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10.29.2008
Protest: HOV and Bothered
God help us if LA County's Metropolitan Transportation Authority makes good on its misguided approach to mass transit, writes Gunnar Hand.
A map of METRO's proposed road and rail extensions, pending the passage of Measure R.
Courtesy LA METRO

One of the handful of state and local initiatives on the ballot this November, Measure R, sponsored by Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), looks to provide $40 billion over 30 years to fund both future and ongoing transportation projects within the county. Before I get into the ineptitude of Metro’s long range planning and their lack of a system-wide approach to providing transportation to the region, let me say first that any vote for public mass transportation is a good investment. Therefore, I support Measure R on the November 2008 ballot. However, Metro is pondering other funding sources that I oppose, several projects that should not be funded, and several other projects that need some serious guidance.

It has been said that if you build it they will come. If Metro successfully builds its planned expansion of the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes on every freeway in Los Angeles County as stated in their 2008 Draft Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP), released this summer, then we will certainly have more cars and congestion to deal with (20 percent of funding from Measure R will go to HOV lane expansion and other highway improvements). The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), a six-county Metropolitan Planning Organization that includes Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Imperial counties, expects over six million more people in the region by 2035. With every major freeway built to its right-of-way, and virtually no support to bulldoze entire neighborhoods to build more freeways, it seems like southern California has reached its limit on freeway expansions. So Metro has decided to make our highways more efficient with a seamless HOV lane system. God help us if every freeway becomes a double decker I-110 knock off where instead of the current impermeable trench dividing our community we have large impermeable walls of loud, polluting automobiles. While we should be encouraging people who do not have any options other than the automobile to carpool, why does Metro not seek to get at the heart of the problem and build more transit to more places, making the entire transportation system more efficient, instead of just our freeways? And why can they not see that creating more efficient freeways increases the capacity for more cars on the road, creating more congestion and a continued land use nightmare of single-family home subdivisions gobbling up dwindling farmland and desert at our urban periphery?

Now Metro tells us that we should seek more funding to expand transit by generating new sources of revenue on top of their latest ballot initiative. Their answer is to take some of these existing HOV lanes and transform them into High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. Again, why would we now tax those who are doing what we want them to do, carpool, and then allow other single occupancy vehicles to pay to enter these specialty lanes? Metro transit engineers and policymakers claim that an HOT lane is more efficient then any free HOV lane because you can essentially price out much of the traffic during peak times, allowing a free flowing HOT lane. This congestion pricing scheme would make total sense if there was not already an existing HOV lane, plus thousands of carpoolers who already use these lanes, reducing the congestion on our freeways. The fact that these HOV lanes are becoming more and more congested is a positive sign that we are changing people’s habits, and more HOV lanes should be built to accommodate this shift. Instead of the HOT lane, why not create a countywide congestion pricing zone, and charge everyone who drives into the county except for those who use our HOV lanes? This would surely make more money than any other congestion pricing scheme for Metro, and it would deter the number one culprit of our congestion problem, the single occupancy vehicle. And similar to the HOT lane strategy, all funds from this toll would then go into building alternatives, i.e., more mass transit.

This brings me to my second point. Metro is currently studying a Regional Connector transit line that they claim is needed to join the 7th and Metro transit station, which is the terminus of the Metro Blue Line light rail, to Union Station, connecting all three transit lines (Metro Blue light rail, Gold light rail, and eventually the Expo Line light rail to Culver City) in downtown Los Angeles. Well it just so happens we do have a train that links the 7th and Metro station to Union Station and the Gold Line. It is called the Metro Red Line subway. So, why are they spending millions of taxpayer dollars to study a route that would duplicate existing infrastructure, add only two or three more stations, and not even extend to Union Station but to the Gold Line station on 1st and Alameda Streets (currently under construction as part of the Gold Line eastside extension project)?

Why not take that $650–$800 million and use it for more worthy and pressing projects? City Council member Jose Huizar is having trouble funding his streetcar down Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. With an estimated cost of around $90 million, why not build the Broadway street car line plus eight or nine other street car lines in downtown? This would be a much more logical use of the allocated funds to the poorly conceived regional connector. I can think of several other streets of equal length that could use a rebirth of the streetcar in addition to the proposed Broadway line: 1st Street, 4th Street, 7th Street, Olympic/9th Street, Grand Avenue, Main Street, and Alameda Street, with one or two more lines to spare. Or what about using the money for Metro’s proposed Purple Line extension? The Purple Line subway currently runs west from Union Station heading along Wilshire Boulevard to Western Avenue. An extension west along Wilshire would be the primary east-west arterial through the county, and Wilshire would have all the appropriate density and infrastructure to support a subway. It would connect an extensive part of the Westside to downtown, and it would immediately pull thousands of people out of their cars everyday. An extension that should be all subway, all the way to Santa Monica along Wilshire.

I know I have posed a lot of questions for Metro, but they have given me—and the general public—even fewer answers.

Gunnar Hand

Gunnar Hand is a senior regional planner for the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning, and a contributor to AN.