August 13, 2008

Metro Releases Draft Long-Range Transportation Plan: $125 Billion Not Enough To Reduce Congestion!

Without funding for much-needed transportation projects, relieving the congestion in metropolitan L.A. seems daunting. However, with recent mass transit successes such as the Orange Line busway, coupled with the increased cost of gasoline, political support for a new transportation investment paradigm is emerging. Amid the clamor for change, Metro has embarked on its 2008 Long-Range Plan, which scopes out the agency's planning agenda for the next 25 years. Carol Inge, Chief Planning Officer for Metro, recently spoke with MIR about the Long Range Plan and the changing dynamics of transportation in L.A.


Carol Inge

This article was featured in the March 2008 issue of The Planning Report.

Metro just released its long-range transportation plan update. It's now in public view and will head to the board in June. Give us a synopsis of the important elements of this plan.

The long-range plan update is very important because it's the roadmap that our board will follow for programming funding for transportation improvements in Los Angeles County for the next 25 years. The plan walks people through how much we've accomplished in the past 25 years. It's really interesting to see how far we've come. Then, it talks about some of the good projects and programs that we are going to be able to continue on the rail and highway side along with our local bus and other categories, such as arterial, signal, bikeways, and pedestrian improvements.

Then, the plan makes the point that, even with all the things that we feel we can financially build in the next 25 years, we don't feel it's going to be enough to address the mobility problems in this county. The plan lays out additional highway and transit projects and programs that we feel will be very important for this county, along with the need to get more funding into this county for those kinds of projects. The plan also highlights that people to need to change their behavior, taking more transit and carpooling.

What were the constraints that planners dealt with when crafting this plan?

One of the biggest constraints for Metro is the amount of funding that we project to come into this county over the next 25 years for transportation projects. We're projecting about $152 billion coming into the county from various local, state, and federal funding sources for transportation, and although that sounds like a huge amount, much of that is already committed to maintaining and operating our current transit system for the next 25 years and to building very important highway and transit projects that are already in the works.

In the past five or six years, we've experienced a huge increase in the cost of steel, concrete, energy, and labor, so that projects that we already had in the plan have gone up in price. The good news was that we were able to still cover the costs of those projects, even with their high escalation. The bad news is that we're really not able to add a lot of projects beyond those that are already in the existing 2001 Long-Range Plan.

Elaborate on what was assumed and what had to be cut from the plan despite regional needs for additional and improved transportation.

The transit projects in the plan that we assume we will be able to accomplish-in addition to expanding the capacity of our current bus system through buying larger buses-include adding 30 miles of rail and busway. We're going to complete the Eastside Light Rail line that's currently under construction to East L.A. We're going to complete the Exposition Light Rail project to Culver City and to Santa Monica. We're going to complete a transit project along the Crenshaw Corridor, either light rail or a busway. We plan to extend the Orange Line busway from its current terminus in Warner Center up to the Chatsworth Metrolink Station, and hopefully make bus lanes on some of the north-south arterials in the east San Fernando Valley. We expect to put a bus-only lane on Wilshire Blvd., and also to continue Metrolink service and complete our Metro Rapid system of 28 lines.

On the highway side, we will be able to add another 160 miles of carpool lanes, including projects on the I-5 South from the 605 to the Orange County line, the I-5 North from the 134 to the 14, on the 60 from the 605 to 57, and the 405 northbound carpool lane, long awaited, between the Valley and the Westside. Also, we're able to continue our call-for-projects program, which programs hundreds of millions of dollars every couple of years for arterial improvements, signal synchronization, bikeways, and pedestrians.

Those are all the good things we feel we'll be able to afford in the next 25 years. But the plan then goes into about $60 billion worth of important highway and rail transit projects that we don't project we can afford at this point.

What projects have been dropped from the plan because of assumptions about revenue flow through the county?

Let me stress that nothing has been dropped from the plan. We are updating the 2001 Long-Range Plan. We were able to keep all of the funded projects in that 2001 plan, even with their increased costs due to the escalation factors I mentioned. We just don't feel, given the growth in population that the Southern California Association of Governments is projecting over the next 20-25 years, that the projects that we have are going to be enough to solve the mobility problem. Really, it's more that we're not able to add more important projects than I have already mentioned.

What progress Metro has made to date regarding congestion relief in Los Angeles County?

