Angelenos know a lot about traffic, so any project that purports to reduce traffic congestion is greeted with open arms. The latest project that claims to possess the potential to reduce traffic is the planned Purple Line extension. Unfortunately, as convenient as the Purple Line extension might be to the 49,000 riders projected by MTA to use the line, there is no reason to think that the traffic relief would be significant.
The Purple Line extension will be constructed in three phases, beginning this year. The first phase extends the subway from Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue to Wilshire and La Cienega Boulevard and is slated for completion by 2023. The line will ultimately end, in 2035, at the VA hospital in Westwood.
Construction is projected to cost more than $6 billion. Most of the funding will come from county taxpayers, who approved a dedicated half-cent sales tax in 2008. A few weeks ago, the federal government affirmed a $2 billion commitment to the project, with a $1.25 billion grant and an $856 million loan. The federal funding, according to county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, will help in “bringing relief to one of our most traffic-challenged areas.”
The MTA’s own Final Environmental Impact Statement/Environmental Impact Report, released in 2012, disputes this. Absent any significant congestion-relieving projects, the report suggests that the extension would not “be sufficient to significantly reduce surface traffic congestion on the Westside.”
Even the minor relief the line extension might bring would be temporary, as population growth continues to climb. The report also indicated that each phase of construction could lead to “reduced roadway traffic lanes and temporary street closures which could result in major traffic disruptions and bottlenecks.”
Then there are the costs. While the MTA insists the construction will cost just over $6 billion, MTA has a track record of cost overruns. One of the most recent examples was the construction of the Expo Line. While the first phase of the line was supposed to cost $640 million, by the time it was completed the cost had risen to $930 million. This isn’t the first time MTA has experienced this, with the construction of the Red Line plagued with cost overruns, delays and the notorious collapse of half a block of Hollywood Boulevard.
Beyond construction costs, the reality is that rail systems are very expensive to maintain. While the federal government’s assistance will ease the burden on local taxpayers for immediate construction costs, the maintenance costs will be completely placed on the backs of local taxpayers for years to come.
Then there is the reality that mass transit almost always loses money. Taxpayer subsidies per bus and rail boarding have been on the rise. A decade ago, MTA reported a subsidy of $1.40 per boarding. While fares have risen several times since then, the MTA hasn’t gotten any more efficient, and ridership hasn’t been enough to offset cost increases, with MTA projecting a subsidy of $1.96 per boarding in the coming year. Subsidies for rails are projected to exceed $2.10 per boarding in the coming year.
So what does all this mean? For one, the claim that the Purple Line extension will ease traffic requires a dramatically lower set of expectations than extension backers would like us to believe. Next, while federal support will certainly help, in the long run it will be local taxpayers who bear the full set of costs.
Investing our hopes and tax dollars into high-cost, low-return mass transit projects might be tempting on the surface, but it seems as though we ought to be looking elsewhere for traffic relief.