July 30, 2019 - From the July, 2019 issue

Metro’s Phil Washington Urges ‘Carrot & Stick’ Approach to Transit Ridership

At the first annual LA Infill conference held by the Council of Infill Builders on July 24 at the UCLA School of Law, builders, developers, and industry leaders gathered to discuss trends and challenges facing infill development in Southern California. TPR presents the following interview with LA Metro CEO Phil Washington and Ethan Elkind, Climate Program Director at UC Berkeley CLEE. Washington provides an update on Metro’s ambitious project lineup and the agency’s policies to promote equitable, dense, and affordable transit-oriented development in Los Angeles.

Phil Washington

"We have the largest and most aggressive infrastructure program in this country, right here in LA County. With Measure M, it’s the largest in North America. Shame on us if we do not use this measure to transform communities"—Phil Washington

Ethan Elkind: What’s the status of the projects happening at Metro right now?

Phil Washington: In terms of the progress on the projects we are currently managing, let me just run through those right quick. The Crenshaw Line, which is about 95 percent complete, will open next year. Now, this is a line that runs down Crenshaw that will connect with the Expo Line and run into Downtown Inglewood. Usually when you’re managing big projects, the closer you get to completion the more intricate the project becomes. We’re dealing with a lot of systems and connectivity issues right now that we are working through to open that project in Spring/Summer of next year.

We’re building a 9-mile subway extension to the Purple Line that runs out of Union Station in three sections. The first section is the first 4 miles, and we are over 50 percent complete. The second section is the next 2.5 miles; we have just started construction on that, but we are moving forward. The third section of the Purple Line will come out to UCLA and will end at the VA Hospital/VA Center.

All three of those sections will be completed by the 2028 Olympics; all three of those sections have federal dollars in them— we are just finalizing the last full-funding grant agreement of about $1.3 billion for section three is being executed right now with the current administration.

We’re also building something downtown called the Regional Connector, which is a game changer in my mind because it will connect the whole system. Folks will practically be able to go from Azusa all the way down to Long Beach. We are over 50 percent complete with that line, which will open around 2021/2022.

Finally, we should mention a couple of BRT initiatives, and some rehab projects on existing rail lines. We are rehabbing the entire Blue Line that runs from Long Beach to 7th/Metro. That rail line is a light rail line, and it’s the oldest line in our system at over 25 years old. We are investing over $350 million in that project. We closed the southernmost stations first in January to replace track, systems, and overhead catenary wire. We opened the southern section back up in June, and now we’re doing all the rehab work on the northern section. We will open up the entire line in the fall of this year—brand new. We’re even going to change the name of it to the A Line, because we’re going to letters instead of numbers, and we ran out of colors.

Then we’re working on Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines all over the county. You may have read something about the NoHo-Pasadena Line and the opposition that we are facing in various communities. The Orange Line, our Bus Rapid Transit line, is really popular. We are installing railroad-crossing-type gates on that BRT line, so those busses will blow through those intersections. After the installation of those gates, we’re going to cut down on the run time for the Orange Line by 20-25 percent—that is incredible.

That’s just a quick snapshot of the projects that are under construction, but in the meantime we have another almost dozen projects that are in planning and are moving through the planning phase to design and construction. The big challenge is how quickly we can move those things through the environmental and the planning stages. Stay tuned.

Ethan Elkind: You mentioned that the Crenshaw Line that goes right by the airport, what is the status of how that line would connect to LAX?

Phil Washington: We are also building on that Crenshaw Line an Airport Station—or Airport Connector— and we are partnering with the airport now. What they are building right now is a people mover that will take the passengers from the terminal out to the station. We are designing and constructing the Airport Station that will be on the Crenshaw Line. Both of those projects are going very well. We just presented the design for that station to our board not long ago, and they approved it. In my mind, every airport should have a rail connection. I have the pleasure and opportunity to lead the agency that built the A Line that runs from Denver International Airport to downtown. It’s not as ideal as the train coming right to the terminal, but it’s the next best thing.

