This year, it received another PDGA and an additional FTA commitment of $23.3 million for the $31.5 million Wilshire Boulevard Bus-Only Lane Project. It involves design and construction of a dedicated bus lane along portions of a 12.5-mile stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, one of the first two highly successful Metro Rapid demonstration project lines, on the western portion of the line, between downtown Los Angeles and the city of Santa Monica. The project features 9.6 miles of curb lanes converted into an exclusive facility during morning and afternoon peak-period operations. The lanes will be differentiated in their appearance with pavement markings and line delineators, and will be enforced by the Los Angeles Police Department for moving violations. The Los Angeles Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the city’s street and traffic control networks, is also a project partner. FTA recommended $10.95 million in Small Starts funding for the project in its FY 2009 budget request to Congress.
Two other projects were not funded this year but Metro will likely resubmit the requests again next year, just as it did when the Wilshire exclusive bus lane plan was not funded in FY 2008. These include the Sepulveda Corridor Bus-Only Lane Project and the Van Nuys Corridor Bus Speed Improvement Project, designed to improve two other well-used San Fernando Valley Metro Rapid Routes with additional infrastructure improvements, such as segments exclusive bus lanes. If eventually successful in obtaining its sought-after PDGAs, it would receive nearly $37 million in additional Small Starts funding.
Metro officials often point out that none of these successes at either the federal or the local levels would be possible without the successful lower-risk, lower-cost initial demonstration project. This success-breeds-success approach has been used by Kansas City, Seattle and Eugene. The former two also began with arterial BRT lines, and also received federal Small Starts PDGAs for more corridors, while Eugene’s starter line involved a short line in exclusive running way in the center of streets.
Orange Line Even More Auspicious BRT
Perhaps the most dramatic index of the Metro Rapid program’s success is the consensus that developed and was sustained behind the ambitious $330 million Orange Line. Following an abandoned railroad right-of-way that Metro purchased in the 1990s, and expensive by BRT standards at roughly $24 million per mile, it is nearly 30 percent less expensive than the average light rail system. The line uses prepaid fare collection for the first time in the authority’s bus system other than passes and transfer media, with automated ticket vending machines at each of the stations. In addition, “next-stop” variable message signs are incorporated into the Orange Line, a feature of the arterial BRT service that has been hugely successful in Los Angeles and elsewhere. The stations are also fully accessible to the mobility impaired, with attractive, tiled platforms, complemented by a healthy budget for station art.
Metro’s staff also planned for possible future light rail upgrade on the Orange Line — another aspect of the agency’s incrementalist approach. The stations, two bridges and the road bed were designed to accommodate light rail vehicles. In addition, TOD concepts are being employed, with good neighborhood access and rezoning strategies for higher densities.
This strong political consensus was not free of challenges. A neighborhood group objecting to the line on noise and other environmental grounds sued Metro and obtained a temporary restraining order that halted the project for several months until the court ruled in the agency’s favor. In addition, some of the region’s worst winter rains in history slowed construction for several more months. Finally, after the line made its debut only a few months behind the original schedule despite those uncontrollable delays, a few high-profile traffic accidents caused by motorists crossing the busway through red lights forced Metro staff to make some schedule adjustments and undertake other safety precautions, such as slowing the BRT vehicles to 10 mph through the intersections which has eaten into the line’s travel time savings. Throughout all these obstacles, however, the political consensus held solidly behind the project.
Why the Incremental Approach?
As indicated earlier, the Los Angeles experience has several lessons being emulated by other public transit agencies. First, the modest start-up of the initial two lines was implemented with virtually no net additional operating or capital funds. This is because the travel time improvements of between 24 and 29 percent in the arterial BRT network resulted in the need for fewer buses in the corridor, which were redeployed in the branded Metro Rapid service. Per-passenger operating costs thus actually declined in each of the 18 corridors, according to Rex Gephart, director of regional planning for Metro and the architect of its arterial BRT network. Moreover, because the signal priority and bus fleet were taken from existing infrastructure, the only marginal capital costs of the program were software reprogramming for the automatic headway-based signal priority system; the next-stop variable message signs and modular stations, which totaled less than $10,000 per station; and marketing expenses. Total one-time capital costs for the 20-corridor, 356-mile expansion (i.e., after the first two lines and excluding the Orange Line) are $110.5 million, according to Metro budget documents — slightly more than $300,000 per mile.