Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Subway Extension Would Make More than a Token Difference for L.A.

By Josh Stephens

Covering what could be the largest infrastructure investment in one’s hometown is naturally a challenge in journalistic objectivity. On the one hand, it would have been difficult for a writer not from Los Angeles to comprehend three decades of background information as well as the present-day complexities of funding, traffic, land use patterns and political wrangling at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority. On the other hand, one of the proposed portals would be a half-mile from my front door.

Metro serves 88 constituent cities – of which Los Angeles is only one – totaling 10 million people. The Westside, which is the object of the proposed subway – is, in turn, only one part of Los Angeles. But by some measures, it is the largest informal urban region in the country, on par with the New York boroughs and all but the country’s very largest center cities. I describe it as an amorphous Manhattan, a dynamic area of wealth, global prominence and traffic. But it’s even more complicated than that, because Los Angeles city government does not correspond with the transportation authority, and, moreover, the proposed subway would pass through three other entirely independent cities: West Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica.

If I’m guilty of anything, it’s hometown pride, except without the real town. The subway might change that. It might finally knit together the Westside’s parts while, at the same time, introducing perhaps the most profound symbol of serious urbanism that policy and engineering has ever devised (even more so than skyscrapers, and certainly more so than freeways -- which are, many would agree, downright anti-urban).

I could wax poetic about either subways or the Westside ad nauseam, but the poetry is beside the point. What matters for my contribution to InTransition are, one the one hand, things like accuracy, balance and objectivity, and, on the other hand, expertise and familiarity. It’s hard to fulfill both.

I readily admit that if the subway gets built to the Westside, I will be first in line at the turnstile (assuming that Metro goes forward with an asinine plan to abandon its current honor system). Even my Libertarian anti-subway sources admitted that the extension would be “nice.” For me, it would be more than nice; it would be a revelation.

But, as one of the three largest public transit projects in the country, it would also cost $5 billion. And let’s be real. If ever it gets approved, it would be more like $10 billion or $12 billion. Who knows.

The fun thing about pursuing objectivity in the face of one’s own interests is that you learn a lot. Some of my sources who were most skeptical about the subway were the most eloquent and indeed most cogent. The cost-benefit analysis results in some pretty daunting calculations, mainly because Los Angeles’ entire subway system will always pale in comparison to single lines in New York. One source even noted that historically, the construction of rail projects in L.A. County has correlated with a decrease in overall transit ridership. Aw, snap.

But that doesn’t mean that Metro should not pursue it and that the federal government should not fund it. Whenever my mind wanders into the billions, I think about all the money that is wasted on things that aren’t very nice: inefficiency, misguided subsidies, and, of course, wars. A subway will last generations, and it will not kill anyone. In fact, it might even save a few lives through less pollution and fewer chances for unfortunate meetings between vehicle and pedestrian on the pavement up above.

And as gas ratchets towards $5 and beyond with hardly any chance of ever coming down, the Los Angeles subway – as “nice” as it might be for me and my fellow Westsiders right now – may become every bit as essential for us as our cars once were.

Ultimately the Federal Transportation Administration’s New Starts program will decide whether the subway extension deserves federal funds. And, failing that, Congress may work its magic. In the meantime, we in Los Angeles have to decide whether a little pride and a little less traffic is going to be worth it. Worth $5 billion, that is.

Josh Stephens is the author of “An Underground Movement Forms in L.A.,” published in the Summer 2008 issue of InTransition.

Arena Gives Crowds New Look at Newark

By Karl Vilacoba

Growing up on the Jersey Shore, I often had to choose between the Meadowlands and Madison Square Garden when it came to spending my entertainment dollars. The choice usually boiled down to this question: the highway or the railway?

Whether it was a concert tour or a pro-wrestling card, the venues sometimes hosted the same events days apart. I could make the car trip up the New Jersey Turnpike to the Meadowlands sports complex (home to Giants Stadium and the Izod Center) or hop on a train to Penn Station New York, which is basically the Garden’s basement. Although it was a good half-hour longer, MSG usually won out. The train eliminated the stress of driving as well as the pesky tack-on prices for tolls, parking and gas. But with Newark’s Prudential Center now up and running, I’ll probably be seeing less of MSG in the future.

Pulling out of Penn Station Newark one night, I glanced out the train window at the 4,800-square-foot TV screen on the arena’s exterior and it dawned on me how important transportation is to a venue’s success. Out of this commuter’s daydream was born the idea for this issue’s look at sports arenas and transportation. I learned a lot from reading and writing the various articles in this series, and I hope you did, too.

One of the most thought-provoking of the bunch was a sidebar I worked on called “Academics Say Stadiums Don’t Pay.” The piece features an interview with Professor Rick Eckstein, author of a book that challenges the notion of the sports arena as a catalyst for economic revitalization. Eckstein said that of the dozens of publicly financed stadium projects he’s studied, not one has lived up to its financial promises. When you crunch all of the relevant numbers -- jobs created, tax ratables, sales revenues, etc. -- it never justifies the public investment, he said. And when confronted by these facts, he said, people will defend the stadiums with lame arguments along the lines of community pride.

Which brings me back to Newark. At the expense of sounding just like the suckers Professor Eckstein warned me about, I still think the city’s decision to invest in the Prudential Center was a no-brainer.

Before I started working here, I flat out feared Newark. Notice I said “before.” Because once I spent some time downtown, I felt as safe there as Manhattan. This area today has plenty of great things going for it – the trick is getting people here to see for themselves. That’s exactly what the Prudential Center has been doing, thousands of people a night.

Former Mayor Sharpe James relentlessly pursued a downtown arena a few years ago, casting total faith in the idea that it would be the great economic cornerstone for the city’s future. He offered team owners the heavens to relocate to a blighted patch of properties a few blocks from Newark Penn Station. Just when it seemed like the plan had flatlined, James sealed the deal by pledging $210 million toward its construction. He took some lumps for the move, and rightfully so. After all, the city has no shortage of pressing needs that money could have been spent on.

Let’s say Newark earns back just half of that money through arena-related tax revenues. Can the rest of what it gains really be quantified? In the years since the 1967 riots, attracting tourists has been a huge challenge and good national publicity has been scarce. If you asked me two years ago what the first word to come to mind would be when you said “Newark,” I’d have responded with something like “crime.” Standing around the streets before a recent Devils game, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of those fans would have said the same.

But not after they left. Now the first word they think of might be “Devils,” “hockey,” “arena” or “fun.” If they’ve looked around a little, it could even be something like “museums,” “restaurants” or “universities.” That sure beats “crime.” How much is a change like that worth?

Karl Vilacoba is the author of “The Devils in the Details,” published in the Summer 2008 issue of InTransition. He is the magazine’s managing editor.

When Moving Huge Crowds, a Few Thousand Cars Makes a Big Difference

By Jason Martin

My second trip out to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this summer was quite different from the first. I was back at the track on Sunday, July 27, for the NASCAR Allstate 400, and getting in and out was not nearly the traffic nightmare that I and many others encountered for the Indianapolis 500 back on Memorial Day weekend.

I left my house on the north side of town, about a 10-mile drive, at the same time for both races – four hours in advance of the race start. In May, the trip in was a brutal crawl once I passed the White River on 30th Street and approached Cold Spring Road. We were bumper to bumper for more than an hour, and this is one of the more secretive passages into the track.

Fast-forward to the NASCAR race, attended by another enormous crowd of about 225,000 people, but significantly less than the 300,000-plus that showed up for the 500. For the NASCAR race, I zipped along 30th Street all the way to the light at Georgetown Road by the edge of the track in less than 20 minutes total. I had to wait on police to shuttle pedestrians, and had to merge in front of a tractor trailer, but turning left there was little problem.

Getting out of the track was also less harried this time around. Media parking is inside the lot, and for the Indy 500, it was more than an hour trip home after waiting more than an hour for the race to end. For the NASCAR race, I waited only a half-hour, and it took only 20 minutes to get home.

I use this comparison as a means of demonstrating the effect that public transportation might have on traffic congestion at these races. Seventy-five thousand less people attended, but it made a world of difference in congestion. About 50,000 people take the public shuttles to the Indy 500. Without those shuttles, how much more of a headache would it? With more shuttles, how much easier?

It’s very likely that the shuttles will return next year after IndyGo follows the proper Federal Transit Administration procedures, but this is an example where the government might consider amending its rules to suit certain population centers. The Indianapolis area needs all the public transportation help it can get – it’s the 13th-most populated city in America and I can’t imagine there’s a worse one in the top 20 for moving the public.

A new airport opening in the fall comes with plans to add light rail connecting the terminal and downtown. For a city that thrives on conventions, that’s essential.

Here’s hoping that in regards to public transportation and the track, the city keeps its current service or even increases it instead of taking a drastic step back.

Jason Martin is the author of “A Slow-Go to the Speedway,” published in the Summer 2008 issue of InTransition.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Despite Spike in Paying Riders, Transit Providers Struggle

By Karl Vilacoba

We’ve all seen the reports – public transit ridership is up significantly nationwide. So how are transit agencies responding to this good news? Cutting service.

The Associated Press reported this week that many bus and train service providers are being forced to cut underperforming routes in order to cope with high diesel and gasoline costs. You’d think the rise in paying riders would offset the fuel expenses, but as the story notes, it’s not that simple. One of the reasons is that sales tax revenues that help subsidize these services are flagging, also because of the fuel prices. People just don’t have expendable income these days because they’re giving it all to the gas stations.

The Denver-area’s Regional Transportation District (RTD), which we profiled in our winter issue, was among those forced to trim services, despite record passenger numbers.

“Everything that we do is being undermined by the fuel crisis,” RTD CEO Clarence Marsella said. “It’s really diabolical. The tentacles are everywhere.”

If there’s a bright side to this fuel crisis, it’s that it’s causing Joe Public to take part in serious conversations he wouldn’t have bothered with before. Topics like alternative energies, transportation funding, the nation’s infrastructure and climate change are getting play on the news shows every night now, in part because the people have pushed them into the presidential campaign dialogue. People are realizing, albeit slowly, that the old way of doing things can not be continued forever. The importance of transit as an alternative to single occupancy vehicle trips is a big part of these discussions.

We may soon find out how committed people are to their new commuting habits. Gasoline prices typically peak in the summer, when demand is highest, and drop in the fall. Lately we’ve seen prices slide a little bit due to market forces. If gas plummets back to around $3 per gallon or the high $2s, will the ridership gains be maintained, or will people get back behind the wheel, as if it were all just a bad dream?

If not, transit agencies will have a new base of paying customers with less overhead to pay. We’ll also know the bus and train trips they’ve been making were about more than just sticker shock.