Ethan Elkind: You mentioned that the Purple Line is under construction. If we were going to hold this conference here a decade from now, maybe all of us wouldn’t have been stuck in traffic this morning if we could’ve taken it down from Wilshire/Western. Why are the time horizons so far out there? Why does it take so long?

Phil Washington: I think there are a number of responses here, but one is that we have a lot of environmental laws. I wish I could channel Robert Moses (well, not in every way). He was known for going into communities—primarily communities of color—and telling people they had 30 days to move out because they were going to start building. He’s one of the big reasons why we have all of the environmental laws, NEPA and CEQA in California.

So, one of the reasons is the environmental process that we have to go through. It takes years sometimes to get through the environmental processes, which includes going out to the communities and seeking some sort of compromise to build these projects. It’s incredibly difficult and challenging to get to the design-build phase.

We can see it right now with some of the BRT. What we’re saying out there on the bus side is that we should have dedicated lanes for busses. Now, you would think that that would be almost like a no brainer, but no. People are in all types of opposition even though BRT was and is a prominent program within Measure M, and 71% of the people voted for it. When you get on the ground, you face a lot of opposition.

Another reason, in terms of the exorbitant cost, is managing contracts. Managing these big jobs is becoming more and more difficult, because—and I’m not against this—but contractors need to come out and they need to close streets, especially if it’s a subway or an underground station, which a lot of these projects are. We have to seek permits from the city that owns the street and sometimes there is some hostage taking to get that permit. All of these things contribute to higher cost.

We’re dealing with issues with China, where steel and concrete tariffs are increasing the projects’ costs. We’ve got a big order for rail cars from CRRC in China of almost $1 billion, and now Congress is saying there might be a ban on those rail cars. I was asked to testify in front of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and I was happy to hear that the orders that are currently in place will be honored. That was good news for us here in LA and our friends in Chicago who have the biggest order in the country of CRRC vehicles.

The last thing I’ll say on the rail cars is that in being asked to testify, I stood by my procurement. Our procurement was legit, and it was not just the cost we were looking at. We were looking at something called best value that looks at the whole procurement in a holistic way. The bottom line that I put before the committee is that Congress cannot beat us up for ordering vehicles from CRRC, the largest vehicle manufacturer in the world, without providing some assistance to build a passenger rail car manufacturing facility in this country. Right now, we have no passenger rail car manufacturers in the US. It provided me the opportunity to go there and say ‘we want to build one in LA County, and Congress should be helping us’.

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Ethan Elkind: You’re sure talking to a sympathetic audience when it comes to the challenges of dense urban environments. I wanted to ask you about ridership. It’s been declining, and it’s a nationwide trend, but it’s hit particularly hard in Los Angeles. Why is transit ridership declining, and what are the plans to address it?

Phil Washington: Yes, ridership is declining all over the country for various reasons. I read some of the articles, and it’s easy to say ridership is hemorrhaging without talking about the reasons for it. One reason, from a UCLA study, is car ownership; people are buying cars. It’s hard to compete with that market and the sexiness of the automobile.

We’re also dealing with housing affordability issue. When I first got into this business, the CEO I was working for said, “Phil, we are the T in TOD, just transit. Don’t worry about all this other development and housing stuff.” I never agreed with that because the lack of affordable housing is impacting my bottom line; people are being pushed further and further out from the urban core and I’ve got to put transit out there. Either I’ve got to address that, or they’re going to buy a car and not ride.

This is another reason why I have been pushing congestion pricing. I believe, on this ridership issue, there must be a carrot-and-stick approach. The carrots are all of the infrastructure we’re building; we’re enhancing the customer experience. We now have cellular service in all of our existing and future tunnels, so people can work and use their phones. The sticks, which are necessary, are things like congestion pricing to change behavior. This is how we will get ridership back. It must be done in a carrot-and-stick approach, because we can do everything I just described but that may not change behavior as it relates to driving. We have to do both to realize the ridership gains that we’ve lost.

