October 20, 2006 - From the October, 2006 issue

Metrolink's Rail Network Moves 40,000 Daily Riders Across Five Counties With Little Fanfare

While commerce, transportation, and residential patterns often pay no heed to county lines, Metrolink-the second-largest commuter rail system in the country-is one of L.A.'s few truly regional agencies. Moving over 40,000 passengers per day, Metrolink unites the region's five counties on seven lines and makes L.A.'s Union Station a true transportation hub. MIR was pleased to speak with CEO David Solow about Metrolink's contributions to regional mobility and the unique challenge of working among five jurisdictions.


David Solow

Whom does Metrolink serve in Southern California, and what is your budget?

Metrolink serves customers from train stations in the six counties of Orange, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, Ventura and San Diego, and our Joint Powers Authority includes the regional transportation agencies in all but San Diego County.

We have about 42,000 one-way passenger trips a day on about 145 trains.

Metrolink primarily serves people traveling longer distances. The average trip on Metrolink is 36 miles, so people are going a long distance, and that reflects the jobs/housing imbalance, where people are going from affordable housing locations to wherever their jobs are. Most trips are work trips, but we're seeing more trips on the weekends for things like shopping, visiting family, etc. As we infill our service-adding service during the day, at night, on the weekends-we're seeing a different client than we have traditionally served with our peak period weekday commuting trips.

Our operating budget is about $135 million a year, and we get about 54 percent from the farebox and other revenues. So when you compare us to other transit modes, Metrolink generates pretty good revenue from sources other than governmental subsidies.

Metro L.A.'s freeway system is typically gridlocked whether one is motoring north, south, east, or west. How is growing gridlock impacting Metrolink's ridership? Where are passengers boarding the trains, and where are they headed?

Seventy percent of the riders are headed to Union Station, but Union Station is only one location on the trip. They're usually transferring to another mode to reach their final destination. They may transfer to Metro rail, or they may walk to the Civic Center. Half of them are going someplace other than Downtown Los Angeles, and it's probably via the Metro system. So there's a strong relationship between what Metro does to expand the system and how many people we serve.

They're coming from all over. Our highest-volume line is the San Bernardino line, but that's also the line with the highest number of trains, so a lot of the volume depends on the frequency of service we can provide. Some of our service is restricted because we're in goods movement corridors on the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe lines. The volume coming out of the ports determines how much we can grow.

We also have an inter-suburban route, between the Inland Empire and Orange County, which is relatively new in the United States. Not many areas in the country have been able to offer that type of route, and the reason it's successful is that no one wants to drive the 91 Freeway. And the Orange County Transportation Authority has invested both in the train service and in an extensive bus feeder network from the Orange County train stations to wherever the work sites are.

As California's population grows to 50 million over the next two decades, much of that growth will take place in Southern California. What do you project the demand will be for Metrolink in years to come?

We're looking at doubling the ridership in five to eight years. We're buying equipment to prepare for that. We have to add capacity to our lines; some of them are single-track, and we have to double-track them. And we're trying to gear up within the financial realities of our member agencies. We're trying to gear up to handle as much demand as people can throw at us.

Projecting five to ten years ahead, what then will Metrolink's ridership look like, and what will be the length of the trips taken?

Five or ten years from now, I'd say we're in the range of 100,000 one-way trips per day. Work-related trips will always be our bread and butter, but I think we're going to see a larger percentage of non-work-related trips. And a lot of that relates to whether there's someplace people want to go.

A lot of our success depends on the connections people can make. So if someone wants to go to Staples Center, they have to know that they can get on the Red Line and then walk three or four blocks south to Staples Center. Whether they want to go to Hollywood or Universal City or wherever, much of our job is not only running the service but also ensuring that people know they have a connection to somewhere they want to go. So a lot of our success will depend on the connections.

Will passage of the transportation bonds on the November ballot help Metrolink achieve its ambitions?

Most of the projects, particularly at the transit stops, will be determined by the regional transportation planning agencies. So we're working with them to examine what they would like to do and how they would like to grow.

We're also looking at how we maintain the rail system. You can't just grow; you have to keep your existing assets in the best possible shape. If the bonds pass, we'll probably apply for funds that let us add to our maintenance network, add to our rolling stock in general, and renovate our existing facilities.

Does Metrolink have a plan to address projections of a dramatic increase in demand for rail transit?

We're about to complete a strategic assessment, and the intent is to give a blueprint for how we could grow over time. But it's not unconstrained or willy-nilly boosterism. We've looked at the future demographics, where the ridership is growing and at the investments we need to grow incrementally.

What is unique about the commuter and freight railroad industry is that we can grow in small increments, we don't need multi-billion dollar projects. You put a siding here, you add an extra car to a train set. But you have to do it within a plan as incremental capital and operating funds become available. The problem is that you need to be ahead of the curve, so that when the market arrives, you can handle it. Right now, for example, people are standing on our trains, and I won't be getting new equipment for two more years. Designing and building new rail cars requires a long lead-time. That's a challenge, because people don't want to stand for 35 miles.

Metrolink doesn't own all the tracks on which it operates. So, as goods movement traffic grows, you're impacted by business decisions beyond your control. How will goods volume growth impact Metrolink's expansion plans?

