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. 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.

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  2. 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.

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    • 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

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  3. 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.

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  4. 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.

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    • 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

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  5. 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.)))

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  6. 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.

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