Ethan Elkind: You mentioned congesting pricing. Are there particular geographic areas that you’re looking at to implement congestion pricing?

Phil Washington: What we said, and my board approved this, is that we will conduct a feasibility study. We’re asking a consultant to help us identify where we should implement a pilot and what type of model for congestion pricing we should use.

There are three models: the quarter model like in London, the quadrant model, and the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) model. We’re asking the consultant to help us determine what model should be used in what pilot area. We’ve added another layer onto this: with the revenues generated from congestion relief or congestion pricing, we should use some of those revenues to make transit free for everybody in the county. Just think about how we can change the very makeup of this county. You talk about transforming a region. I was talking to some folks from New York last night, and they said, “if you all could do that in LA, then every big city in this country should be able to do it.” That is what we have proposed.

Ethan Elkind: From a ridership perspective, it's really critical to have more apartment buildings, more office towers adjacent to transit. What can Metro do to help overcome those local barriers—those homeowners groups and sometimes local city councilmembers who put up road blocks—to really make sure Metro is getting a return on its investment for these expensive rail lines that need density to go with it?

Phil Washington: We have looked at these station areas in a very holistic way. We don’t want to just think about the land that we own at the station, which can be substantial depending on the station. We want to look at transit-oriented communities (TOC) in a whole new way, and see if we could leverage property that’s owned by other government entities as well.

For example, across the street is some property that’s owned by the county, and on the other side of the street there’s some property that’s owned by the City of Los Angeles, and we own the station area. Why not bring all of that together to develop that area, and not just put our singular development and profit now, let’s look at all of those and make it bigger.

We’re doing that in nine different areas, and we created a program that we call our TOC Demonstration Program, where we identify various station areas around the county and look at them in the holistic way that I just described. The Expo/Crenshaw development is going to have over 400 units, and we said that if you’re building on our land—and we apply this program-wide to the other county-owned land—there must be at least 35 percent affordable housing. We’ve been very successful with this across our entire portfolio, and right now we’re at almost 40 percent affordable housing, almost 2,500 housing units.

We’re going to need to look at this in a holistic way, and not just think about one TOD plot at our station. That’s nothing. We want to look at this whole thing in a two-mile radius and— and while we do not control everything—we can influence, instigate, and be impactful. We can go and talk to, in many cases, grocery stores, and see if they could put one in a food desert in a low-income community. We want to step into leadership voids. If we find out folks aren’t doing it, then we will attempt to step into that leadership void to create a situation where people will develop a spine and do things that they should be doing in these various communities.

Ethan Elkind: So, are you jealous of the BART bill that passed?

Phil Washington: I am. We have the largest and most aggressive infrastructure program in this country, in North America, right here in LA County. With Measure M, it’s the largest in the country. Shame on us if we do not use this measure to transform communities.

Ethan Elkind: Would it make sense at some point to think about not needing rail anymore if we can have electric busses that can essentially provide all the same benefits of rail. You can platoon them in rows of ten in dedicated rights of way, and with all of the electrical infrastructure, they can charge at different points. Do you see that coming on the horizon?

Phil Washington: I see that in the future, I really do. A couple of things: we are electrifying our entire fleet by 2030, starting with the Orange Line, which will be all electric by 2021/2022. By the way, the state mandate for the fleet electrification is 2040, but my board—being the overachievers that they are—told me to do it by 2030. But that, in my mind, is a blip in terms of climate change and reversing the trend. If we really want to make an impact, we would really consider and implement things like congestion pricing. We know that transportation around the world is the biggest reason for climate change. While we are electrifying our fleet, there are still going to be cars out there running gas, so we need to implement things like congestion pricing to get people to drive less. At the same time, we need to increase the capacity of busses, and we can do that with the revenue generated from congestion pricing.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.