Light Rail in Los Angeles is a joke. I took a whole Saturday a few months ago to ride the length and breadth of our rail system, so I can speak from experience.

First, the train doesn't go where anyone wants to go. I can take it to Downtown LA, but if you're familiar with LA you'll know that there's no reason to go there. Where people want to go is West LA, the Valley, the South Bay, and to the various hellish (but affordable!) eastern suburbs.

Somehow, I live within four block of a train station. I thought it would be fun to ride around and see the city, so I bought a ticket, waited 30 minutes for a train to arrive, and was on my way. Oh, what fun.

If you're not familiar with Los Angeles traffic patterns, let me tell you that Saturday is not a light traffic day; there are no such things. Saturday merely redistributes the traffic to different hours. Late morning and early afternoon on Saturday are the pits, so I was hopeful that by riding the train I could get around more quickly than I could in my car. Not so. Even if you discount the 20 minute walk to the station and the 30 minute wait for the train, it took me more time to get to the Valley (via downtown) than it would have taken to drive. The trains are slow, and infrequent.

So did I save money? Not likely. Even discounting the fact that my taxes subsidize the ticket prices, it would have been cheaper to drive. Plus, the system works on an "honor policy"; there are ticket machines that spit out tickets in exchange for money, but there aren't any gates or guards that actually check tickets. I rode the train for some five hours without seeing anyone other than myself actually purchase a ticket. I think it's strange that many riders could apparently afford gold chains and expensive electronics, but not a few bucks for a train ticket.

Not only does the train go nowhere useful -- slowly and expensively -- but the ride was thoroughly unpleasant. My fellow travelers were loud and obnoxious; the train was loud and vibrated a lot; the windows didn't open and there was no air-conditioning; &c.

Altogether, our light rail system is a horrendous waste of money. Here's an article from 1996 that briefly discusses the corruption and ineptitude involved in its construction.

Even better, here's an op-ed by Wendell Cox, who was a member of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission in 1980 and who authored Proposition A, which funded LA's light rail projects.

My belief in the value of rail was strengthened by Commission staff and consultants who generally suggested that a rail system was the antidote to traffic congestion and air pollution in the Los Angeles area. Since that time I have migrated to the opposite view, based upon the now considerable experience with new urban rail systems in the United States.

Don Pickrell's seminal US Department of Transportation study in 1989 was the first to systematically evaluate urban rail relative to its objectives and showed generally that ridership fell far short of expectations and that costs were routinely much higher than planned. Since that time, transit agencies have become much better at projecting ridership, largely by producing much more modest predictions --- evidence that expectations can be achieved if only you aim low enough.

The problem of cost escalation, however, remains as intractable. Rising costs made it impossible to deliver the rail routes promised by Proposition A, so in 1990 the voters approved Proposition C to finish the job. During the period, the cost of the Los Angeles to Long Beach light rail line ("Blue Line") escalated from $140 million to nearly $900 --- admittedly part of the increased costs were attributable to system enhancements. But it is unlikely that the Commission would have approved building the Blue Line if it had known the eventual cost. Now, with rail system costs far higher than expected, there is simply no money left to complete most of the promised system, as the Commission's successor, the MTA, has placed a moratorium on further rail construction. The bottom line is that after spending more than $5 billion building rail in Los Angeles, things are worse than before construction started --- MTA bus and rail ridership is 25 percent below the patronage recorded on the bus only system in 1985. The rail system, which carries barely 15 percent of MTA riders is rising toward $400 million annually and will be equal to one-half the annual operating cost of the entire bus system. It is no wonder that the Bus Riders Union has sought legal recourse to limit this distortion.

But the failure of new urban rail in the United States has far more fundamental roots. Despite tax referendum claims that rail can carry the same number of people as up to 12 freeway lanes, no new urban rail system in the US has materially impacted traffic congestion. Indeed, traffic congestion is increasing faster in the rail cities than in the non-rail cities. New light rail lines carry, on average, only 20 percent the passenger volume of a single freeway lane, and subway systems (like the Red Line) average only 40 percent. Even so, less than one-half of rail riders are attracted from cars, with most riders having been forced to transfer from bus routes that previously provided more direct trips.

Just go read the whole thing, before I quote it all.

The Los Angeles light rail system is costing taxpayers around $500 million annually by now (that was written in 1999); for the price of light rail for one year we could add new lanes to freeways that people actually use. I know, it's a revolutionary thought.

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