Metro responds to LA Weekly's subway "ripoff" story

The L.A. Weekly on Wednesday published a story headlined “$9 Billion Subway-to-Sea Rip-off.” The story suggests that the Westside Subway Extension project is a ripoff because it won’t fix traffic congestion in the region.

I’d like to offer readers some corrections and clarifications, and also provide information omitted from the article:

•The article stated the subway project would cost $9 billion because of cost overruns. In fact, there are no known overruns because construction hasn’t yet begun. Although Metro studied five alignments for the Westside Subway Extension, it has the funds to build two of them — a Wilshire line to the vicinity of Wilshire and Westwood boulevards or the same alignment just a bit further with an additional station at the VA Hospital. Metro estimates the cost of those alternatives at $4 billion and $4.4 billion, respectively, in 2009 dollars.

•If the project can be built in the next decade under the 30/10 Initiative, that would add a billion dollars to each of those alternatives because of inflation, not overruns. If it takes until 2036 to get the subway to Westwood, the cost is estimated at $6 billion and $6.4 billion, respectively. The fifth alternative studied by Metro — a line all the way to Santa Monica and a line between Beverly Hills and Hollywood though West Hollywood — is estimated to cost $8.75 billion in 2009 dollars. But Metro doesn’t have the money to build it at this time, as has been clearly stated at many public meetings and in many documents. Here’s a recently released fact sheet that explains it.

•Perhaps to support the Weekly’s view that the subway is a waste because it doesn’t fix traffic, the article doesn’t mention some benefits the Westside Subway Extension may offer. So I’ll list a few:

–Although the subway draft environmental impact statement/report projects that the subway will not seriously dent traffic congestion in the region in the year 2035 (see chapter three), it does suggest that the subway will slightly decrease congestion. Another way to look at it: even with population growth expected in the next quarter century, the subway could help congestion from getting worse AND it might provide a nice alternative to traffic for some riders. On a per rider basis, subways generally produce fewer greenhouse gases than those driving alone, according to the Federal Transit Administration.

–The article fails to note that extensive transit systems in places such as New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, London, Paris and Rome have also failed to fix traffic congestion. But they make getting around easier.

–The subway will considerably improve transit times to the Westside. The 25-minute trip from Union Station to Westwood is half the time the journey takes for the speediest of Metro buses — and I use the term speediest loosely. The subway will also allow travel times of about 35 minutes from North Hollywood to Westwood — a trip that currently takes about 65 to 70 minutes by train and bus. The subway connects to the region’s transit system at several locales, most prominently Union Station and downtown’s 7th/Metro Center stop — where all four Metro light rail lines will one day converge when the Regional Connector is built.

–The Westside currently has the second-highest job density in Los Angeles County. The highest is in downtown L.A. This is not expected to change. I think it’s reasonable to suggest it makes sense to build transit where jobs are.

–The subway will be capable of carrying 12,000 people each way per hour at full capacity at speeds up to 70 mph. It’s generally accepted that a freeway lane can carry about 2,000 cars per hour and about 70 percent of the people in the L.A. region drive alone to work. In other words, it would take a lot of additional lanes of road somewhere to add the kind of capacity that the subway has to move people.

–I’m unaware of any serious proposals from any residents’ group to doubledeck the Santa Monica Freeway, build a new east-west Westside freeway or widen other major arterials on the Westside by several lanes. It may be easy for people quoted in the story to suggest building more roads and providing more bus service on the Westside. Rapid bus speeds on Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards currently average 10 to 15 mph and are projected to fall to 8 to 11 mph by 2035.

–Under the system used to grade freeways by transportation engineers, the Santa Monica Freeway currently receives an F for its traffic during the morning and afternoon rush hours between downtown L.A. and the 405 freeway. That’s the worst grade possible, meaning that traffic is almost always under 20 mph and often comes to a stop during those times.

•The article states: “Now, cities whose residents are paying taxes into the L.A. subway’s cost — but are getting little or none of their money back for their own aging roads, new buses or better transit — are asking how Villaraigosa can justify a subway that’s more PR icon than traffic relief project.” Under Measure R, 15% of the sales tax revenues are returned to cities in L.A. County to be used for transportation projects — an amount projected to reach $6 billion if revenues are strong. Also, the majority of road and transit projects in Measure R are outside the Westside. Here’s the list.