Our member agencies own two-thirds of the property that we operate on, but we do not own some of our critical lines, including two of our east-west lines from the Inland Empire into L.A., which are owned by Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

Whatever we do in goods movement is a multi-modal solution, but if there is to be, for example, a truck lane, when is that truck lane going to be in place? I would guess ten to 15 years. So if the decision-makers want to have a relatively quick impact, one of the ways to do that is to invest in the railroad before the truck lanes come into effect. I would urge the decision-makers to look at the railroad as an early implementation opportunity to move people and goods as their goods movement strategies evolve.

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I don't know if that decision is going to be made, because the railroads are private entities, and it's always tough to invest public funds alongside private ventures and to keep the public and private benefits and costs carefully reconciled. But when you think of all the environmental and health issues, investment in the railroad probably has a good rate of return if you can move more containers and trucks on to the railroad and not on to the 710 or the 60 or wherever.

If we don't find a way to get more capacity on the railroad and the private entities don't invest, then we're going to have to run fewer passenger trains, and we won't be able to run the remaining trains on time. Our passengers are discretionary; they can go to their car any time. As I tell my staff, I may sell cleanliness, and I may sell safety, but the fact is that I sell on-time performance. That's the goal, and that goal is measured in minutes on commuter rail systems and hours on freight rail networks.

How is Metrolink governed?

We are a joint powers authority with an 11-member board made up of

representatives from our five member agencies. L.A. Metro has four votes, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties each have two votes, and Ventura County has one vote.

We've never really had any division on the board, largely because we have to work with our member agencies before things even get to the board. It's a congenial board, and they work together easily because their goals are generally complementary.

But you still have to raise about $60 million a year. How do you raise that money from your member agencies when the politics would suggest that they might be more interested in their own county than in regional transportation?

Every year it's a challenge. I think they realize that moving residents through their counties is sometimes as important as moving their residents within their counties. But the problem, as with any regional entity, is that there are competing needs and priorities in each of those counties. We have to acknowledge that, and we have to be able to articulate why this is a good bang for their buck. And because all politics is local, we're doing that every single year.

And what case do you make?

The reason people are buying homes in those outlying counties is that they can buy them and then get to where they want to go on Metrolink. People don't want to take a job Downtown if they can't get there easily. If the average train trip is 35 miles, that's a long trip to be in a car every day. So for the outlying counties, it's a quality of life issue.

The member agencies have developed subsidy formulae that allocate costs and services across fairly the region. For example, L.A. Metro pays the entire subsidy on the Antelope Valley Line because the trip between Lancaster and L.A. Union Station is entirely within L.A. County. It proportionately shares costs of lines that serve other counties with the other member agencies served by each line and it provides no operating subsidy to the Inland Empire/Orange County Line which does not serve L.A. County.

For L.A. County, more and more people are going to L.A. destinations for a job and if the reason they're doing that is Metrolink, then I think Metrolink is important to L.A. County and the urban cores in L.A. County. And our network parallels many of the highways in the region.

When we survey the people who are on our trains, we find that a very large percentage previously were single-occupant vehicle drivers. We're not diverting riders from other transit modes or carpools. For example, our San Bernardino line carries about a freeway lane's worth of traffic from Covina to Downtown. That's a lot of cars that aren't on the highway even if their trip started in San Bernardino or Rancho Cucamonga. So I think we benefit all the counties, and we benefit the highway drivers. It may not seem like a large percentage, but I think a lane of traffic is pretty good benefit.

Metrolink, as you note, is a five-county regional entity. Other than MWD, there are very few regional entities like it in the state. How difficult is it to manage a regional entity given the scarcity of incentives to encourage intergovernmental collaboration and the nature of state and local funding?

We certainly have to be sensitive to the needs of each of the member agencies, but we also strive to keep in the top of their minds how important we are to the mobility challenges that those agencies face. It's a challenge every year because there's so much competition for funds. In addition, we all need to continue to attract state and federal funding to address congestion and mobility options. I think we do a pretty good job. We usually get what we need to grow consistent with their visions.

Are there any regions that fund themselves in more straightforward ways than Metrolink does?

A lot of the larger urban centers on the East Coast and Midwest have developed into multiple-county agencies. Washington Metro, New York MTA, the Boston MBTA, and SEPTA in Philadelphia are all multiple-county agencies with multiple modes funded through one centralized regional organization.

There are positives and negatives with those systems. There tends to be a different regional approach, at least for transit, by the East Coast agencies. Their service areas, from a geographic standpoint, are not as large as this area. So it's not a one-size-fits-all. But I think the five agencies during Metrolink's infancy in the early 1990s realized that they couldn't do it as individual counties, because they were trying to handle regional trips. So they decided that even if they couldn't get together on other stuff, they could get together on Metrolink.

The founding elected officials and staff of the county transportation agencies were visionaries, and were willing to see beyond county lines. That vision continues, even with term limits, 14 years later.

Lastly, Metrolink's mission statement includes not just mobility but also more livable communities. Is transit oriented development a priority? How does Metrolink encourage such development?

Metrolink started in 1992. It took a little while to get established, but I'd say around the ten-year mark we began to see more and more development emerging around the stations- transit-oriented development. It's more common now around the Metro stations in Los Angeles, and today, more developers are looking at ways to build homes around train stations.

The Olson Company has five or six locations by train stations, many of them in Orange County, and the selling point is the train station. As a matter of fact, the Olson Company is giving two years of Metrolink passes to everyone who buys one of their units. And when you read some of the real estate pages, especially in areas where we have a high level of service, it'll say, "Close to Metrolink," because people are now starting to look at the quality of life in terms of their work trips.

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