The following is from Foothill Gold Line Construction Authority CEO Habib F. Balian.
A week after the historic opening of the Foothill Gold Line from Pasadena to Azusa, the Los Angeles Times ran a guest commentary by Ethan Elkind. Mr. Elkind’s view, which is consistent with a book he published on rail in Los Angeles in 2014, is that the Gold Line was only built because of politics. In his words, “the Gold Line extension is the price we all had to pay to secure funding for more cost-effective rail lines in densely populated parts of the county.”
In response to Mr. Elkind’s commentary, Los Angeles County Metro Vice Chairman and Duarte Councilman John Fasana and San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments President and Glendora Mayor Pro Tem Gene Murabito submitted a response to the paper. I thought you might be interested in what they wrote in response to Mr. Elkind’s claims (his commentary is included below, in case you missed it):
Letter to the Los Angeles Times, submitted by John Fasana and Gene Murabito:
Like his book, Ethan Elkind’s recent Opinion (“How politics built L.A.’s Gold Line at the expense of a smarter system,” March 14) turns a blind eye to many facts due to his parochial view of the county’s transportation problems and, more importantly, the solutions. While ignoring the benefits the Foothill Gold Line brings to the region, he conveniently misses several important points.
First, the cost per mile to build the Foothill Gold Line is only one-third the cost of other lines being built through more densely populated areas. The recently completed 11.5-mile Foothill Gold Line from Pasadena to Azusa cost $741 million to build, including six new stations and 1,525 parking spaces. By comparison, a 6.5-mile light rail line being built through densely populated areas on the west side of Los Angeles costs $1.5 billion. That is a $163 million per mile (and nearly $91 million per station) difference.
Second, ridership on the Foothill Gold Line is equivalent to the ridership of other light rail lines in the county – 64,000 daily boardings by 2030 for the west side project for instance, versus 60,000 daily boardings by 2035 for the Gold Line (not including the future planned extension of the Foothill Gold Line from Glendora to Montclair).
And finally, smart growth planning principles support building public infrastructure in areas expected to accommodate future growth. The Foothill Gold Line is being built along a historic freight corridor undergoing an evolution from agricultural driven, light manufacturing uses to higher density housing and commercial uses appropriate for the new passenger service. These new uses will accommodate the expected growth of more than 50,000 new residents and 15,000 new jobs projected for the Foothill Gold Line corridor cities in the next decade, and more in the decades to come. In fact, the Foothill Gold Line corridor is expected to represent 44% of the total population and 49% of the total jobs in the San Gabriel Valley by 2024; not including the tens of thousands of students and visitors that travel to and from the many universities located within walking distance to a Foothill Gold Line station.
So while there are certainly important benefits to shoe-horn transit infrastructure into densely populated areas of the county; there are also benefits to building it through areas able to help accommodate the county’s growing population. Both are wise uses of taxpayer dollars; and both help improve the quality of life for our county’s residents, workers and visitors.
– John Fasana and Gene Murabito
The Journey Continues,
Habib F. Balian
How politics built L.A.’s Gold Line at the expense of a smarter system
By Ethan Elkind
March 14, 2016
The opening this month of the Gold Line extension from Pasadena to Azusa is an example of how voter-approved tax dollars are now delivering real transit projects for Los Angeles. It is also an example of how politics often dictate how and where Metro builds.
Better mass transit is necessary across the region. But not every part of the county has the population to support rail. In the case of the Gold Line, we’ve brought expensive train technology to a generally low-density area that could be more economically served by bus rapid transit or commuter buses running in the right-of-way.
Politics brought the Gold Line into existence. In building the first leg from Union Station to Pasadena, local leaders bypassed areas with greater potential ridership because the Pasadena route had powerful political supporters, including critical bipartisan backing at the federal level from then-Rep. David Dreier.
Politics were also behind the decision to build the extension in the San Gabriel Valley, which ranked as one of the least cost-effective of the planned county rail projects.
Back in 2008, rail boosters needed two-thirds support from Los Angeles voters for the sales tax increase for transportation known as Measure R — a threshold required by Proposition 13. The measure would fund important transit projects all around the county, from the Purple Line subway under Wilshire Boulevard to the Expo Line to Santa Monica.
San Gabriel Valley leaders argued that their region was being unfairly left out of the coming transit boom, and they repeatedly threatened to block the measure from even appearing on the ballot. In reality, they were always slated to get a gold-plated rail line. But Metro officials had to give the Gold Line extension priority in the funding plan in order to secure voter support along the route.
In some ways, the Gold Line extension is the price we all had to pay to secure funding for more cost-effective rail lines in densely populated parts of the county, which are now under construction.
Now that the Gold Line extension is operational, San Gabriel Valley leaders should be proactive about creating demand along the route. They should do everything they can to build more housing and offices near the stations — the optimal way to capitalize on the investment.
More residents and workers within walking or biking distance of the stations will boost ridership and therefore fare revenue, as well as provide badly needed opportunities to house and employ a growing population.
Going forward, Metro should be more willing to reject inefficient rail proposals in favor of more cost-effective options. The agency should consider prioritizing high-speed busways in dedicated lanes, such as the Wilshire Boulevard bus-only lane and the Orange Line in the San Fernando Valley, as well as on major freeways.
While most voters respond better to the idea of a shiny new rail line than a bus, buses on dedicated lanes can in fact provide much of the speed and reliability of rail, at a fraction of the cost. And those saved dollars can then be reinvested in other parts of the county to bring even more mobility benefits.
Meanwhile, state leaders should push to change the Proposition 13 requirement for a two-thirds voter approval threshold for local transit tax measures.
This high bar results in political compromises that often undermine the effectiveness of public dollars.
Los Angeles has limited funds for transit projects, while facing enormous regional mobility needs. We can’t afford rail projects that don’t deliver sufficient benefits or guarantee smart development around the stations.
As Metro leaders now craft a plan for new projects and another, $120-billion ballot measure this November, they should avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.