$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. boo! This ain't L.A. buddy. If anything this is like a little new york or little tokyo. We will not need nearly as much land or have even close to as many tracks as the LA system did. The population density in Honolulu is higher than 99% of the entire country. There simply isn't enough land here, and more people than any square mile that LA has. This system may exceed the costs "per mile" in comparison in contrast to LA, but that was expected if there's such a thing as common sense, and like I said, we will not have even close as much land to cover as the huge mass of land that the city of LA lies within those several counties. I say vote for rail. We've come this far. We';ve waited this long. It will help provide jobs. What we really don't need is another wasted half way done project like the superferry. Simple as that. This ain't L.A……..

  2. The argument that mass transit doesn't reduce traffic congestion here in L.A. is remarkable if you consider the alternative of widening freeways further. It's impossible to physically widen them any wider and the same argument the writer is using also hold true for widening freeways: it doesn't ease traffic congestion either.

    Can you imagine what traffic would look like if all of us who are jamming the L.A.'s system trains and buses during rush hour were to get in our cars, or be forced to purchase? To ignore this is the car-centric myopia that people like the writer above need to acknowledge.

  3. Wendell did not ask for more lanes. If LA had simply stuck to a good bus service the situation would be the same and the taxpayer would be $12 Billion richer.

    Now keep talking rail while California loses thousands of people a moth to out-migration due to steep taxes and infrastructure problems.

    Pres. Lincoln said it best… People get what they deserve.

  4. You need to look a where Hawaii Rail Station 1 starts, the middle of the North South Road, only the Kroc Center is there. If it does not start at Kapolei Second City, what is the point? Most of us live in valleys and up mountain ridges, not to mention the Windward, Central, and Leeward Coast. Will you ride rail? If you have to take a bus to get to it?
    When this thing is built and not ridden, the high cost of maintenance should be taken out of union workers pay.

    • I believe he said daily riders to and from work. Since most trips are round trip, you can assume 150K people take rail. Then what fraction of those take it for work? I am likely to believe the US Census.

      That being said, the true benefit of the rail system can only be realized when it extends past the bottle necks that are infamous in Los Angeles. Metro doesn't have plans to extend it into all the bottle necks so its greatest benefit will not be realized. But ridership will improve with more connections and with more people moving to the various new apartments being built near the stations.

  5. You have to understand Wendell Cox has a hidden agenda to fight mass transit projects all over the country. He is well paid by the oil and gas industry to do studies which show theres no benefit to rail transit. What he writes here is a smoke screen full of mis-leading infomaton and false comments about the non success of LA transit. What he didnt mention, is that any new freeway expansion would costs as much as building new rail lines or dedicated busways due to the lack of available land in LA, (that means taking away someones home or business, or stacking and tunneling new road expansion) which is a significiant increase to the cost. He also didnt mention that over 350,000 people ride Metro Rail on a typical work day and almost 46,000 on Metrolink. He also fails to mention that many bus lines in LA especially on Wilshire, Vermont, Western to name a few, are way over crowded and cant handle the sheer numbers of people who rely on public transit.

  6. 20,000 riders a day, where did this information come from? 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). That is not even close to 20,000. You should fact check this Hawaii Reporter before posting.

  7. If Mr Cox would take the time to ride LA's Metro Rail system (and buese too,) he would see that that LA would be brought to its knees if just Metro Rail and Metrolink were to vanish . Rush hour at Downton's Metro Center rivels New Yorks Subway system in passenger volum. LA has come to depend on the MTA's vast bus and expanding rail system. Buses are OK, but rail transit is far superior , and where a commuter might not to ride on a bus, her or she WILL ride Metro Rail. PUBLIC TRANSIT IS A PUBLIC SERVICE. I don't believe that Public Transit could make a profit anywhere in the world, unless everyone involved worked for free, and that is just not goiong to happen..Rail transit attracts far more rides then buses.

    • Metrolink is not Metro. Difference include triple the cost of a ticket, infrequent service, and usually limited or no holiday and weekend service.

  8. If Mr Cox would take the time to ride LA,s Metro Rail, he would see that there is no way that LA could do without it. Rush hour at Downtown,s Metro Center looks like New York, thousands of passengers riding MTA trains Public Transit is a PUBLIC SERVICE.. Public Transit could not make a profit anywhere in the world, unless everyone involved worked for free, and thats just not going to happen. People like rail transit much more then buese, and that is just the way it is.

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