•Measure R, by the way, also froze fares for seniors, students, the disabled and Medicare recipients until mid-2013 — regardless of where they live in L.A. County. There are also funds provided for improvements to Metrolink commuter rail service, which doesn’t serve the Westside because…there’s currently no rail service on the Westside outside of the little trolley at the Grove.
•The story quotes a leading wetlands environmentalist as saying “Why would people want to put such a massively expensive construction project underground in earthquake country, while methane underground still exists on the Westside? The only thing that changed is the politics — not the geological facts.” Subways are found in many cities in the earthquake-prone Pacific Rim, including Tokyo, Mexico City and San Francisco. Subways have held up well in earthquakes, including the 17-mile line here. There is a notable exception: the subway in Kobe, Japan, was badly damaged in a 1995 earthquake that also collapsed thousands of homes in the region.

•As for methane, it’s certainly present in the L.A. area, as are other gases. The region is filled with many underground structures such as parking garages that have been built in areas with methane.

•The story noted that some elected officials were upset when $4 billion was dedicated to the subway project in Measure R. That is undeniably true but the story failed to mention that 68 percent of county residents — or more than two million people — voted for Measure R and its package of projects, including the subway.

•The story states: “Metro has poured billions into light rail and subways, letting road systems badly age. And still, only 2 percent of residents in the greater Los Angeles urban area, stretching from Orange County to Pomona to the Valley, use public transit.” That statistic is unattributed but presumably includes people of all ages, including children. Perhaps it’s more relevant to look at the number of people 16 or older who use public transit to get to work — the people mostly using the roads at rush hour. In the Los Angeles urban area, that number is 6.4 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Los Angeles County, 7.2 percent of the workforce uses transit and 11.1 percent does in the city of L.A. For the sake of comparison, about 16.5 percent of residents use public transit to get to work in the San Francisco urbanized area. In the Chicago urban area, it’s 12.5 percent and in the Boston urban area, it’s 12.8 percent.

•In response to the LA Weekly article, LA Observed reporter Mark Lacter wrote “Give it up folks, this project is as good as dead.” The Board of Directors could choose at its October 28 meeting to halt the project. But that seems unlikely. On at least six occasions in the past two years, the Directors have voted to either move forward planning of the subway project or approved funding plans for it — sometimes unanimously. If Lacter knows of the seven members of the Board of Directors who plan to vote against choosing a subway route and launching a final environmental impact study on Oct. 28 — and thus going against the will of 68 percent of voters — he failed to share that information with his readers. (Correction: an earlier version of this post misspelled Mark Lacter’s name–our apologies)

42 replies

  1. Excellent rebuttal. There are plenty of things Metro does wrong but to be against the extension of the purple line is absolutely ridiculous.

    Hollywood’s rebirth has a lot to owe to the Red line. Did it reduce traffic? Probably not but it improved the neighborhood and quality of life for all of it’s residents. I live off Hollywood blvd and gave up my car because of the proximity of the Subway. So, from my own personal experience, the subway converted one driver to rider.

  2. The LA Times consistently ignores that since the 1920s Los Angeles County has invested in many billions of dollars, in today’s money, in surface streets, highways, boulevards, expressways, and freeways. On the other hand, Metro has invested a few billions in heavy and light rail and currently has fewer than 100 miles in service rail lines. Even witht the proposed 30/10 projects, the Metro rail system will be much smaller than the extensive freeway and road system of the county. Los Angeles ripped out its interurban railway and streetcar systems in the 1950s and 1960s. At its zenith, Pacific Electric had over 1000 miles of track in its system. Let’s invest in a system as extensive as Los Angeles Electric and Pacific Electric and see how that takes care of traffic. The existing Metro System along with 30/10 will just begin to give LA residents the kind of connectivity and convenience necessary to pry then out of their cars. LA Times should at least compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges.

  3. Good rebuttal Steve.

    The safest place to be in the Bay Area during the 1989 World Series Quake was the BART tube. Just ask the folks on the Nimitz freeway.

    (I also once saw a documentary about the sanctuary the Red Line provided when the Aliens attacked on that 4th of July a few years ago… 😉 )

    But seriously, why should those of us who do not need to cart around 3-4 empty seats and a two-ton cage-on-wheels be stuck in the same traffic as all the car addicts in the tragedy-of-the-commons we call the Westside’s road system? Even motorcyclists get to cut the lane!

  4. The LA Weekly article was a shameful sham, if you ask me. I’m just sad that it got so much exposure. I certainly agree with the points in this post.

