EXPO LINE OPENING: First and foremost, a hearty congratulations to Los Angeles County taxpayers who mostly footed the bill for the $932-million first phase of the Expo Line. I thought the best part of this past weekend was watching those who paid for the rail line finally get a chance to ride it. That was sweet.
I also appreciate Source readers who have shown such a great interest in the project — the opening of Expo, by far, has brought this blog its largest audience since we started in late 2009.
I’ve also read your comments here and on Twitter and Facebook and forwarded them to the appropriate people at Metro. The biggest concern looks to be the issue of traffic signal synchronization for the train.
I’m told by Metro and city of Los Angeles officials that they are going to continue to work on improving all aspects of the line, including the signals. The issue here is rather obvious: They’re trying to balance public safety and providing the public with fast and convenient mass transit.
The Vancouver skyline. Photo by hatdow, via Flickr creative commons.
WHAT IS A T.O.D? I thought the highlight of last week’s Move LA summit was the keynote speaker, former Vancouver council member Gordon Price. His main point is that cities should not think of a transit-oriented development as just a new apartment or condo building plopped down next to a transit stop.
Rather, Price said, cities should think of creating entire transit-oriented districts that cover several square miles. Within that district, there must be all the transportation amenities — wide sidewalks, bike lanes, roads for cars and taxis and transit operating so frequently that everyone knows they will catch the next bus or train within a few minutes.
The idea is that there is no dominant mode of transportation — but there’s a lot of choices because there’s a vast network of sidewalks, bike lanes, roads and transit. “You count the efficiency of a city by the number of meetings you can attend in a day,” he said, repeating an old maxim. “Once these grids are in place, once people have the freedom of frequency, the car begins to drop as the dominant mode.”
EXPO LINE UPDATE, SORT OF: I was along the Expo Line alignment early Saturday evening and it was exciting to see the number and frequency of trains running along the tracks between La Cienega and downtown L.A. at night.
As for an opening date….still no official word. But I can tell you that testing is going well. Some approvals are still needed by local safety officials and the state Public Utilities Commission before the line can be opened to the public (as is always the case). Hopefully there will be good news fairly soon.
HIGH-SPEED RAIL: I think it’s positive news that the California High-Speed Rail Authority is working on agreements with commuter rail agencies in both Northern and Southern California.
The agreement, as has been reported by the media, would provide money for electrifying and speeding up Caltrain service between San Jose and San Francisco and upgrade Metrolink for faster trips between the Antelope Valley and Los Angeles. That’s a big upside in my view — because commuter rail is something that many people use most workdays and it helps alleviate traffic in metro areas.
81 MILLION REASONS TO BE HAPPY: All things considered, I thought it was pretty amazing that President Obama’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year included $31 million in federal funds for the Regional Connector and $50 million for the Westside Subway Extension.
Both, of course, are excellent and needed projects that will give hundreds of thousands of people a good alternative to sitting in traffic in the years after they open. I’m not the biggest fan of ridership projections — predicting the future is generally hard — but this federal document shows that both the Connector and the Subway Extension are expected to have some of the heaviest ridership of any transit projects getting federal funds in the nation.
On the federal funding front, the challenge for both projects has been the long and drawn-out environmental review process. Generally, transit projects don’t get federal money until the environmental studies have been approved by local agencies and then certified by the feds in a “record of decision.”
There’s a good reason why: the studies, after all, spell out in excruciating detail what exactly is going to be built. The feds, naturally, want to know what they’re spending their dollars on.
Having read a lot of the press and comment boards concerning the report by Beverly Hills’ consultants on tunneling safety for the Westside Subway Extension, I encourage those interested to actually read the report itself. Some of the discussion is technical in nature, but I think everyone should make their own decisions about what the report actually says and doesn’t say about Metro’s work thus far on seismic and tunneling safety for the project.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at Tuesday's news conference at Union Station about high-speed rail.
Interesting news conference by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Monday, with LaHood and Metro officials touting the California high-speed rail project. It’s interesting that even in the face of much criticism from Congress, the Obama Administration is sticking with its high-speed plan. And it’s also interesting that LaHood visited Metro’s largest rail station six days before the release of the 2013 federal budget, which will hopefully include funds for local transportation projects.
What the world probably doesn't need: more lengthy reports on transportation projects. Photo by unk's dump truck, via Flickr.
ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEW: There has been talk lately about reforming the environmental review process for transportation projects. It’s something, I think, should happen.
Look at the current process. It often takes five years and many millions of dollars to complete environmental studies for transportation projects. It’s a boon for transportation planners and consultants — cha-ching! — but are we really getting better projects as a result?
If an agency wants to build, for example, a light rail line along an existing railroad right-of-way in a developed urban area, is it really necessary to study not building the project? Or building it in many other places? Or exhaustively explaining why it’s needed (standard reason: traffic stinks)? And is it necessary to study every conceivable impact in an area already highly impacted by all the things that go with being in an urban area? And do we really need to study the air quality benefits of electrified rail over gasoline powered travel?
HIGH-SPEED RAIL: If you’re in school and studying to be a transportation planner and have to do a thesis or dissertation, please consider studying different ways that California could improve it’s inter-city rail network and at what cost.
Here are the key excerpts from the State Auditor’s summary report on high-speed rail issued yesterday:
In the meantime, the state’s high-speed rail program got another ruler-on-the-knuckles from the State Auditor. Here’s the key part of the audit summary:
The high-speed rail network’s (program) overall financial situation has become increasingly risky.
The cost estimates for phase one increased to between $98.1 billion and $117.6 billion—of which approximately $12.5 billion has been secured.
Although the Authority identifies the federal government as its largest potential funding source, the plan provides few details about how it expects to secure this money.
The cost estimates do not include phase one’s operating and maintenance costs, yet based on data in the plan these costs could total approximately $96.8 billion from 2025 through 2060.
We have some very successful Amtrak lines operating in the Golden State. With high-speed rail in constant turmoil — rightly or wrongly — it would be great if someone knew what could be done to speed up Amtrak and at what cost. It’s great to have a Plan A, and it would be equally great to have a Plan B and C.
REGIONAL CONNECTOR: I think it was nice to see the final environmental study for the Regional Connector be released the other day. Although public review and approval from the Board of Directors is still required, it’s the fourth major environmental study of a Measure R project to be completed since the public voted for the half-cent sales tax increase in 2008 — the others are the Crenshaw/LAX Line, the Gold Line Foothill Extension and the Expo Line’s second phase.
The Westside Subway Extension’s final study is also due to be released soon. Yes, construction is sexier, but these exhaustive and furniture-sized studies are required by law and must be done first.
As for the Connector, I recommend taking a look at the study. When all is said and done in the coming years, Metro will have spent more than $3 billion on building the Expo Line to Santa Monica, the Gold Line to Azusa and the Blue Line to Long Beach.
The Connector ties those lines together in downtown Los Angeles and by greatly reducing the need for transfers and allowing more frequent service, the Connector will shave time off the commute of anyone traveling into downtown Los Angeles or through it.
MEASURE R SEQUEL?: I think 2012 got a little more interesting with the news last week that Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) introduced a bill that could allow voters in L.A. County to decide to extend the half-cent Measure R sales tax past its June 30, 2039 expiration date.
The idea is to raise the money needed to accelerate Measure R projects.
Will it happen? I have no idea and I don’t think it’s my place to advocate one way or the other. If the state Legislature signs the bill, it would next be up to the Metro Board of Directors, who will discuss the issue with agency staff at their monthly meeting on Jan. 26.
Having watched Measure R unfold in 2008, my best guess is the Board will want more information about projected revenues from a Measure R extension, a funding plan (i.e. which projects will receive money) and the cost of borrowing against future revenues to build projects now.
BAY AREA TRAFFIC AND SMOG: I think it’s high time that other cities/regions get due credit for their lousy traffic and smog.
I was in San Francisco area this past weekend and took the above photo on a decidedly un-breezy day when San Francisco’s smog output wasn’t being blown inland to other parts of the state. Yes, San Francisco produces smog (as well as smug) — but the media doesn’t write much about it, instead focusing on the places where the smog ends up. Places such as the Central Valley and Sequoia National Park.
And while I’m on my soapbox, the Bay Area’s traffic is pretty miserable, too. But we don’t read much about that in the national press because (I’m hypothesizing) national media visiting S.F. or Silicon Valley probably stay in hotels close to their stories, whereas reporters shipped into L.A. usually have to drive to get where they’re going here in Sprawlsville.