Five things I'm thinking about transportation, Jan. 4 edition

HIGH-SPEED RAIL FUNDING: I think until proponents of the project put forth a credible funding plan, the project is going to keep getting slagged by opponents and critics.

The latest salvo came yesterday on the first business day of the new year, when a state-appointed “peer review group” burped out a report on the project’s most recent business plan. The peer group’s recommendation: the state should not issue $2.7 billion in bonds to start construction on an initial segment of tracks in the San Joaquin Valley.

The group’s main beef? They want to know where the money is going to come from just to finish the project in the San Joaquin Valley, never mind the entire $98.5 billion estimated to get trains running from Anaheim to San Francisco. The California High-Speed Rail Authority responded in a blistering ticked-off news release, saying the peer review group didn’t consult with them and didn’t understand the project.

That was too little, too late because the media pile on had already begun. The media loves, loves, loves stories about government slagging government!


Some basic p.r. advice: If the feds aren’t going to cough up more money for the bullet train then someone needs to propose a way to pay for it — whether it’s a new fee, tax, guaranteed money from private investors, buying state lottery tickets, etc. Until then, skepticism is only going to rise and reasonable people are going to wonder if it makes sense to start something without the dollars in place yet to finish it.

On a related note, I wrote here last month that the writer Gregg Easterbrook had criticized the high-speed rail project in his NFL column, asking whether Iowans would be willing to foot the bill for Californians. As it turns out, Easterbrook concedes that Californians are already footing the bill for Iowa. Warning: photos of NFL cheerleaders in game garb accompany this article if that sort of thing offends you. I survived it.

CONGRESS VS. TRANSIT: Congress went home for the holidays without keeping the current commuter tax benefit in place — the equivalent of stuffing a chunk of coal in the stockings of transit users. Transit agencies and advocates were not amused.

The benefit allowed employees who purchase transit passes through their workplace to to make those purchases on a pre-tax basis up to $240. In other words, it’s like health insurance — you don’t have to pay taxes on the money you spend on transit. It’s a nice perk.

The amount now drops to $125 a month. Naturally, the write-off for those who use the benefit to pay for parking increased — more Americans, after all, drive to work than take transit. It would appear that Congress is trying to keep it that way.

We will be very curious to see if Congress finds a way to remedy this. If the feds aren’t going to spend gobs of money on building transit, perhaps they can find a way to give a small financial-pat-on-the-back to those who do ride buses and trains.

REASON FOUNDATION: For those keeping score at home, the Reason Foundation has responded to my response to their video criticizing rail transit in L.A. County — and specifically the slowness of getting from LAX to Burbank by transit.

And, for the record, I stand completely by my response.

I will give major kudos to the Reason Foundation for being one of the few groups out there asking questions about transit use, transit speed and cost — all important questions to ask that are often ignored by many, the media included.

I also think that lumping all rail projects together into one big critique is a strategic error; many around the country enjoy considerable ridership and are both speedy and popular. The Foundation might be better off looking at individual transit projects to determine which pass the smell test.

MEDIA WHOOPSYDOODLES: Everyone makes mistakes, even low-salaried, over-worked journalists. I mention these errors to help prevent bad info about Metro-funded projects from circulating.

The Daily News in an editorial calling for the Expo Line to open sooner or later wrongly reported that the second phase of the project from Culver City to Santa Monica will open in 2030. The scheduled opening is 2015.

The L.A. Weekly recently published a story about the reports that Metro released in October on seismic and geologic conditions in the Century City area and their impact on the Westside Subway Extension. The Weekly ran the following correction:

The article “Westside Subway Extension Feud” (Dec. 23) incorrectly stated that trenching, a method of fault testing, had been conducted on the Santa Monica Fault in the late 1970s and found the fault to be inactive. In fact, the fault was evaluated using mapping and other data, not trenching. The data was insufficient to deem the fault active or inactive.

The view of the damage caused by the tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri, in May 2011. Photo by Bob Webster, via Flickr creative commons.

CLIMATE CHANGE: If you believe that some type of global warming is happening, then you likely also believe that the burning of fossil fuels is the major cause for it.

Perhaps you, like me, believe it’s real — but leave considerable mental room open to what may happen to Planet Earth and its inhabitants as a result. After all, predicting the future has proven difficult in the past (example: I predict Saints-over-Ravens in this year’s Super Bowl).