  5. Unfortunately, since its takeover by Village Voice Media, which is controlled by the libertarian New Times of Phoenix, LA Weekly stories have been heavily driven by ideology, rather than fact or unbiased analysis. Their goal is to prove that government can’t do anything, whether or not the facts support their position. Wilshire Boulevard was identified as long ago as the 1970’s (by experts from outside Los Angeles) as the single most promising rapid transit site in the country. Carry on, Metro and Steve.

  6. It is pretty typical to see an article this bad in the LA Weekly, they basically are a sensationalist rag supporting or opposing anything that gets people to read their sad paper. During the Red line construction in the 90’s, I recall reading endless miserable articles in opposition to the entire MTA. Yet, mysteriously, after the Red line was built, several articles praising it’s virtues. The LA Weekly only care about money, not the people of Los Angeles.

  7. You guys need to somehow find a way to publish this rebuttal in print. Only a handful of people interested in transit read this blog . . . The rest of the population with less knowledge about these issues will only see the attacks on transit in the LA Times and LA Weekly without the opportunity to see the other side of the story. Some of the claims made by LA Weekly are clearly misinformation and must not be allowed to stand. Otherwise that’s how myths like Obama being born in Kenya start spreading around.

  8. That LA Weekly story was repulsive and stupid. I am going to make it my business to destroy this anti-transit meme.

  9. Good rebuttal. Yeah, what the hell happened to the LA Weekly? I used to look forward to reading it on Thursdays. Now, with listings on the internet, I have absolutely no reason to read it.

  10. Metro has known for a long time that their rail lines have not and will not improve traffic. There are certainly other benefits to rail. Unfortunately, many people, including the Mayor, other politicians, the LA Times, and practically every pro-transit speaker at the MTA public hearings, have repeatedly made the claim that rail improves traffic. So, if Steve wants to get sanctimonious, how about next time someone makes these false claim, (it happened over and over again at both the Subway Line and Expo Line hearings) the MTA actually correct them, instead of intentionally perpetuating the myth that somehow rail improves traffic?

  11. I’m fascinated by the omission of this one fact: L.A. is the only major city in North America (including Mexico City) that does not have a rail connection to its major airport terminal(s). Yet, this is not a priority. The carbon footprint of LAX is outrageous and this was concern of the Olympic Committee in rejecting L.A. last time around. Get a clue: connect LAX to rail. Subway to the Sea? How is getting to the beach more important than reducing the carbon footprint of the largest airport on the West Coast?

  12. In response to the above comment by D.N.S., luckily, in a city with good coordination, and good funding supplied to us by Measure R, one project pushing forward doesn’t mean it’s doing so at the expense of another. The rail extension to LAX is in fact in the works, and if you want to stay updated, information will be posted here:

    http://www.metro.net/projects/lax-extension/

    Just because the Westside Subway is further along in project definition than the Green line doesn’t mean it’s somehow far more important. LA is just a big place, and we need to work on things in some order. Prioritization is NOT something we can all agree on, but in the long run, if things continue the way they’ve been going the past few years, the city is going to have a good transit network, reaching important destinations like this.

  13. @D.N.S. It is more important to get to the beach because we are Californians’, LOL. No one wants to leave L.A. we rather go to the beach. J/K.

    Okay, seriously. A train connection to the airport is a different discussion.

    I do know that there have been many talks of extending the red line in NoHo to the Burbank Air port. However, how about extending the Pink Line to the Burbank airport. Check out the link

    http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&hl=en&msa=0&msid=108468547007622984779.000490e12981a1b8820a2&z=12

  14. The subway is being attacked by a small number of anti-city partisans who are trying to stir up a “tea party” style revolt. The LA Weekly is picking up the story because its whole angle is being anti-City Hall. The L.A. Times is running with it because that newspaper loves to exaggerate the slightest controversy, no matter how small.

    The truth is, most of the arguments against the subway are based on a mix of untruths and opinions. The subway is not going to cure traffic, nor is it going to prevent you from driving your car. Yes, it will cost money, just like almost everything of value costs money. That money will create tens of thousands of jobs, and to me that is worth an awful lot.

    The subway will not prevent anybody from enjoying the sunny L.A. climate. It will free a lot of people up from sitting in traffic. And during rush hour, it will get you across town faster than any other mode of transportation, other than helicopter.