This is a plan that looks forward 25 years, but we also went back 25 years to 1980. There are a couple of pages in our long-range plan of maps of the carpooling system in 1980, which consisted of one carpool lane on the El Monte busway. Next to it, we have a map that shows the more than 450 miles of carpool lanes that we have today in L.A. County. It's really important to look at where we were and how far we've come.

On the opposite page of the plan, we showed the transit system in 1980, which was just the El Monte busway. Next to it, we have a map of our 73 miles of light rail and busway system that we have today in L.A. County. We have a come a long way, and we do have very successful carpool lane and rail projects. We need to move forward and continue that.

As you mentioned, there are 73 miles of rail today. What's the ultimate goal?

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We have 73 miles of rail and about 30 miles of busway. This plan would add roughly 30 miles. The unfunded projects that are listed in our plan in our first tier group would add about another 75 miles of rail. We have listed another 11 carpool lane and freeway projects and another ten rail projects to total about $60 billion worth of investment to get us to what we feel would be a substantial bus system for this county, but that needs to be coupled with changes in people's travel and behavior. These combined could really make a huge difference.

Goods movement growth in Southern California impacts mobility, and we speak to you on a day when clean air plans are going through the process of harbor commission review. How does Metro's transportation plan respond to the goods movement challenges for the southern California region?

We recognize a great connection between the goods moving out of our ports and the rest of our roadways. As you may or may not know, we have joined with the other five counties in this region to develop a multi-county goods movement action plan. We recognize that the solutions to goods movement are not going to be found just by L.A. County projects alone. They have to fit into a larger regional system.

One of the most important projects that we're working on right now in L.A. County is environmental clearance of goods movement improvements along the 710 Freeway as it comes out of the ports of L.A. and Long Beach and heads toward the 60 Freeway. The long-range plan, however, also identifies that to do many goods movement projects like improvements to the 710 Freeway, we will need additional funding.

Are there any plans to connect rail directly to the airport to reduce traffic and increase mobility?

We have the Crenshaw Corridor project in our long-range plan. That would create a Century and Aviation Station. We've been working with the planners at Los Angeles International Airport on their people-mover system that they are planning to build would meet the Crenshaw Line. Our long-range plan does provide for a closer connection, but it doesn't take light rail all the way into the airport. Typically, light rail wouldn't move around the inner airport loop anyway because of the curves. In most cities, the light rail comes to the airport but not to each terminal, so there's a connection like a people mover into the airport.

Metro's Long-Range Plan sets a target to reduce 725 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. What does that mean, and how are those targets likely to be achieved through the plan's recommendations?

The targets we have are probably not going to solve the greenhouse gas emission problems in this region, but they will make a meaningful contribution. More importantly, what we're trying to provide are alternatives to cars. It isn't just providing the alternatives; we need people to change their travel behavior patterns. We need people, some of the time, for some of their trips, to get out of their single-occupancy car and take advantage of the Metro Rapid buses, the carpool lanes, and the rail lines that we already provide and will be expanding in this plan.

Greenhouse gas emissions would be greatly helped if we can add more projects to this plan. So there's really a challenge for this region to identify more financial resources and be able to increase our transit and carpooling system even more.

What is the plan for recommending tollways on the freeways and completing the Expo Line?

This plan does call for Metro to look at and explore any innovative methods of funding that could help us expand the program beyond what this plan is able to financially provide. We're definitely exploring toll lanes, along with any number of other local funding initiatives including developer impact fees, a half-cent sales tax, congestion pricing efforts, and public-private partnerships. This plan calls for us to explore any and all of those because we feel the need is that great.

With respect to issues along particular projects such as the Expo Line, we just need to work through those, to work with the community, work with other agencies, and find a way to move forward. That project is well underway and way too important to stop, so we just need to find the solutions and move forward.

The public assumes that a Metro plan, even a long-range plan, is coordinated with the planning agencies of all the other jurisdictions in the basin. Is there such intergovernmental cooperation on planning between the city and county planning agencies and redevelopment agencies?

We very much coordinate with Caltrans, the Southern California Association of Governments, the county of Los Angeles, and with the councils of governments (COGS) here in L.A. County. We incorporate their input on the projects and programs they're interested in. They have certainly been briefed on our long-range plan. We work with them all the time.

Now we need get out to the general public. That's why we're having a series of community meetings. We're also reviewing our plan with other local governments in the region. It's hard to coordinate with 88 individual cities, but we do try to work, especially through the COGS, to reach those cities and also to work very closely with Caltrans, the county, and SCAG.

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