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A Horrifically Expensive effort to serve LA with Rail has been an unmitigated disaster.

Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority is now under federal court order to quit raising rail fares . It must put hundreds of buses back into operation, improve service, and reduce bus fares.

The Los Angeles urban area, today, is far more concentrated than metropolitan Seattle or Portland 5,800 people per square mile. Immense determination, political courage, and policy discipline would be necessary for Seattle or Portland to match that density two generations hence. And an ambitious, horrifically expensive effort to serve LA with rail has been an disaster in that still widely distributed region.

Capital expenditures on new rail systems often drain resources from lower-cost but more effective alternatives. Nowhere has this been more clear than in Los Angeles, where the damage to bus ridership from the diversion of resources to rail far exceeds any ultimate benefit expected to be derived from rail, a situation that recently provoked a civil-rights lawsuit.

(The suit was brought on behalf of low-income and ethnic minority citizens and bus drivers, represented by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority is now
under federal court order to quit beggaring service and raising fares for low-income bus riders while lavishing resources on up-scale train riders. It must put hundreds of buses back into operation, improve service, and reduce bus fares. The roughly 15% of LA MTA patrons on the trains [average income $65,000] have been the beneficiaries of 45 percent of the subsidies, while the 85 percent on the buses [average income less than $15,000] have received 55 percent-or roughly one-fifth the level of per-ride transit subsidy.)

Southern California Rapid Transit District/Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority

The Southern California Rapid Transit District (SCRTD) operated the bus transit system, and later the light rail and heavy rail systems, in Los Angeles County until the merger with the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) (the transportation planning and funding agency for Los Angeles County) to form the Los Angles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in the first part of calendar year 1993.

Transit usage in Los Angeles over this period offers an almost unique opportunity to track the impact of fare changes and improvements in quality and quantity of transit service on transit utilization. We will track SCRTD/MTA ridership, specifically unlinked passenger trips (UPT)2, over the period 1980-20113, as shown in the graphic following.

  • 1980-1982 – During the latter part of the 1970's, due primarily to the price and uncertain availability of motor fuel following the reaction of the Arab oil producing nations to the outcome of the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel, Egypt, and Syria, and the rapid influx of Hispanic immigrants who were transportation-disadvantaged, SCRTD transit ridership rose rapidly, funded primarily by the one-quarter cent sales tax authorized by the Transportation Development Act of 1971. However, funding shortfalls led to an increase in SCRTD cash fares from $.55 for fiscal year 1980 to $.65 for 1981 and then $.85 in 1982, with other fares changing approximately accordingly, resulting in an 11% reduction in UPT.

  • 1982-1985 – Following the passage of Proposition A4, the first (of three) half-cent sales taxes primarily for transit in Los Angeles County, in accordance with the terms of the Proposition, SCRTD adult cash fares were reduced from $.85 from $.50, and other fares reduced proportionately, for the three year period, 1983-85. Ridership (UPT) increased slightly over 40%, with peak period ridership up over 36%, despite vehicle revenue miles only increasing 1.5%5.

  • 1985-1996 – During this period, the LACTC, again in accordance with the terms of Proposition A, ceased using part of the Proposition A funds for the SCRTD fare reduction program and shifted emphasis to planning, design and construction of rail transit (during the three years of the 50-cent fare, slightly under 20% of the total Proposition A sales tax revenues, or slightly less than the value of a 0.1% sales tax, had gone for this purpose).6 Two light rail lines and part of the heavy rail system went into service during this period. As the adult cash fares increased from 50’ in 1985 to 85’ in 1986 to $1.10 in 1988 and $1.35 in 1994, SCRTD UPT declined approximately 27%7.


  • 1996-2007 – As a direct result of the 1994 fare increase passed by the MTA Board – which was to include the elimination of monthly passes, which were extensively utilized by transit-dependent riders and, therefore, would have amounted to approximately a doubling of average fares8 – a major Federal Title VI (discrimination in the utilization of Federal funding) legal action was filed against Metro. This produced a Consent Decree, which remained in force for approximately eleven years9. The Consent Decree (CD) required Metro to reintroduce the $42 monthly transit pass, institute a new $11 weekly pass, increase bus service to reduce extreme bus overcrowding, and add additional bus lines10. After eleven years of losing an average of twelve million UPT a year, the Consent Decree requirements not only immediately stopped the loss, but turned it around, producing an average annual increase of twelve million UPT annually – a 36% increase over this period. While Metro rail ridership did increase significantly during the 1996-2007, period, 58% of the added riders were bus riders and approximately 60% of the new rail riders were former bus riders11. Using the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) “new  starts” methodology for annualizing costs, the average taxpayer subsidy per new passenger, expressed in FY07 dollars, was $1.40 for the bus riders added by the Consent Decree, vs. $25.82 for the added guideway transit (Blue, Gold, Green, Orange and Red Line)12, a taxpayer subsidy per new passenger ratio of 1:18.4 – that is, adding transit trips via bus only required a taxpayer subsidy of 5.4% of the cost of adding transit trips via guideway transit (rail and dedicated busway surface bus rapid transit).

    The L/CSC v MTA Consent Decree also produced the unique situation where the question of
    the value of transit improvements through:

    • expensive investments in new rail transit systems     vs. the value of transit improvements through inexpensive – and far more productive –

    • improvements to the pre-existing bus system 

    was presented to the American judicial system for an evaluation of their relative values – and they  found in favor of improvements to the bus system.

    The plaintiff and defendant both presented detailed arguments by their transportation experts on the transportation impacts of the Consent Decree, arguing for and against MTA actually having to live up to what was, in essence, the contract it had entered into and the court had approved. Ruling clearly found that the bus service improvements mandated by the Consent Decree not only were legally required, but had significant demonstrable transportation benefits over and above MTA’s proposed alternative Rail.