June 13, 2014
Angelenos know a lot about traffic, so any project that purports to
reduce traffic congestion is greeted with open arms. The latest project
that claims to possess the potential to reduce traffic is the planned
Purple Line extension. Unfortunately, as convenient as the Purple Line
extension might be to the 49,000 riders projected by MTA to use the
line, there is no reason to think that the traffic relief would be
The Purple Line extension will be constructed in three phases,
beginning this year. The first phase extends the subway from Wilshire
Boulevard and Western Avenue to Wilshire and La Cienega Boulevard and is
slated for completion by 2023. The line will ultimately end, in 2035,
at the VA hospital in Westwood.
Construction is projected to cost more than $6 billion. Most of the
funding will come from county taxpayers, who approved a dedicated
half-cent sales tax in 2008. A few weeks ago, the federal government
affirmed a $2 billion commitment to the project, with a $1.25 billion
grant and an $856 million loan. The federal funding, according to county
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, will help in “bringing relief to one of our
most traffic-challenged areas.”
The MTA’s own Final Environmental Impact Statement/Environmental
Impact Report, released in 2012, disputes this. Absent any significant
congestion-relieving projects, the report suggests that the extension
would not “be sufficient to significantly reduce surface traffic
congestion on the Westside.”
Even the minor relief the line extension might bring would be
temporary, as population growth continues to climb. The report also
indicated that each phase of construction could lead to “reduced roadway
traffic lanes and temporary street closures which could result in major
traffic disruptions and bottlenecks.”
Then there are the costs. While the MTA insists the construction will
cost just over $6 billion, MTA has a track record of cost overruns. One
of the most recent examples was the construction of the Expo Line.
While the first phase of the line was supposed to cost $640 million, by
the time it was completed the cost had risen to $930 million. This isn’t
the first time MTA has experienced this, with the construction of the
Red Line plagued with cost overruns, delays and the notorious collapse
of half a block of Hollywood Boulevard.
Beyond construction costs, the reality is that rail systems are very
expensive to maintain. While the federal government’s assistance will
ease the burden on local taxpayers for immediate construction costs, the
maintenance costs will be completely placed on the backs of local
taxpayers for years to come.
Then there is the reality that mass transit almost always loses
money. Taxpayer subsidies per bus and rail boarding have been on the
rise. A decade ago, MTA reported a subsidy of $1.40 per boarding. While
fares have risen several times since then, the MTA hasn’t gotten any
more efficient, and ridership hasn’t been enough to offset cost
increases, with MTA projecting a subsidy of $1.96 per boarding in the
coming year. Subsidies for rails are projected to exceed $2.10 per
boarding in the coming year.
So what does all this mean? For one, the claim that the Purple Line
extension will ease traffic requires a dramatically lower set of
expectations than extension backers would like us to believe.
while federal support will certainly help, in the long run it will be
local taxpayers who bear the full set of costs.
Investing our hopes and tax dollars into high-cost, low-return mass
transit projects might be tempting on the surface, but it seems as
though we ought to be looking elsewhere for traffic relief.