A half-dozen readers and friends emailed news articles to me last week that appeared in the Los Angeles Times and other publications about how the Expo Light Rail to Culver City is not reducing traffic.
The articles were based on a study by USC’s Metrans Transportation Center for the county’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) during two three-month periods – the first before the Expo Line opened in 2012 and the second, afterwards.
The study reported a modest rise in bus and train boardings but suggests it’s highly unlikely that large numbers of people will be shifting from one travel mode (private vehicles) to another (trains or busses). On high traffic side streets such as Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., and Venice boulevards, speeds “scarcely changed or showed mixed results” after Expo opened.
Metro officials say that the 30,000 daily boardings between Culver City and downtown L.A. have exceeded ridership projections and cite their own surveys that indicate people living within a half mile of Expo have reduced their own motor vehicles usage.
USC’s study doesn’t support Metro’s assertions that Expo is taking cars off the road, relieving traffic congestion and providing valuable transit alternatives for thousands of commuters. The truth is traffic and congestion are worse than ever.
The study also raises questions about how transit tax and bond measures, such as 2008;s Measure R, are “sold” to the public. It seems that reducing traffic congestion is not a real benefit of transit projects even though it’s often claimed when they’re put before the voters.
Researchers caution that the 2012 study may have been conducted too early to draw firm conclusions about the long-term effects on commuting patterns. But, there’s no reason to believe that Expo will relieve traffic congestion here after it goes into service next April and lots of reasons to think it will bring a bigger traffic nightmare with it.
Rewind to 2007/2008. City Council was wrestling with issues such as alignment (transit speak for the ground plan of a train or light rail), stops, parking requirements and maintenance yards.
Metro had recommended an elevated alignment down Olympic Boulevard from the Cloverfield Boulevard/Olympic intersection on an overpass, paralleling the freeway and accessing the terminal adjacent to Fourth Street from the freeway side.
City Council paid Metro to study an at grade alternative plan – down the middle of Colorado and entering the terminus at Colorado and 4th Street.
When Metro said the at-grade alternative plan was doable, council voted to support Expo on Colorado – along with the possibility of traffic jams and increased congestion.
In December, 2008, I wrote that Expo wouldn’t reduce traffic, it would make traffic in and around Santa Monica even worse. “It makes no sense to build rapid transit with surface level trains running down major boulevards or crossing intersecting streets (Cloverfield and Lincoln Boulevards and Stewart, 26th, 20th, 17th, 14th, 11th and 5th Streets) 10 or 20 times an hour and endangering motorists and pedestrians alike.”
There were few mentions of traffic and congestion increases in the news at the time. Expo’s advocates fought hard to keep Expo’s progress on track and didn’t want the light rail’s potential contribution to traffic congestion to erode public support for the expensive project.
Despite claims that commuters would abandon their personal vehicles in massive numbers to “ride the rails,” the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on Expo’s extension into Santa Monica said that congestion would actually even increase over time.
When one takes in the crossings and the fact that 24 trains an hour (12 each way) during rush hour will block Lincoln at Colorado, it’s hard not to imagine gridlock and nightmarish congestion with red lights on Lincoln and other busy north/south cross streets the majority of the time.
The usual political power players unflinchingly supported the surface alignment.
Renters’ Rights political power player Denny Zane – also a paid consultant to the college at the time – convinced faculty, administrative groups and students at Santa Monica College that the street-level alignment down Colorado was preferable to an overhead alignment down Olympic even through Colorado is hundreds of yards farther away from SMC’s main campus.
Darrel Clarke, a former planning commissioner and Co-chair of Friends 4 Expo Transit produced a slick PowerPoint presentation that that showed “ugly concrete overpasses” that would divide the city in half if Expo were elevated. Of course, ugly traffic jams resulting from an at-grade alignment were left out.
Politicians like then Councilman (now Mayor) Kevin McKeown, thought an open, mixed-transit “European” environment placing cars, pedestrians, bikes and light rail together in one place was smart and fashionable. Yes, Virginia. Even our political leaders hid the fact that a surface alignment would screw up traffic and make it worse.
Why was everyone routing for Colorado Avenue? Nobody wants to fess up, but I believe that extensive redevelopment along Colorado featuring lots of new apartment buildings with plenty of affordable housing along a major transit route was the goal – as is what’s happening on Lincoln adjacent to Colorado, now.
A lot of folks are worried about Expo – that it’ll bring in an unsavory crowd bent on criminal activity and floods of tourists. They may be right. We have a lot to fear – not from Expo itself but from our own politicians who won’t be able to solve the very problems they created.
Happy Turkey Day!
Bill can be reached at email@example.com