Increasing investment in public transit in California: A how-to from UCLA and Berkeley Law

Passengers buy tickets at NoHo Red Line station. Photo by flickr user sicoactiva.

By now reality is setting in: We need to dramatically increase our investment in transportation infrastructure just to maintain the status quo. But it looks like Congress isn’t willing to do it, at least in the near future.

One might think that we’re sitting pretty in Los Angeles County thanks to Measure R — we’ve definitely got it better than some other regions — but federal largess also plays a big role in getting projects built here. Without it, L.A. and other cities throughout the state are going to have to find new sources of funding to help keep transit running and make down payments on future transit projects.

That’s the issue that a team of researchers from UCLA and Berkeley’s respective environmental law programs tackled in their report, “All Aboard: How California Can Increase Investments in Public Transit” [PDF].

Metro riders will be happy to know that under “short- and long-term solutions,” the number one recommendation is supporting America Fast Forward. The next three are:

  • Explore measures to reduce the voter approval threshold for transit-related taxes, assessments, and bonds from two-thirds to 55 percent;
  • Compile and promote data on the economic benefits of public transit to the public and to elected official in order to increase political support for transit financing; and
  • Encourage supportive land use policies in transit station areas to facilitate greater utilization of existing and planned transit resources.

The whole document is a good rundown of the challenges of funding public transit projects in California and why doing so is definitely worth it — both to the individual commuter and to society at large. To name a few: transit reduces greenhouse gas emissions and harmful air pollutants; it provides an alternative to being stuck in traffic; it’s usually less expensive than driving; and it can encourage smarter and more sustainable land use.

One of the paper’s more intriguing recommendations is that the state should encourage regions to adopt congestion pricing programs:

Local transit officials should evaluate and explore the impact of congestion pricing as a means to fund transit improvements. Congestion pricing involves placing tolls, or raising existing tolls, on roadways during times of peak travel demand. The price signal can reduce traffic congestion, encourage carpooling or transit usage, and improve air quality. The added revenue could then fund transit to provide drivers with a convenient and affordable alternative to driving.

California’s greenhouse gas emissions by sector (Source: California Air Resources Board)

It’s intriguing because the implication is that, if you, Angeleno driver, really want free and clear roads all the time and more transit, you’re going to have to pay extra for that scarce road space. There’s just too much demand for travel that no amount of road-building can satisfy. And think of all the worthy transit projects that just missed the Measure R cut (looking at you, rail through West Hollywood).

One recent poll suggested that people are more willing to pay extra for a better commute than pundits and politicians think. The caveat seems to be that voters want to know that there will be direct and immediate benefits.

The UCLA and Berkeley study is hardly the first study to support congestion pricing as a solution. In fact, Orange County is studying adding high-occupancy toll lanes — a partial form of congestion pricing — to the 405 freeway in the OC. In May, the Metro Board approved a motion to study whether HOT lanes might be possible on the 405 and 605 freeways in L.A. County. And work is underway on the ExpressLanes project for parts of the 10 and 110 freeways.

Am I crazy to think that Angelenos will support paying congestion fees to use the roads in my lifetime? Let me know in the comments.

5 replies

  1. Then Metro should just delay the projects if they don’t get the funding. Also, Metro needs to get rid of Transit TV and find another source of revenue.

    @LAofAnaheim The whole Measure R tax is pointless and people of LA should watch that with taxation, you get less in return anyways. I don’t support the Measure R2 Tax at all, no more increases. Whoever supports more tax increases or any of these useless tax is the people I can’t stand. Taxation is theft.

  2. A subway through the Sepulveda Pass that connects to the Purple line and the Expo line and goes all the way to LAX is the lynchpin to the entire system. In general, L.A. should look like Tokyo in the sense that the sprawling urban mass with transit “hubs” connected via train (NoHo, Hollywood, Downtown, Century City, Culver City, Santa Monica…)

  3. We already pay 1.5% of our local taxes to support transportation in Los Angeles. Who’s to say we wouldn’t support another half cent sales tax increase? I think the majority of Angelenos will support a Measure R2, which could help fund a subway/underground light rail for West Hollywood, finish the Purple Line to Santa Monica, east expansion of the Green Line from I-605 station to Metrolink, etc.. Sell it to the voters like how Measure R was sold, and we’ll see another tax increase. A worthwhile increase.

  4. “The caveat seems to be that voters want to know that there will be direct and immediate benefits.”

    Metro can start by providing transit riders better incentives to use TAP. Removing the expiration date, providing cash value riders discounts per ride, implementing a daily cap system, working with local businesses to use TAP as payment for goods and merchandise, reciprocal use with other cities’ contactless cards, etc. are all things Metro can do now instead of waiting a decade to implement.

  5. Public transportation as a concept rocks. Public transportation that people can use in Los Angeles… Better for people to walk than to use public transit.

    More investment does need to be increased. With billions of dollars spent on lobbying by the auto industry, it would be a million years before Los Angeles Public Transit shapes up.

    Until then, people will begin to realize other cities are better and Los Angeles will decay in the long run.