Friday’s LA Times revealed important facts about LA County Measure J that its proponents thus far have chosen to ignore: Like previous plans to fund rail construction, Measure J will necessitate cuts in existing bus service and increases in fares. What the Times—especially Dan Turner’s half-hearted attempt to defend Measure J in spite of these pending fare increases and service cuts – is that Measure J’s heavy investment in rail at the expense of low fares and a robust bus system is, by the numbers, a bad public investment that will ultimately bring us less overall transit service and reduce overall transit use. Despite all the hype, Measure J will take LA’s mass transit system in the wrong direction.
Yes, MTA’s rail lines are relatively well-utilized compared to other systems in the United States. But the key to providing the transit service Los Angeles needs is how wisely we spend, not how many trains we fill. In fact, MTA’s rail system is cost-inefficient compared to its own bus system in terms of operating costs and operating subsidies; the inefficiency of Metro Rail is even starker when accounting for the enormous cost of building rail lines. Buses recover a far larger share of their capital costs than rail, even accounting for the bus mode’s share of road costs. Taxpayers subsidize each new trip ranges from $14 on the Metro Blue Line to $50 on the Gold Line compared to less than a dollar on the Wilshire Rapid bus. Expanding rail drives an ever escalating tax payer subsidy for transit, and a fiscal necessity for the MTA to shift resources from buses to rail.
Metro has spent $11 billion plus on the Los Angeles rail system to date, and in doing so has substantially reduced total transit ridership by shifting resources from buses that move many to trains the move few. The system’s ridership zenith was in 1985, when LA County had close to 20% fewer residents than it does today. Ridership began to crater the day the MTA began to shift resources from bus services and low fares to the agency’s rail plan. Ridership only began to climb again after court-mandated improvements in the bus system and a court-ordered fare freeze beginning in the mid-1990’s, the result of a federal civil rights lawsuit by the Bus Riders Union. After ten years of ridership increases totaling 37% and approaching a return to 1985 levels, the federal court’s consent decree binding the MTA expired. Announcing that it could no longer continue to fund both current transit operations and rail expansion, the MTA began to pull back from bus service and raise fares. If the recent trends in MTA bus fare increases and bus service contractions continue, the MTA could face a loss of 100 million annual riders over the next three years, all in the name of freeing up resources for rail. (For more details on these trends, see here.)
We know what to expect. The numbers do not lie. 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.