Los Angeles officials will hold a major event Friday near Staples Center to mark the 20-year expansion of urban rail service in the county and what they see as a dynamic shift that will transform the nation's car capital into a model for mass transit.
But although the region now has a gleaming system of subways and light-rail trains, some transportation experts say the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's $8-billion effort — less operating costs — has done little to reduce traffic congestion or increase the use of mass transit much beyond the level in 1985, when planning for the Metro Blue Line began.
Rather than bolster ridership, these experts say, the emphasis on rail has come at the expense of the MTA's vast network of buses and may have cost the agency at least 1.5 billion passenger boardings from 1986 to 2006.
"Overall, the push for rail has forced transit ridership down," said Tom Rubin, a veteran transit consultant and former chief financial officer for the MTA's predecessor. "Had they run a lot of buses at low fares, they could have doubled the number of riders."
An MTA spokesman said no agency official was available Thursday to respond to Rubin's contention. But the issue has come up before and the MTA has steadfastly defended the projects, although not in a way that has put the matter to rest.
Rail transit advocates contend that it is premature to judge urban rail's performance because the local systems are not fully developed and have yet to substantially benefit from being part of a broad rail network.
In the future, it is possible that more high-density housing and commercial centers will be built near light-rail and subway stations, which could boost ridership. Advocates say that mounting traffic congestion and an aging population also will increase demand.
Since 1985, the MTA has been planning and building a 79-mile rail network that now includes the Red Line subway as well as light-rail service, such as the Blue Line between Los Angeles and Long Beach, the Green Line between Norwalk and Redondo Beach, and the Gold Line linking downtown Los Angeles, Pasadena and East Los Angeles.
Construction is underway on the light-rail Expo Line between downtown Los Angeles and Culver City. The MTA plans to extend the subway to Westwood and the Gold Line eastward to Azusa. Still another light-rail line has been proposed for the so-called Crenshaw Corridor.
The 20th anniversary of the Metro Rail system will be celebrated by MTA board members, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, at the Blue Line station on South Figueroa Street.
Invoking images of the old Pacific Red cars that once tied local cities together, the officials plan to say the investment is changing the urban landscape with transit-oriented development and now offers the public a faster alternative than buses and, in some cases, automobiles.
On an average weekday, MTA officials said, the agency's rail lines handle more than 327,000 boardings, while buses average about 1.2 million. Since the Blue Line opened in 1990, agency figures show that the systems have had more than a billion boardings.
But Rubin and professor James Moore, chairman of USC's department of industrial and systems engineering, say the development of MTA's subway and light-rail lines and its impact on bus service is responsible for lowering transit ridership for almost two decades.
They note that traffic congestion continues to rise in the region. Studies by the Texas Transportation Institute show that the time motorists spend in traffic has increased on average from 44 hours a year in 1982 to 70 hours in 2007. That has maintained the longstanding reputation of Los Angeles and Orange counties as the most congested in the nation.
According to figures from the Federal Transit Administration, the MTA had about 497 million passenger boardings in 1985, when the agency did not have any rail service. As the rail program developed during the 1990s, the figure bottomed out at about 375 million boardings by 1996. The boarding numbers includeFoothill Transit, which broke off from the MTA in 1989.
Transit use finally met or slightly exceeded the 1985 level in 2006 and 2007, but dipped to about 487 million in 2009, largely due to the recession. Rubin and Moore noted that the MTA has not been able to increase its market share even though the population of Los Angeles County has increased roughly 20% since 1985.
Rubin and Moore said the MTA had a 50-cent bus fare in 1985, which was subsidized by Proposition A, the county's first sales tax to help pay for transportation projects. The low fare fueled a rapid rise in transit use in the early 1980s.
In 1986, they said, bus funding from Proposition A was shifted to rail projects, initially for the Blue Line. With the subsidy gone, the basic, one-way bus fare rose by 35 cents and ridership dropped by about 47 million that year. Today, the basic transit fare is $1.50.
For the $877-million cost of building the Blue Line, Moore said, the MTA could have operated 17 of its 22 busiest bus lines and carried 16 times as many people as the light-rail line.
"I like getting as much bang for the buck as possible and giving people with limited means as much mobility as possible," Moore said. "If cost effectiveness were the standard for rail, you would have to stop building the systems."