That said, I think this was a smart article in the New York Times that was published over the holidays. The gist of it: as costly weather disasters in the U.S. soared in 2011 (a dozen with at least a billion dollars in damages), funding for more climate research was stagnant or dipped. The result: it’s hard for scientists to know if the extreme weather can be blamed on global warming.

Here’s the key excerpt that I think provides excellent context for the issue of global warming:

Many of the individual events in 2011 do have precedents in the historical record. And the nation’s climate has featured other concentrated periods of extreme weather, including severe cold snaps in the early 20th century and devastating droughts and heat waves in the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s.

But it is unusual, if not unprecedented, for so many extremes to occur in such a short span. The calamities in 2011 included wildfires that scorched millions of acres, extreme flooding in the Upper Midwest and the Mississippi River Valley and heat waves that shattered records in many parts of the country. Abroad, massive floods inundated Australia, the Philippines and large parts of Southeast Asia.

So depressing. Are we really a nation that doesn’t want to ask the big questions?

BONUS THOUGHT–LATE NIGHT SERVICE: The readers of this blog and Metro’s followers/friends on Twitter and Facebook aren’t shy about expressing their views about this agency and what they want from it.

Certainly among the things they want the most — at least judging from what I hear in the land of social media — is more late night service, particularly on the rail side and on weekends.

I have no idea whether that’s something that will happen. I also have no idea how cost effective that would or would not be — I do know it’s an issue that many transit agencies have wrestled with. But I will be happy to pass along the message from readers.

BONUS THOUGHT 2 — PARKING IN L.A.: Good article in LA Magazine about the abundance of parking lots and spaces in Southern California and the region’s insistence on adding to that abundance. The result: a city of parking lots.

I thought, however, the article didn’t tell the entire story. One reason that residents, developers and politicians have been insistent that we build so much new parking is that there are some neighborhoods — the older ones — in which apartment and condo residents have a hard time finding street parking at night. In many cases, their buildings lack parking.

The problem in a nutshell: if you stop building parking, will you really attract people who don’t own cars or own fewer cars? Maybe.

I think the only way you get to the point where parking requirements will be eased is to build more fast, frequent and affordable transit. People will still want their vehicles. But perhaps some won’t and perhaps people will use their vehicles less, meaning there doesn’t have to be a ton of parking available everywhere they go, including home.

6 thoughts on “Five things I'm thinking about transportation, Jan. 4 edition

  1. I can really get behind the comment about late night service. If there was regular service till even 2am on Thursdays on the gold line, I could take the train a lot more often. I would wager that as people are educated that trains reliably run late, you will slowly find more people taking the trains to clubs and bars in downtown and Hollywood. For many people I know and work with, people are open to use the system to replace a designated driver, it just isn’t available for them because it stops too early. I am not sure if that gets enough ridership to justify the cost, but a guy can dream…

  2. The Reason Foundation is opposed to anything other than rubber wheeled transportation. They would prefer government spend on roads, preferably toll roads, than public transit. What spending there is on public transit they argue should be buses which they say are faster and higher capacity than rail. You would not expect less from a libertarian think tank financed by big oil with David Koch on the board.

  3. Face it: High Speed Rail was mismanaged from the get-go and we taxpayers now do not trust the ever escalating costs in this bad economy. Also, the first segment was not going to be high-speed as required by the proposition putting forth funds. The well is dry. Great idea though, high speed rail. The reality, though, is it is dead.

  4. I feel also that transitioning to high speed rail from our current rail infrastructure would be too costly as well. I think the dialogue needs to turn to improving our regional rail infrastructure by separating grades, double tracking, electrifying and the lot.

    In regards to parking, Its a tough sell. Like road diets, even though it works in many places, with data to back it; to the general, non transit geek minded, majority, its “the social engineers” taking away lanes from “the taxpayers.”

    All in all though LA sure beats the town my grandmother lived in Virginia. I recently returned there and looked to walk from my hotel to the Rite Aid I could see from my room. To get there, I had to jaywalk a 4 lane, spread out highway, go through brush and cross a field. No sidewalks or crossings anywhere in town.

  5. I think it’s ridiculous that we ride based on the ‘honor system’. Put people at the gates and install a system that requires you to scan your ticket.

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