Should Metrolink Become a True Regional Railroad?

Sep 8th, 2014 | Posted by

The LA Times today has a closer look at Metrolink ridership, which has stagnated in recent years and is still below its 2008 peak:

They also note that downtown Los Angeles — the predominant destination for Metrolink commuters — is undergoing a residential renaissance but has faded as an employment center.

“Ridership should be growing given the size of the area Metrolink serves,” said Richard Katz, a former state legislator and longtime board member for the railroad. “Though we have been attracting riders, we’ve had a hard time holding on to them.”

The article itself has more details, including Metrolink’s aggressive marketing efforts, but it seems to me that Metrolink may have reached the limits of what it can accomplish with its current service structure.

Planners point to the shifting location of jobs, particularly away from downtown Los Angeles, as a factor:

Studies indicate that the size of the workforce in the core of Los Angeles has stagnated somewhat in the last 20 years while the number of residents has tripled. At the same time, employment has risen in Orange County, the South Bay and on the Westside.

But only Orange County is served by Metrolink, and many new downtown L.A. residents tend to work closer to home and don’t need the rail service.

“The job growth is not that high in downtown Los Angeles,” said Brian Taylor, a professor of urban planning at UCLA. Metrolink’s “ridership is very sensitive to economic change and employment shifts.”

That’s surely part of the issue. As a commuter railroad Metrolink has to follow where the jobs are, and the jobs are becoming even more spread out across the region.

But that may be the issue itself. Not that jobs are moving, but that Metrolink is still structured as a commuter rail service, taking people to work in the morning and home in the late afternoon and early evening. Many of its riders would prefer the service to be more flexible and have better local connections:

Some Southern California commuters say they like riding Metrolink, but the system needs more midday and late-night service. Others have found that express buses can be faster and cheaper. Also figuring into the loss of riders are poorly synchronized train and bus connections.

For almost two years, David Clubb relied on Metrolink to get to his office in Burbank. In the morning, he took a bus to the line’s Simi Valley station, and he did the reverse in the evening.

The bus connection was good going to work, he said, but the return by train was often late.

“There was less than a five-minute window to catch the bus” on the way home, Clubb said. “If you missed it, the wait was 40 to 45 minutes for the next one. Rather than continue to lose time, I was willing to spend $30,000 on a car.”

This is a classic case of high demand for a service that the system has not yet been able to meet. If transit in Ventura County had more frequent service, someone like Clubb could just get to the Simi Valley Station and if he missed one bus, another could come in another 10-15 minutes. And the same is true of Metrolink itself, of course.

I’d add that the issue isn’t just about commuters like this guy who miss their connecting bus. A lot of people might want to stay after work to go for drinks with co-workers, see a show in DTLA, take in a Dodger game, etc. Metrolink’s service is still geared toward commute hours, however, which doesn’t help you unless your destination happens to also be a Surfliner stop.

For Metrolink to grow, it needs to become a regional rail service that also meets commuters’ needs, rather than a commuter service that acts as a de facto regional rail system because nothing else currently fills that role. That means midday service, higher frequency service, and service later into the evening.

Metrolink found ridership gains when they introduced a weekend service from the Inland Empire to Orange County beaches. (I’ve used it, from Orange to San Clemente, it’s awesome.) They need local governments and the state to come together to give them the revenue they need to expand service on their routes so that Metrolink can become an all-day regional rail system, with the frequency levels that such a system demands.

Art Leahy, head of Metro, is also quoted in the LA Times article as saying that lower fares are something they’re looking at. Transit and rail should be free, or as close to it as possible, so that’s a good step too.

Another step is to further integrate Metrolink and the Pacific Surfliner service to meet the needs of the Southern California region as a whole. The eventual arrival of high speed rail will make this even more of a priority, and a thriving Metrolink with all-day frequent service is key to making HSR a success too.

Are Transbay Developers Trying to Defund the Downtown Extension?

Sep 7th, 2014 | Posted by

So, this is completely ridiculous:

Developers who are building towers around the Transbay Transit Center in SoMa are fighting to reduce a special property tax that will be levied on developments in the area. The biggest loser could be the downtown rail extension to bring Caltrain and California high-speed rail into the terminal, as funds for the regional rail hub and other long-term projects would disappear….

In exchange for the city allowing them to increase the height and density of their projects, the property owners agreed two years ago to be assessed up to $400 million to help pay for a Transbay Transit Center rooftop park and other public improvements to the area.

Only now, thanks to skyrocketing property values and changes in the city’s methodology for calculating the assessments, the developers — paying into what’s known as a Mello-Roos special district — could face up to $1.4 billion in charges.

These developers aren’t actually trying to kill the downtown extension. They just want someone else to pay for it. Even with a $1.4 billion tab, they’re still going to make money on the Transbay project.

San Francisco should reject these demands and move ahead as planned. A Transbay Terminal without train service is a huge waste, and if it’s not funded now, it could be quite some time before it gets funded and built.

More Time to Comment on Palmdale to LA Segments

Sep 4th, 2014 | Posted by

Did you want more time to get your comments in for the Palmdale to Burbank or the Burbank to Los Angeles segments of the high speed rail project? Still got that burning desire to explain why a tunnel under the San Gabriels is a good (or bad) idea? Well, you are in luck.

The California High Speed Rail Authority has extended the comment period for those sections to next Friday, September 12.

CLCV Explains Why HSR Is So Important for California’s Environment

Sep 2nd, 2014 | Posted by

The president and chair of the California League of Conservation Voters, Rick Zbur, leads one of the state’s most important and effective environmental organizations. (He’s also the new Executive Director of Equality California.) So it’s great to see him publish a fantastic op-ed in the Sacramento Bee titled “An environmentalist’s case for high-speed rail”:

As the president of the California league, I wanted to share why I think this program is so pivotal in our efforts to “decarbonize” California and is part of our international climate leadership….

High-speed rail, like our fight against global climate change, must be understood as a long-term commitment that will bring long-term benefits. Saving our planet and protecting the air we breathe requires that we reject the false choice between short- and long-term strategies. I, for one, know it is imperative that we do both, for us, for our children and for generations to come.

The whole thing is worth reading and out of respect to the Sac Bee for publishing it, I won’t excerpt any more here. It is really great to see this get published, as CLCV has a long record of fighting hard to protect the environment and to promote sustainable infrastructure that reduces carbon emissions. They’ve long been supportive of HSR, but this is a timely and welcome op-ed that helps provide even more momentum for a project that has been having an awfully good summer.

It’s also an important contrast to the Sierra Club California, whose Executive Director Kathryn Phillips has spent 2014 opposing funding of long-term carbon emission reduction. CLCV has instead rightly understood that long-term carbon emissions are a huge threat to the state’s environment and must be cut, rather than dismissing it as a non-issue the way Phillips has. Thankfully for HSR backers, CLCV remains more influential in Sacramento.