    There are thousands of people and many organizations who have worked very hard for many years to support this subway. These include transit advocates, environmentalists, and urban planners. These subway supporters need to get vocal and get the arguments out there in the mainstream press, the local and national TV news, and the blogosphere. We can’t afford for the subway to be delayed for another two decades. Not again.

  15. @D.N.S.
    Just to let you know, there is a Rail Terminal at Mexico City’s Airport. I took it about a month ago and I got there faster by Subway than by car.
    I think that if there is a LAX rail terminal,it will help alot for many people, not just travelers, but for LAX workers to get around faster.

  16. THANK YOU!

    When I read that article, I had to do a major *facepalm*.

    It struck me as completely bizarre that because the proposed project doesn’t drastically fix congestion, it’s therefore a waste of money. Plus, with future growth…(as with any transportation project)…the point is to make the future less worse – not necessarily better than what it’s like in 2010.

    I do agree that these projects should probably be marketed less as congestion management projects…if you want none of them to pass. Unfortunately many people in Southern California want transit only if it takes their 8 a.m. competition off the street…

  17. I once again say that the LA Weekly is a horrible sensationalist rag. I am glad others are starting to see the light. Even the best of LA is a sad shell of what it once was.

  18. @ Tobias –
    The “rail extension to LAX” that is “in the works” won’t actually go to the airport terminals. Riders would need to transfer to a people mover (which is LAWA, not Metro’s responsibility, and which may not even get built!) It would be far more accurate to say it’s a rail extension to the “LAX area.” Unfortunately, it isn’t the modern, world-class multimodal air-to-train we might have hoped for.

    It is very unfortunate Metro and LAWA can’t coordinate to build it right.

  19. Great rebuttal. The L.A. Weekly seems to desperately want to hold on to an image of L.A. as a low-rise suburban “paradise”, and that world is long gone. We have 4M in the city proper now, not 2M as in 1960. We have increasing densification because the population requires it. Tracts of detached houses have been replaced with apartments, like in Palms, and older smaller apartment buildings, when razed, are invariably replaced with taller and larger apartment or condo developments. The libertarian-conservative ‘alternative’ papers decry billboards, but seem to cling desparately to the low-rise, low-density, and automobile dependency that has made the billboards such an attractive venue for advertisers.

    MTA, please get this message out and stop the idiocy.

  20. I’m not a blind metro supporter at all (I still think you guys were/are 100% wrong on TAP/LAX) but this LA Weekly piece was a total hack job/hit piece. Apparently the main reason for building public transit is to make commuting easier for those who choose not to use public transit? Offensive.

  21. Funny, I still have a copy of the LA Weekly with Villaraigosa on the cover with a gushing article promoting the extension of the subway.

  22. The halcyon days of the automobile in Los Angeles/California are just about over. Dead. DOA

    If one wants to go back and find out where funds have been misspent, take a look at the roughly $1.5B a former incarnation of the MTA (RTD+1) spent regaining the right of ways to all those miles of defunct rail line owned by AT&SF some 20+ years ago…

    San Vicente…. wasted… twice
    Culver Blvd… wasted….
    Venice Blvd…
    Slauson Avenue…
    Santa Monica Blvd…. (y/n?)
    Exposition Blvd…. National… How much did the “revitalization” of Big and Little Santa Monica Boulevard cost, along with demoing the bridge over Beverly Glen…. Pico Blvd…. the list of defunct, destroyed and forgotten rail corridors in Los Angeles is almost endless…

    When CalTrans suggested double decking the 101…. it was vetoed with a great deal of acrimony…. same for the 405…. the 110 was almost an aberration… The freeways in Orange County have almost all been doubled in width, yet there is no marked drop off in congestion – just a lot more cars going the same speed together…

    The responsibility for total bill for light rail’s return in Los Angeles County need not be thought of in dollars and cents; just harken back to the all-knowing engineers of the 1950’s and 60’s who foisted the concept of decentralizing Los Angeles with the automobile.

    The rest, as the saying goes, is history. It comes down to one concept:

    Pay now, or pay more later. That never changes.

  23. The subway/metro is so simple. The more people that take it, the better off we’ll all be in terms of traffic and pollution.

    True, if 10,000 new people start using the metro each year, but 25,000 new people (new arrivals to LA) start driving, congestion will get worse. That’s due to population growth, and the only hope we have is to continue to expand metro, so that more people can get where they need and either become carless, or one-car household (if they are currently two).

    To say that congestion will continue to get worse ignores the obvious truth… without the metro, it would get much MUCH worse.

