LA Metro's rail expansion plan under Measure J and R will likely lead to less transit ridership overall in the county.  

As USC planning professor James Moore puts it "The numbers do not lie, and the MTA is not shy about the details of its rail plans, particularly the role played by subways play in its plan. Spending billions for less transit is a bad buy. Measure J just ensures that the agency is empowered to do even more of the same by extending local sales taxes from Measure R for an additional 30 years until 2069. Unfortunately, we cannot trust the MTA to make cost effective choices, and voters should not fool themselves into believing otherwise. Measure J + MTA Rail Plan = Bus Fare Hikes + Bus Service Reductions = Less Total Transit Service."   

LA County unlinked passenger trips for MTA 1980-2013
There are five periods with alternating downwards and upwards trends of ridership:*

  1. 1980-1982 – adult cash fare was increased from $.55 to $.85, with other fares changed pretty much proportionally
  2. 1982-1985 – the first golden years period, with $.50 fare – while service miles only went up 1.5% over this period, ridership went up over 40% -- and was still going up in the last quarter of the last year.
  3. 1985-1996 – first period of rail dominance; over half of SCRTD/LACTC/MTA funds for transit (excluding spending for Metrolink and the Muni operators) went for rail construction and operations, while fares went from $.50 to $1.35 – and the average loss of ridership was over twelve million per year for eleven years.
  4. 1996-2007 – the second golden years period, when the Consent Decree was in effect. Although the increase in bus spending was a small fraction of what MTA was spending on rail during that period, ridership increased almost the exact same twelve million riders per year. Interestingly, over half of the increase in riders were on bus, which is particularly remarkable considering that the majority of added rail riders for this period were former bus riders.
  5. 2007-2013 – the end of the Consent Decree, fare – and particularly passes – went up, and major bus service cuts enable MTA to pay for construction and operations of rail lines.

The graph above shows unlinked trips, every time someone gets on a bus or train. The reduction in linked trips, origin-to-destination trips on transit, is far larger. The reason is, rail is very poor at “the last mile,” so more people have to take more transfers to take rail trips than bus trips. In 1990-92, when Southern California Rapid Transit District was almost all bus (the Blue Line began service at the beginning of FY91), the ratio of unlinked:linked trips was 1.65:1 trip; by the early 2000’s, it was approximately 2.25:1 trip. What that means is that the actual number of people going somewhere went down by over 25% just because the above data is caused, to a large extent, by people having to take more transfers, particular bus-rail-bus, rather than one or two buses to make the same trip.

*All ridership data above is from National Transit Database, except for 2012, which is from “ridership” page on MTA web site and 2013, which is from MTA Adopted Budget FY13. LA Co. Population is from State of California, Department of Finance, Demographic Research Unit.