LA’s transit plans falling well short of expectations

Transit officials in Los  Angeles spent billions of dollars on a massive transit expansion, but the results have failed to live up to their expectations.

What does a $9-billion transit expansion plan get you in car-centric Los Angeles? A decline in ridership that appears to be getting worse, according to figures from the Los Angeles Times. Rather than enticing more customers out of their cars and easing traffic congestion as the planners promised, the region’s ambitious transit plans are having the opposite effect.

“The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the region’s largest carrier, lost more than 10% of its boardings from 2006 to 2015, a decline that appears to be accelerating,” the report states. “Despite a $9-billion investment in new light rail and subway lines, Metro now has fewer boardings than it did three decades ago, when buses were the county’s only transit option.”

Transit agencies in neighbouring jurisdictions are suffering similar declines in ridership. The number of customers taking the bus in next-door Orange County has fallen 30% over the last seven years. Smaller bus operators in the region have seen ridership fall by 25%.

Worse still, is transit officials are warning that the drop in customers may be a systemic issue.

“I don’t know if this is long-term, but it doesn’t feel like it’s temporary when we’ve been dealing with 36 straight months of declining ridership,” Darrell Johnson, chief executive of the Orange County Transportation Authority, told the Los Angeles Times.

It’s not the first time that Los Angeles’ billion-dollar transit build-out has failed to live up to expectations. The transit agency’s 17.4-mile red line subway system was built at a cost of $4.5 billion over a 15-year period and was repeatedly plagued by cost overruns and construction delays. When it eventually opened, the number of customers was nearly a third below original forecasts.

Even after more than a decade of operation, the number of customers was still about half of what planners originally expected. Yet, since construction began on the line in 1986, bus ridership – which was the highest in the United States – fell to 400 million a year from 500 million annually, as officials were forced to raise fares substantially and dedicate more resources to the cover the cost of building and operating the subway line.

The Los Angeles Times article points to other cities, such as Washington D.C. and Chicago, that are also seeing passenger numbers decline in recent years.

Here in Toronto, the TTC hasn’t been spared from fewer customers turning to transit, with the agency’s CEO recently reporting that ridership is likely to be 534 million last year – down slightly from just under 535 million in 2014. Last year’s decline is part of an overall trend, as the growth in the number of customers using the TTC has steadily declined since 2011.

TTC ridership

It’s clear that Los Angeles’ plan of building ever more transit in order to tackle congestion has not worked – and that lesson should be noted by transit officials here in Toronto.

As CPI argued in its letter to Transit Investment Strategy Advisory Panel, officials in the GTA should look to road tolls and congestion charges as a means to ease gridlock. Ample evidence has shown that doing so would reduce or eliminate traffic jams and increase public transit usage, while preventing the unnecessary and environmentally damaging construction of new highways and underutilized and uneconomic pet transit projects.

Los Angeles clearly shows that the “build it and they will come” mentality to transit is destined to fail.

Brady Yauch is an economist and Executive Director of the Consumer Policy Institute (CPI). You can reach Brady by email at: bradyyauch (at) consumerpolicyinstitute.org or at (416) 964-9223 ext 236.

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