$12 Billion for Rail in Los Angeles and Fewer Riders

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BY WENDELL COX – Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley – Thomas talks glowingly of rail transit in Los Angeles in a recent Star-Advertiser commentary. However, he did not indicate that rail transit had reduced traffic congestion or increased transit ridership. There is a good reason for this. Rail has neither reduced traffic congestion nor in Los Angeles.

As Honolulu considers an expensive rail transit line, it is useful to consider the Los Angeles rail experience in comparison with the promises and expectations that existed when it was created. I was present at the creation and played a major role in the establishment of the Los Angeles rail system.


Supervisor Ridley-Thomas represents the second district in Los Angeles County, which at one time was represented by Kenneth Hahn, a legendary fixture in Los Angeles governance for nearly 50 years.

I had the pleasure of serving on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) along with Supervisor Hahn, who I considered a good friend. LACTC was the top transportation policy authority in the nation’s largest county.

I was appointed by Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley to three terms on LACTC, whose membership also included the five county supervisors, the Mayor of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles City Council President, the Mayor of Long Beach and two elected officials from smaller cities.

I was the only private citizen on the LACTC, which was a predecessor of the Los Angeles MTA, the body on which Supervisor Ridley – Thomas serves.

I had become involved in transportation issues because of my belief that building a rail system in Los Angeles would reduce its intense traffic congestion. In August of 1980, Supervisor (and LACTC chair) Hahn called a special meeting to consider his proposal for reduced fare program to be financed by a countywide sales tax, which LACTC would place on the ballot under its legislative authority.

Fearing the loss of the most important opportunity to bring rapid transit to Los Angeles, I took the initiative to confer with Supervisor Baxter Ward, a strong rail supporter, who agreed to second a motion to dedicate 35% of the funds to rail after a three year reduced fare period (Supervisor Ward’s amendment to set-aside a larger share had been previously defeated).

My motion passed, and was incorporated into the “Proposition A” ballot issue, which provided nearly all the funding for the first light rail line and substantial amounts of funding for four additional lines. My motion was the genesis of the Los Angeles rail system.

Meanwhile, two subsequent taxes were approved by voters to provide funding for urban rail, since the escalating costs of the rail system rendered the Proposition A sales tax insufficient to keep the promises made by LACTC. At the beginning of 2011, five rail lines radiated from the urban core, with a sixth (cross-town) line in the inner suburbs.

It is well to step back and review the results. Many advocates of transit seem to merely require the running of shiny trains to prove the success of rail. In fact, rail can be justified only by the extent to which it cost effectively reduces traffic congestion and increases transit ridership. Based upon those practical standards, any objective analysis of rail transit in Los Angeles has to conclude that it has been an extravagant failure.

The hoped-for traffic congestion reduction did not occur. Not only that, transit ridership did not increase. Today, there are 7 percent fewer riders on the MTA bus and rail services then there were on buses alone in 1985. By contrast, over the period, the population of Los Angeles County grew by approximately 20 percent.

But while MTA ridership was falling, costs increased substantially. The latest National Transit Database information (2010) indicates that MTA’s daily operating costs have increased nearly one third since 1985, after adjustment for inflation. This is before considering the approximately $12 billion (in 2011$) of local, state and federal tax funding used to build the rail lines.

Thus, now spending $300 million more annually and approximately $12 billion in construction and related expenses, transit ridership remains below the 1985 level. Los Angeles and the nation’s taxpayers have spent that much money and the effect is not even to “tread water” in transit ridership.

The number of daily work trip commuters carried on the MTA light rail and subway system is miniscule. The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data indicates that in 2011, approximately 20,000 daily one-way commuters used MTA’s six rail lines to get to work, little more than one-half of one percent of work trip commuting in Los Angeles County (3.6 million use cars daily to get to work).

At the same time, traffic volumes have increased substantially and travel speeds have declined. Since the first rail line opened in 1990, the average one-way work trip in Los Angeles County has increased nearly 3 minutes, from 26.5 minutes to 29.4 minutes in 2011.

By comparison, there has been a more than 100,000 increase in the number of people working at home (mostly telecommuting) since 1990 — five times the number of people commuting by rail. This increase in working at home has required virtually no tax funding, a stark contrast to the cost of rail.

The Honolulu rail proposal will cost residents far more than residents paid in Los Angeles. The per capita local costs for constructing the one Honolulu rail line is four times the amount spent by Los Angelinos to build the six lines in Los Angeles.

This is before taking into consideration the likely additional costs in Honolulu, such as additional construction cost escalation and additional operating subsidies that are likely to be needed to make up fare shortages that result from excessively over-projecting ridership by consultants to the city (which according to international research happens more often than not).

Honolulu and Hawaii are in no position to take on this substantial obligation. Combined with other local financing burdens, the City & County of Honolulu could be headed toward a fiscal train-wreck.

  • Citizens are facing water rate increases of 70 percent over the next five years.
  • Honolulu has a huge unfunded retiree health care liability, while the state and the city have a substantial unfunded pension liability.

Shiny trains are not worth the billions in sacrifices that will saddle the citizens of Oahu for generations to come.


Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, a St. Louis (MO-IL) area international public policy consultancy. He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, one term on the Amtrak Reform Council and served nine years as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris. He also serves as vice-president of CODATU, a European organization dedicated to improving urban transport in lower income world cities.





  1. The metro system has an average daily weekday ridership of 362,904 as of June 2012 (Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, July 18, 2012).

    Let's assume that there were no midday riders or tourists just using the system for convenience. This is 360,000 round-trips or 180,000 commuters served by rail (many would need a bus or car to reach their actual destination.)

    LA County alone had 4,000,000 workers in the 2010 Census (and since then there has been more recovery.) So indeed rail is extremely cost ineffective for LA… $12 billion sunk to serve 4% of the workers.

    Pro-rail math never cuts it.

  2. WTF IS WRONG WITH SOME PEOPLE?? How many times must we go over the same stupid debates over and over again? I thought the people of Oahu already VOTED fair and square on this issue. We waste millions of dollars because of old garbage we already DECIDED. Rail was favored by the majority of the people years ago. It already started now, but some morons want to try and go back to square one already. We don't get another hand out on this one people. THIS IS THE LAST TIME THE FEDS WILL OFFER US ANYTHING FOR RAIL. Think of all of the jobs that will be created here on Oahu. Don't we need jobs? Almost every single one of us has a friend or a relative that works in construction or something of the sort, that has been on extended unemployment benefits for god knows how long already don't we? If Ben wanted to stop this, he should of tried long before it started. Long before we put already so much money into this. If we put our minds and apply it in a more efficient way, all this energy spent bickering could instead be directed towards building the most suitable and cost wise system we can use, not this. Not this stupid politics crap back and forth. Get up all of you people that support rail and get out and vote this coming election. Caldwell is very familiar with the costs and deadlines for funding things. He has a 100% trustworthy record. I say give him a chance. Do we really need another term with Cayetano again? Lets look forward not backwards people. It's gonna be 2013.

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  3. I was sure about this even before I read the article. I think this is a scheme to move some money around.

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