California Lifts Ban on Light Rail Transit in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley: Implications for U.S. Transit

September 21, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: The Right Answer 

Addressing the most apparent weakness in the BRT concept, the California legislature approved and Governor Brown recently signed a bill repealing a 23 year old ban on light rail development in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. The main effect of the bill will be to permit the consideration of LRT to replace buses on the highly successful Orange Line BRT line. The prohibition was instituted in 1991 in reaction to overwrought safety concerns at grade crossings along a 3.5 mile segment of an LRT line proposed to run along an old PE right of way. The right of way last carried passenger rail traffic in 1952. Faced with this prohibition, MTA eventually moved to construct a bus only 14 mile line along the right of way, today’s Orange Line BRT, which opened in 2005 (and was extended four miles in 2012).

Fast forward to 2014, and to the Orange Line’s enormous success. The line now carries almost 30,000 weekday passengers. Unfortunately, this ridership surge has exposed BRT’s greatest weakness, that is, its inability to efficiently respond to large increases in patronage. Consequently, the line is literally strangling on its own success (The service also suffers from a lack of signal preemption at grade crossings, a concession to the local communities along the line, further degrading the service- something that will also impact light rail service if not remedied). Buses have become so overloaded during peak periods that potential customers must wait for several buses to pass before finding room to board. Unable to accommodate demand by coupling vehicles together to better tailor service to demand, as would be possible with light rail, LA Metro has tried to address the line’s popularity by increasing the number of buses. Frankly, this is their only short term option with a bus operation. This has predictably increased labor costs and reduced speeds on the busway due to bus congestion and safety concerns (maintaining safe braking distances for line of sight operations). Moreover, the constant bus traffic has caused premature wear on the paved right of way, necessitating extensive and constant repair to keep the route open.

Numerous grass root organization have already indicated that they will press for the early adoption of light rail to replace the deteriorating bus service. The LA Metro Board has jumped on the bandwagon, voting to authorize a study to examine the potential conversion of the Orange Line to Light Rail. If the line is eventually converted to light rail, it would be the second such action in North America (if you also count the conversion of the previously bus-only tunnel in Seattle to joint LRT/bus operation). Ottawa, Canada, is building its first LRT line to replace a highly successful exclusive bus operation, which like the Orange Line resulted in severe bus congestion. The Ottawa downtown was unable to cope with the weekday influx and egress of a veritable wall of buses to meet demand.

The following cite gives a good rundown on the obstacles one will likely encounter in converting a BRT facility to Light Rail. http://lightrailnow.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/bus-operations-as-precursors-of-light-rail-transit/

The situation might give localities considering a grade separated BRT service pause based on the simple fact that a successful BRT line may become dysfunctional due to increasing traffic and reach capacity when passenger volumes overload a two lane busway.

BRT proponents maintain that BRT is rail-like. While BRT is a welcome addition to the transit inventory and will find many applications in this country, it does not match LRT or even streetcars in a number of basic but crucial aspects. First, capacity: Rail always has and always will possess the ability to respond to patronage increases in the most efficient manner by adding cars to each train. While articulated buses can move large numbers of people per vehicle, they fall short in matching the ability of rail vehicles to expand capacity by training vehicles together, and, importantly, avoiding additional labor costs while meeting increasing demand. Cities considering BRT for corridors with significant ridership potential should seriously consider this aspect when making a mode selection. If BRT is selected, it should be with the recognition that the facility must be designed for easy conversion to light rail. Second, speed: Light rail vehicles (and streetcars) have superior torque in electric motors, affording them the means to accelerate to reach optimal speeds more quickly than diesel or hybrid buses. This all means that the LRV can cover more territory faster, resulting in greater productivity (reflected in cost per passenger) than BRT. Third: energy efficiency: Light rail is more energy efficient in a number of ways, some not so obvious. Like all vehicles, rubber tired buses pay an energy penalty (rolling resistance) in overcoming friction (expressed as a coefficient of friction value) to move forward. However, steel-wheeled LRVs have a much lower coefficient of friction in dry conditions, translating into lower energy requirements, while buses may need to expend up to 40% in additional energy compared to LRT to overcome rolling resistance.

Some Comments on BRT and LRT: When comparing right of way costs, if BRT-lite design standards where sections of mixed traffic are tolerated are applied, the cost per mile can be quite deceptively cheap. The trade-off of course is reduced capacity (present and future), lower average speed and the diminished usefulness of a BRT installation. This can affect the attractiveness of the proposed improvement and generate community opposition when perceived as a suboptimal (cheap) solution, rather than boldly asserting increased capacity, mobility and choice benefits for potential patrons. True BRT with exclusive rights of way and well designed stations will approach LRT prices as Cleveland’s Health Line has demonstrated. Cleveland (and the Orange Line) also demonstrates that quality service on separate rights of way will attract solid patronage numbers (and potential capacity issues).

Whether the short term advantages of BRT, mainly capital cost, outweigh the long term advantages of LRT, can be determined through dispassionate analysis. While generalities in comparing BRT and LRT are sometimes useful, every corridor will possess unique qualities that should bracket the advantages (short and long term) of either mode. The shortage of capital dollars notwithstanding, we think the potential of a corridor should inform the selection process.

Some Verities: Each locality must examine and weigh each corridor’s qualities, while withstanding the withering fire from ideologues who will disparage all rail alternatives as too expensive or not cost effective. They will champion BRT because it appears cheaper or even oppose any transit proposal based on ideological predispositions (think Nashville). Finally, highway supporters will view every non-highway capital expenditure as robbing them of their irrevocable claim to all transportation dollars (think San Antonio). While most metropolitan areas depend on healthy, vibrant downtowns to remain attractive, growing conurbations, many areas where suburban interests dominate will lose sight of this basic, but crucial fact (think Atlanta). This will be to their long term detriment.

As conservatives, we believe that light rail and streetcars represent better long term value because of their efficient and effective crowd-carrying capabilities, their ability to help spur quality economic development and solid growth, and their ability to encourage and cement neighborhood cohesion and vitality, and hence promote traditional values. An increased role for rail also lessens our reliance on the automobile, which in turn, reduces our need to make huge defense expenditures to protect our foreign sources of oil (we still import 40% of our domestic oil needs). While BRT is a good alternative, LRT (and streetcars) represents the best long term value in corridors with high potential.

Some Final Thoughts: The Orange Line dilemma has brought welcome attention to the LRT versus BRT discussion. The debate is a healthy one but must be based on the merits, an honest assessment that points to the mode best suited for a particular corridor. Based on the results attained by the Orange Line, LRT would have been the best initial choice and the region could have avoided the future expense of conversion, which may now come due.

We are confident that LA Metro will be able can hash out the issues (and find the money) and devise a conversion plan that will usher in replacement LRT in an orderly and cost effective manner. Trying to accommodate future patronage growth in the Orange Line corridor through bus-only measures will likely prove to be a frustrating and ultimately futile exercise.

Glen Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation