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A Proposal for Using Public Transportation Dollars to Benefit the Olympics–and L.A.

There has been a heated debate over how Metro can pay for accelerating transportation projects in advance of the 2028 Olympics. Metro staff have proposed various means - from TNC taxes to congestion pricing to local return and much more. These revenue sources have been criticized for various reasons, including potential impacts on equity.

For this article, I am not going to focus on the revenue, but on the other end - where the funds would be spent. Is the currently planned accelerated spending good for equity? What could Olympics acceleration favoring equity look like?

What's tricky about project acceleration is that it essentially sucks up all the discretionary funding available to Metro. Instead of planning things over time, and balancing interests, proposed Olympic acceleration would lock in certain funding priorities over others. In this setting, what tends to get overlooked and under-funded is the workhorse of the transit system: buses. More on that below.

In January 2018, the Metro board approved 28 projects targeted to be completed before the 2028 Olympics. So, today's critique is a bit late. But perhaps it is timely, as acceleration financing is causing some parties to question what is being accelerated.

As outlined in earlier SBLA coverage, Metro's 28 by 2028 initiative includes 19 projects already slated for completion before 2028. There is no actual acceleration for those 19 projects. With escalating construction costs and federal transit funding hard to come by, just completing 19 big projects more or less on time and on budget may not be easy.

The actual acceleration covers only nine projects - the only ones that were originally scheduled for implementation after 2028. Metro calculates the overall acceleration project cost at $26.2 billion.

There are four rail projects, totaling $20.5 billion:

    • Gold Line Eastside Extension – $4.4 billion (scheduled for 2035)
    • Sepulveda Transit Corridor – $8.6 billion (scheduled for 2033)
    • South Bay Light Rail Extension – $1.2 billion (scheduled for 2030)
    • West Santa Ana Branch – $6.3 billion (two phases scheduled for 2029 and 2041)

There are five highway projects, totaling $3.6 billion:

    • 105 Freeway ExpressLanes - $0.35 billion (scheduled for 2029)
    • 10 Freeway ExpressLanes from the 605 to San Bernardino County Line - $0.5 billion (scheduled for 2030)
    • 710 Freeway South expansion - $0.9 billion (scheduled for 2032)
    • 57/60 Freeways Interchange - $1.1 billion (scheduled for 2031)
    • 405 Freeway South Bay Curve - $0.88 billion (scheduled for 2047)

In addition to the above projects actually on the 28 by 2028 list, Metro staff are proposing that the agency also commit to build a list of "unfunded ancillary efforts” needed mostly for rail operations. These ancillary projects include the 210 Freeway barrier wall (which Caltrans should pay for), rail yards and rail operations center upgrades, and a handful of other unfunded projects needed for transit service. There is also a commitment to implementation of the NextGen Bus Study, maintaining a state of good repair, and converting the bus fleet to electric.

When these additional unfunded projects are factored in, the Olympic acceleration funding gap stretches to an estimated $42.9 billion.

Streetsblog already posted brief critiques of the planned rail projects. These projects are needed, though expensive, and they do have some flaws to iron out.

What about the $3.6 billion in highway project acceleration? For many reasons, these projects are awful and should not be included in any Olympic acceleration. I lived here through L.A.'s 1984 Olympics. During the Olympics the freeways were about as uncongested as they have ever been. As with Carmageddon, many drivers expected traffic congestion and made plans not to be on the freeways. Accelerating the freeway projects is also awful for equity, environmental justice, and the environment.

Why not drop all those highway projects? And perhaps a few (or all) of the rail projects?

Instead, how about substituting some much cheaper projects--especially cheaper projects that are much better for equity? Advancing equity will mean focusing on Metro's transit workhorse: the bus system.

Under 28 by 2028, the bus system is scheduled to receive nothing at all.

I don't have all the answers on what would constitute a great list of equity-focused projects to accelerate, but I can offer a rough draft list of potential projects. I don't have airtight cost estimates for any of these - though they're all much cheaper - and better for equity - than increased highway capacity.

It should be no surprise that a list of more equity-focused projects would primarily focus on the bus system.

To some extent, the philosophy behind this list echoes L.A.'s approach to the Olympics games themselves. L.A. has been innovative in primarily relying on existing venues, and not building a bunch of expensive new facilities. Similarly, Metro project acceleration should focus on making existing systems work well - not just during the Olympics, but in a way that benefits everyday Angelenos, for a long time to come.

Here's my brainstorm list of projects that really should be accelerated:

1 - System-wide All-Door Boarding
Other cities, including San Francisco and Boston, do all-door boarding systemwide. Metro has been implementing all-door boarding much too slowly, on a few selected higher ridership bus lines. Expanding ADB is in Metro's Strategic Plan. Is the agency really going to tell visitors from around the world that they need to line up at the front door of the bus in 2028? Metro's capital costs for all-door boarding on two bus lines was $1.13 million, though staff anticipated that faster boarding would allow Metro to operate slightly fewer buses, thereby netting Metro a savings of more than $200,000 per year. Metro has plenty more buses that need TAP readers installed, so my guesstimate for system-wide all-door boarding would be something in the neighborhood of $10-25 million up front, which could be offset by slightly reduced operating costs.

2 - New Bus-Only Lanes
Perhaps Metro could accelerate 28 bus-only lane corridors, to be completed by 2028. A lower bar would be 28 accelerated new miles of BOLs. Heck, I'd probably be okay with accelerating 28 blocks of new bus-only lanes, if they were prioritized strategically to unclog several congested bottlenecks for higher ridership lines. Metro has several studies with plenty of recommended corridors. L.A.'s peak-hour parking lanes on major streets make promising candidates. Ideally, these Olympic-accelerated corridors could get a special artistic treatment celebrating the Olympics - like L.A.'s Dodger-logo bus lanes or other celebratory painted lanes.

Sure, BOL projects are outside of Metro's control (they require partnering with underlying jurisdictions, like the city of L.A.), but then again, those highway projects being accelerated are outside Metro's sole purview, too (requiring them to partner with Caltrans). These projects are fiscally cheap but not politically cheap, as they would shift street space from low-occupancy modes (cars) to high occupancy modes (buses.) The overall cost for, say, 28 miles of new BOLs would be less than a single freeway project, but assuming lots of environmental study, costs could add up to maybe $400-800 million.

3 - Bus-Only Lane Enforcement
If Metro is going to do more bus-only lanes, then it needs to make the lanes work as well as they can... and that means enforcement. This is also in Metro's Strategic Plan. I know enforcement is problematic - with communities of color bearing the brunt of police biases. In this case, though, I think that the trade-off might be worth it - as often a bus full of forty-plus people has to wait behind a scofflaw car carrying one person. Perhaps enforcement could be tempered with some sort of highly visible campaign, maybe championing buses tied to the Olympic spirit - something like "We're all in this together; together we win. Go team!" The campaign could warn of pending enforcement and encourage people to ride the newly sped-up buses. The celebratory painted lanes could help boost visibility and awareness. All this visibility and awareness could hopefully minimize the amount of enforcement needed.

Like all-door boarding, bus lane enforcement should mean faster buses, meaning slightly lower operations costs. Metro could allocate funding to pay law enforcement personnel to patrol bus lanes. As alluded to at last month's Metro Executive Management Committee, Metro could work with allies to pass state legislation so the agency can do automated enforcement, similar to what San Francisco has. None of this comes for free, but my guesstimate is that bus lane enforcement equipment installation would run something like $20-50 million, with another $3-6 million annually for law enforcement costs, and another $1-3 million for robust visibility measures. Some of these costs would likely be offset by slightly reduced operating costs.

4 - Olympics Open Streets Events
A lot of the in-person Olympics events are out of reach for Angelenos with low or modest incomes. I think that it might be possible to bring the Olympics celebrations to a broader range of people by hosting many free open streets events, like CicLAvia.

Perhaps Metro could sponsor 28 weeks of 28-mile open streets events? Perhaps the Olympic torch relay could be run through open streets? Perhaps every day of the Olympics (or at a minimum weekend days) there could be open streets events that would include outdoor viewing screens at a couple locations along the route? These would function similar to how plazas around the world (including Koreatown) fill up to watch the World Cup. These would need to be carefully coordinated so as not to snarl traffic and buses. My guesstimate at a budget for a 28-event opens streets program for the Olympics: $10-15 million.

5 - Transit-First Olympics
Metro should show leadership in getting people to Olympic events via transit. I haven't worked out details here, and there are probably lessons to learn from other cities (like Vancouver's 2010 Winter Olympics). At a minimum, Metro could make sure Olympic event tickets also work as a TAP card.

Metro should add frequent, convenient bus and rail (and perhaps shuttle, etc.) service to Olympic venues. This should be coordinated with event times - but, ideally, these would not just be point-to-point Olympics-only shuttles, but overall increased service and frequency that would benefit existing bus riders, and likely woo some drivers to try transit during the games. For example, service to the Sepulveda Basin sports complex events could mean all-day, more frequent end-to-end service on the Orange Line. Depending on the venue, some extra service could be provided by municipal operators, including perhaps Foothill Transit from the Gold Line to mountain biking in San Dimas, and Big Blue Bus service from the Expo Line to the golf venue in Pacific Palisades. Transit service to venues outside L.A. County (in Anaheim and Lake Perris) could be coordinated with Metrolink and local transit agencies. It would be outside Metro's purview, but the cost of added transit service during the Olympics could also be offset by a charge on parking at venues.

And it could include capital purchases. Metro could buy new buses and new rail cars - with some sort of branding that celebrates the Olympics, maybe a plaque saying "this bus commemorates 2028 Olympic archery" or something like that. Added transit service is harder to guesstimate - because it seems pretty scaleable - but to do it seriously, it's likely to cost at least $100 million. To do it big might cost close to a billion dollars.

From here my ideas are less crystallized:

6 - Walk to the Olympics
Metro could work with local jurisdictions to improve and promote connections between transit and Olympic venues. These projects would likely connect rail station to venues, such as from the Crenshaw Line to Inglewood venues. Funding could go to sidewalk repair and expansion, pedestrian safety improvements, new trees, seating, pedestrian wayfinding, or other pedestrian project costs. The new permanent walking facilities could be branded to commemorate the Olympics. Metro could work with locals though some sort of call for Olympic walk projects. Cost guess: $100-200 million.

7 - Bigger Bike-Share
Metro could accelerate bike-share. Perhaps 2,800 more bike-share bikes at 280 new docks? Expanded bike-share could be focused in all areas around all Olympic venues that are within a mile or two of Metro rail stations; this should include expanding Breeze and Long Beach bike-share. Perhaps some priority could also go to locations around venues hosting cycling competitions, including San Dimas' Bonelli Regional Park and Carson's StubHub Center. New bikes could get special Olympics branding. Large-quantity temporary docking hubs could be hosted at bike-share accessible Olympic venues. Cost guess $5-20 million.

8 - New Protected Bike Lanes
Tourists coming from other parts of the world will expect safe places to bike - like they have at home. Metro could oversee a call-for-projects to create 28 new protected bike lanes - also with celebratory artistic Olympic branding - similar to other projects. Priority could be given to facilities that access Olympic venues or first/last mile transit connections. Cost guess: $30-100 million.

9 - Reduced Transit Fares
Metro could celebrate the Olympics - and spread its benefits to lower-income Angelenos - with some sort of tie-in to reduced fares, perhaps for an entire year or longer. All students, youth, and seniors might ride free, or at a very steep discount - perhaps 25 cent rides. Everyone else might get half-price fares (or maybe $1 rides) all through 2028 - or in the entire year leading up to the Olympics and through to the end of the games. Like the enhanced service discussed above, this could woo some drivers to transit, with possible beneficial effects on congestion. Metro could do early messaging, something like "you're not going to want to be caught in Olympic congestion - so try transit for half price now." Metro's fare revenue is $350-400 million per year, so I'll guess costs would be a little more than half of that: around $200-250 million.

10 - Metro Homelessness Initiatives
I probably don't have the expertise to shape this one well, but I'll put some ideas out here. Really taking equity seriously should mean initiatives that work to end homelessness. Metro has been stepping up efforts on homeless outreach, and using Metro sites for temporary housing and proposed temporary showers and restrooms. What could Olympic acceleration look like for these initiatives? More affordable housing would be an important initiative - perhaps 28 affordable housing projects at Metro sites? Perhaps 28 (or more) units of bridge housing at Metro-owned sites?

It may also be possible to establish a temporary employment program that creates an entry-level workforce to get Metro ready for the Olympics. Several Metro boardmembers have pressed for improved cleanliness on Metro transit. Metro could provide limited-tenure entry-level jobs for ambassadors who take a proactive approach to keeping Metro's transit system clean. This would maintain the system at a high level of cleanliness during the Olympics, but would operate best by ramping up over a two-to-four year period leading up to the games. Workers could receive job training, outside support from social service providers to ensure quality performance, and be connected to targeted local hiring for Metro, city, and/or county job programs that employ disadvantaged workers. Metro ambassador jobs program cost guess: $100-250 million for a four-year program projected to improve the lives of at least 1,000 disadvantaged Angelenos.

Those are the ten accelerations I'd like to see. Together they would cost less than the $3.6 billion Metro is looking to spend on accelerating highway projects.

The result of these sorts of investments would be a truly world-class bus system that L.A. would be happy to show off to tourists, and that would benefit everyday Angelenos who really need it. The Olympics can be criticized as elite: rich athletes performing at expensive venues. Metro's project acceleration should work against this. Acceleration shouldn't exacerbate existing inequalities, but should spread benefits to the least among us, especially bus riders.

Readers - tell us what you think in the comments. What would you like to see accelerated? How can Metro accelerate projects for the Olympics and not adversely impact equity? How can Metro take advantage of the Olympics to uplift disadvantaged Angelenos?

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