Tim Cavanaugh at the Reason Foundation “hit & run” blog recently wrote a post asserting that since Metro decided to cut some bus service due to low ridership, the same should be done to Metro Rail. He suggested a cut of 48 percent to Metro Rail service.
Among his reasons: bus service is more flexible and can be added or subtracted where needed or not needed and rail is very expensive to build and operate. Excerpt:
While buses consume only 35 percent of MTA’s operating budget, they move 80 percent of its passengers. That’s a bargain compared to the Authority’s capital-hungry, debt-fueled trains, which continue to underperform the most modest expectations and have arguably depressed overall ridership on L.A.’s mass transit system.
In previous reporting I said L.A. buses carry three times as many riders as L.A. trains. According to current statistics, that’s closer to four times as many: 1,133,636 daily boardings for buses, against 298,932 for trains. These ratios are essentially unchanged [pdf] over the previous two years. You could eliminate nearly all the city’s rail service and have no more impact on customers than MTA will see with its current cuts.
•Nearly 68 percent of Los Angeles County voters in 2008 voted for the Measure R sales tax increase to build a package of rail, bus and highway projects, freeze some fares and raise money for transportation projects for cities in the county. Either two million-plus voters had no idea what they were voting for — which we do not believe is true — or two million voters decided they wanted to have the same kind of bus and rail transit system found in many other metro areas across the globe.
•Buses actually consume about 78 percent of Metro’s operating budget, not 35 percent. For fiscal year 2011, the amounts were $922 million for operating buses and $257 million for rail, according to page 23 of the budget, which is available online at Metro’s website.
•The ratio of bus-to-rail riders has been essentially unchanged the past couple of years. But there is another way of looking at it: 79 miles of Metro Rail carry about 20 percent of the daily boardings on Metro while there are 2,543 miles of Metro bus routes carrying 80 percent of the riders. In that context, Metro Rail carries many more passengers per mile than do buses. That number will climb higher as more rail lines are added.
•We reject the argument that Metro Rail has depressed overall transit ridership. This is an oft-repeated assertion made by long-time critics of rail. The Metro Rail program, which began in 1990, has helped total L.A. County transit ridership (meaning all transit agencies) grow from 552 million annual boardings in 1985 to a high of 614 million in 2008. In fiscal year 2010, Metro Rail had an estimated 91.6 million boardings, an increase of almost five million from two years earlier. Note: transit ridership overall in the U.S. reached 10.7 billion in 2008, the highest mark in 52 years, but dropped to about 10.2 billion in 2010, according to industry figures. The Great Recession, unemployment and lower gas prices (until recently) are thought to be among the reasons for the drop.
In conclusion, our take is this: to move people around L.A. County, we need bus, rail and highways. Not just one of those. All three of those. This is a strategy used in large metro areas ranging from the Bay Area to New York to London to Shanghai. We’re no different.
The changes and cuts to bus service narrowly approved by the Metro Board of Directors last week were certainly significant. But they were proposed for a reason — to make the system more efficient and better use scarce resources. Making deeper cuts to a service that people use — Metro Rail — would be, at best, counterproductive.