Public Transit in Seattle: Following Los Angeles

From: Emory Bundy Subject: LA MTA, Sound Transit's model Date: Thursday, 02 November, 2000 13:26

I had an occasion this AM to respond to an inquiry from our lead attorney, with an update of LA's trauma--which is as predictive of ours as TVA's nuclear projects were of WPPSS' travail. Tom Rubin, you may recall, is a former LA MTA comptroller. FYI:

Yes, as I understand it, Miami's starter rail system was a disaster, something like one-tenth the predicted benefit. So there's not a lot of appetite to continue on in the sunny southland. Taxpayers in Miami took their lumps early, learned a bitter lesson, and in spite of last year's promotional efforts, led by a popular mayor, decided not to go any further down that rail line.

Also, I learned something new about LA from Tom Rubin this week: When LA set out (1980 approval, with construction starting 1985) on its rail-building future, with a 5/10ths sales tax to underwrite it, plus federal prospects, it planned to build-out 11 rail lines to knit that metropolitan community together--rather like the 125-mile rail plan our MPO (PSRC) has in store for us. (In our current, long-range, new Metropolitan Transportation Plan process under PSRC, EVERY option includes 125 miles of rail. We have choices to make for everything else, but LA-style rail ambitions are Locked In.)

Here's a harbinger of our future:

LA completed one line (Blue Line, LA to Long Beach) which is the nation's most successful light rail operation. That's the good news. It partially completed the Green Line light rail, which heads to but doesn't quite reach LA airport. And the system's "spine" (the concept mayor Schell's really keen about) is the high-capacity, heavy rail Red Line, to which the other 10 rail lines, and buses, were to feed passengers.

Along the way more money was needed, so another 5/10ths sales tax was added in 1990.

And, since LA is about 15 years ahead of Seattle, how's it going?

Blue Line completed, Green Line and Red Line partially completed--and the game's over.

One of the former, elected supporters led a citizens' vote in 1998 that, by an overwhelming margin, terminated the scheme, save for completing some almost-completed segments. Why? Well, there's $7 billion debt, higher payments for debt service than for MTA salaries, enormous increases in O&M--to the effect that the system is now accumulating hundreds of millions of dollars in debt because revenues can't keep up with both debt service plus O&M burdens. (In 1980, Before Rail, MTA's annual O&M was $265 million. By 1997, With Rail [albeit only three lines], it was $725 million. Just think what it could be if MTA took on the debt and O&M for its target 11 rail lines.) LA MTA settled its federal civil rights violations by agreeing to invest nearly $500 million to restore its once-good bus system--but now is appealing its own agreement, doubtless because its fiscal distress makes it hard to cope. LA just suffered a long transit strike because MTA now feels the need to squeeze its bus drivers/union due to its financial desperation.

To top it all off, LA MTA has considerably fewer transit riders today than it had in 1985--with, of course, an even more precipitous drop in market share. So a lot of people figured they just couldn't handle more such accomplishments at the hands of LA's Sound Transit, and pulled the plug. Seattle will get to the same place, if we continue to defer to Sound Transit, the only question being, how deep will our hole be?

The principal victims, of course, are the transit-dependent folks, who now suffer much worse bus service and much higher fares. They're in the company of all taxpayers, but especially low and moderate-income people who disproportionately underwrite the regressive sales tax burden. And of course everyone who travels is victimized, since congestion has gotten worse and worse while huge public resources have been wasted, including heavy debt burdens that will continue for decades into the future, plus the perpetual, added, rail-caused O&M price-tag.

The winners are the people who run the MTA, and have high salaries, cushier offices, and the prestige, power, and good friends that come from dispensing huge sums of money. And the vendors who provided services to the rail construction projects and to MTA's operations. Plus the politicians who get contributions along with some grateful constituencies like its vendors and their employees and associated unions. Finally, beneficiaries include those relative few who happen to be fortunate enough to live in proximity to a rail line station (especially the gold-plated, $280 million per mile, $4.7 billion Red Line) and who need or want to go to destinations along that line--for whom Richard Harkness' felicitous phase applies, "Never have so many contributed so much to so few." Those few have a Really Good Deal, and of course they offer good photo-ops for LA MTA's PR operation. (When the Red Line was opened--albeit a mere fragment of the extent originally planned--the US Secretary of Transportation, the Mayor, and other dignitaries were there to celebrate their victory in front of a fawning press. By all accounts, the artwork in the glittering Ventura station was really nifty.)

As a footnote, one thing that intrigues me here is that, as the press responds to Sound Transit's press releases, and the festive station openings for its Sounder commuter rail service, no one pays any attention to the cost. The system's development is behind schedule and over budget, and early ridership is falling short of projections--while, if Sound Transit succeeded 100 percent with its schedule, cost, and ridership projections, it would cost the poor taxpayers $268,000 for EACH round-trip auto removed from the daily commute. (Simple math: $670 million capital cost divided by the hoped-for 2,500 round-trip "new riders" by 2010 = $268,000 apiece.) And...all the former bus riders who now switch to rail, will be MUCH more heavily subsidized, every trip, every day, than they have been on the buses. Which portends the added O&M burdens like those plaguing LA.

But apparently the romance of rail completely obliterates any care or concern about its cost. Since our transportation professionals, and since our elected representatives don't care, why should the press?

(c) 2000 --- Wendell Cox Consultancy --- Permission granted to use with attribution.
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