Southern Californians consider traffic congestion the most important local policy issue of the '80s, and they expect action. But reorganization of transportation agencies, such as the replacement of the Southern California Rapid Transit District with a countywide super-agency, as voted last week by the Assembly, will have little meaning unless the new organization deals differently with the substance of the region's transport problems.
Rapid growth has increased congestion on the transit and highway systems; cost increases and funding decreases have kept services and facilities from expanding to meet growing demand. In Los Angeles County, the Southern California Assn. of Governments estimates that we collectively waste 480,000 person-hours each workday standing still or moving in traffic at speeds below free-flow conditions.
By the year 2010, daily totals of wasted time are projected to be as high as 4 million person-hours in Los Angeles County and 7 million hours in the rest of the region. But congestion will never actually reach those levels. Before it does, the quality of life will have so deteriorated that people will stop migrating to Southern California, companies will locate elsewhere and declining economic and population growth will make the forecasts wrong.
It has only been a decade since the County Transportation Commission was created, out of frustration with other organizations, to do short-range transportation planning and financing. The RTD itself was created by legislative impatience with its cumbersome predecessor. Unfortunately, previous reorganizations have not solved any problems, because legislators refused to implement the following policies needed to accommodate our rapid growth:
--In outlying counties we should build many more miles of roads and freeways. That's where most of the growth will occur and the added traffic will be concentrated. Road building must be coordinated with land-use planning in order to locate high-density activities where accessibility will be greatest.
--Roads should be built in advance of residential and commercial development to minimize costs and avoid disruption of established communities. This will cost a great deal of money, and the federal government is likely to decrease rather than increase its contributions. Politicians are afraid to tell us that we need a local gasoline tax and higher real-estate development fees. The political costs of higher taxes are smaller than the costs of stifled growth and congested streets.
--In the regional core, already densely developed, we must concentrate on getting more service out of the street, highway and transit systems we already have. Building new freeways and widening streets would destroy cherished neighborhoods and would be prohibitively expensive. Instead, automated, computer-controlled traffic signal systems should be expanded; they promise to increase street carrying capacity by around 10%. We should make greater use of one-way streets and demand vigorous enforcement of parking violations. One parked car in a "no parking" zone can eliminate an entire traffic lane's capacity. We should also use modern communications technology to help clear up freeway incidents more quickly. Minor accidents produce thousands of hours of delay while drivers wait for tow trucks.
--Metrorail should be abandoned. It takes courage to abandon a commitment so soon after ground has been broken, but it would be in the public interest. Hundreds of millions have already been spent to fulfill a political commitment to an inappropriate transit system. We still face capital costs approaching $5 billion to build a subway along a route that has yet to be determined, but which in the end will serve but 1% or 2% of the region's trips in a single corridor producing less than 20% of the trips to and from downtown.
Because Metrorail costs are so high and the project will sap so much of our transit-subsidy budget, it will take higher fares to keep the bus system going. Citizens now complaining about the proposed $1 fare have a right to ask what the fare would be if the subsidies scheduled for Metrorail construction were used instead to lower bus fares. Higher fares are losing more bus riders today than Metrorail will carry in 20 years.
Even the "light rail" or trolley-car line now under construction between downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach is very expensive and of limited benefit. Construction costs will approach $1 billion, and, by the planners' own estimates, it will carry only a few thousand more people per day than buses now do in the same corridor; time savings will be negligible.