Big transit issues discussed at Move LA event

The activist group Move LA held a conference this morning in downtown Los Angeles to discuss the region’s transit future. By my somewhat under-caffeinated reckoning, optimism prevailed over pessimism.

The event was a looooong conversation with many participants. Many of the points made have been made many times in the past. Some, however, caught my ear:

•Many advocates and officials say securing private money is the key to getting transit built now – given that public funds are increasingly scarce. However, there is skepticism in the finance markets that investing private money in transit will ever pay off, said Scott Bernstein, the president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology. In particular, he said, it’s unclear that enough people will ride transit to generate revenues to make the investment worthwhile and the U.S. doesn’t have much of a track record on this front.

•Another good point by Bernstein: When Alexander Bell invented the telephone, the first phone was useless until the second was built. The same applies to transit: networks bring exponential gains in those who use them.

•The longer it takes to persuade Congress to make America Fast Forward (AFF) federal law, the more challenging it will be to build the Westside Subway Extension in one big chunk to Westwood.

AFF is the change in federal law being sought by Metro — it would use federal loans and financing to accelerate the construction of 12 Measure R transit projects, including the subway.

The problem, said Metro deputy executive officer David Yale, is that at some point contracts to build the project will have to be issued. If AFF hasn’t happened, then Metro will have to revert to the original Measure R plan to build the line in three phases between now and the year 2036 — and therefore contract for each phase.

•How to federally fund the America Fast Forward plan remains uncertain, said Jaime de la Vega, incoming chief of the city of Los Angeles’ transportation agency. One bond program that’s part of AFF is getting support from both sides of the aisle, but support for the other bond program is uncertain. Both bond programs are needed to get the 12 Measure R projects built in the next decade or so.

•Sunyoung Yang, a lead organizer with the Bus Riders Union, said that despite the passage of Measure R, Metro ridership has dipped in the past three years and she blames fare increases and bus service cuts. Her main point: it’s hard to get money to expand transit if less people are taking it.

•”Are you going to have a new love affair with something other than the automobile?,” asked keynote speaker G.B. Arrington, the vice president of PB Placemaking, a planning firm. (Here’s his blog).

He was talking about remaking the Los Angeles metro area into a city that’s a lot more livable, with more transit, more amenities closer to people’s homes and a quality of life enjoyed in places such as Vancouver and Portland.

He also said that when transit-oriented development is done right, it can reduce the total number of vehicle trips near a station.

As for L.A., he thinks that TOD has been done in a piecemeal fashion and near many stations is not possibly under zoning laws. How to reverse that trend? Better planning before transit is built, fewer discussions focusing only on density and building streets for people and not just their cars.

One other point that he made that I liked: He said that the more parking that is built in a region, the more likely that traffic and auto use was going to increase. Ironically, many communities who complain about traffic — he used the Westside as an example — only make the problem worse by requiring more parking in any kind of new development.

Move LA, by the way, was a key backer of the Measure R sales tax approved by L.A. County voters in 2008 and they’ve been pushing America Fast Forward, the plan to use federal loans and financing to accelerate the construction of Measure R projects. The group is partially funded by Metro.

5 replies

  1. We definitely need more private investment in transit. It works very well in Asian cities like with the MTR in hong kong and used to be what we did in this country pre-WWII (aka pre american car culture). More private investment means better built transit which means better connectivity and that means much more patronage. You have to build it WELL to get ridership and that is going to take more private money. If they are so skeptical about funding it means they are not thinking in a visionary sense. Well built, truly rapid, well connected transit WILL attract many, many riders. There are A LOT more people in this city than most people think who would LOVE to have an alternative to driving but can’t because the other options simply are not fast or efficient enough or even close enough. That needs to change, and private investment is a great way to do it.

  2. I was amused/bemused by the failure of the Skype hook-up with the Congressional Staffer in DeeCee. Ooops, I guess tele-commuting may not always be the “next” solution.

  3. Good write up, Steve. I’d add that at the end at the final panel there was an apparent consensus for the opportunity for another Measure R in coming years.

    Several speakers spoke about the need to extend lines and build new rail lines beyond what Measure R will support. Move LA’s Denny Zane spoke of the possibility of in 2012 seeking to lower the threshold for these kind of ballot measures, and then in 2016 (in the Presidential election), of having another Measure R. The idea being that the pent up need in LA is so great, that Measure R just won’t do everything that’s needed.

  4. L.A. CAN change, but there’s a lot of obstacles.

    Public perception will only change if we build more transit. We can only build more if we increase funding and streamline the process. And getting more funding will require changing people’s perceptions of transit.

    And planning definitely has been missing. TODs would work better if they were more integrated into the stations. And if there wasn’t the feeling that you need to drive anyways to get beyond the rail skeleton.