  24. Perhaps I missed it, but no one seems to have addressed the intangible positive effect of improving the quality of life in L.A. with mass transit, that is interconnecting people one-to-one. The automobile and the suburbanization of L.A. have destroyed aspects of our culture by alienating us from each other. Mass transit, by getting us out of our steel (and plastic!) boxes frees us to interact with others both on the modes of transit and outside by making people-friendly businesses and homes near the transit stops, i.e., Starbucks, etc. I have been in industrial and real estate sales most of my life, and now that I am semi-retired I enjoy living in a loft Downtown and using mass transit as much as possible. How wonderful it is to not have to drive everywhere.

  25. Great article, Steve!
    I agree with every aspect of it,
    and I’m glad you have more common sense than all of the newspapers (and other media sources) combined!
    And @ Rob Nesbitt – you are absolutely right! I fully agree with you as well.
    The problem with Los Angeles is, too many people have been brainwashed to believing that Car is the only option to get around… while nothing could be further away from the truth. While it will take a while to get a real, competitive mass transit system in L.A., currently there is great way (indeed!) to survive without a car, and to improve the quality of your lifestyle.
    Extending the subway is a necessity, and is the only way Los Angeles will be able to sustain.

  26. All great points, to which I’ll add that it’s crucial to couple disincentives to the provision of additional capacity in order to move drivers toward other modes of transportation, whether subway, bus, two wheels or two feet. Merely adding a freeway lane or the subway (both very expensive) isn’t enough. We have to move beyond the capacity question to consider the key role of incentives (subsidized trips, employer programs) and disincentives (higher gas tax and/or pricing auto transportation and making drivers pay).
    Only when we provide alternatives and incentives on one side AND discourage driving (or at least provide a more accurate picture of the cost of auto commuting) will we get folks off the roads. It’s privilege that we price far, far too cheaply.

  27. This is great rebuttal Steve and I’m so glad that you responded. I can confidently say that I will never read the L.A Weekly again. That article was so incredibly biased and short sighted – It was infuriating.

    I will be writing to the editor of the Weekly to share my sentiments and encourage others to do the same. Articles like this one along with those printed by the Times are nothing but irresponsible journalism.

    The subway extension down Wilshire Blvd. has been needed since it was first proposed years ago and that need has only increased with time. Transit has never been about reducing congestion, at least not exclusively. It’s all about providing people with an alternative. One ride on the 720 bus and you instantly see the pent up demand for this line. Let’s get this built.

    • Hi Lawrence;

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Criticism of any particular Metro project by the press doesn’t bother me — everyone has a right to an opinion and we are spending taxpayer dollars and outside scrutiny is a GOOD thing. And, as I wrote at the time, I thought the story that appeared in the Times was fair but just kind of obvious. That said, I do think there are some basic facts that were overlooked or mis-stated in the Weekly story and that’s why we issued a response.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  28. The L.A. Weekly article was sensationalistic and bogus. Shame on them.

    Not building as many subway lines in L.A. is barbaric and a true disservice to our children and their children. The proposed subway lines will happen whether these idiots rail against it or not. Go Metro.

  29. For some reason, someone at The Source keeps deleting my comments despite the relevance they provide.

    So, I will be brief owing to the foregone conclusion that this too will soon disappear: The key phrase in this under-qualified “rebuttal” is “NO KNOWN OVERRUNS.” The word “known” is the key to the escape hatch that once again allows Metro to evade any responsibility other than angry rejoinders to articles regardless of the merit of criticism.

    • Hi Randall;

      We haven’t been deleting your comments. I just did a search and found two of them (including this one) under your name and both were published.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  30. There is only one public hearing left: Wednesday evening at Santa Monica Library. If you disagreed with the LA Weekly story, go to that meeting and support the subway. Metro staff will be counting the number of supporters vs. opponents. So it’s critical to show up and voice your support.

    (((The final public hearing is on Wednesday, September 29, at 6PM. It is at Santa Monica Main Library, located on Santa Monica Blvd at 5th Street.)))

  31. I hope your rebuttal gets printed in the LA Times if it hasn’t already. The weekly has become a cheap “gotcha” sensationalist rag probably supported by elitist who drive because they’re afraid to ride the trains with real working people. I’ve been hearing their leftist rants since the MTA was sewed way back when, and you know what, the trains are full if not filling up, the buses are full and often overflowing, and the streets are bumper to bumper. Build a westside train(as far west as possible) and it will fill.