Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Why Is the Orange Line BRT Called a Success?

I just don't understand how anyone in LA can think the Orange Line is a success. Yeah ridership is up to 26,000 but when they build the extension North of the Warner Center, is there going to be space on any of these buses?? And the idea of adding express buses to save 5 minutes is ridiculous considering they could have built rail, stopped at all the stops and saved 18 minutes.(48 minutes Orange Line. 30 minues Gold Line LRT. Both the same distance) Not only was this short sighted, he still thinks that it is "working". I know it was a complicated affair but they really kicked themselves in the teeth by building something that is already at capacity and doesn't run on electricity. Growth on this corridor will be crushing, and its going to cost more and more to operate as gas prices go up and they have to add more vehicles to address the demand, each one with a single driver.


Justin said...

I asked the same question about the VIVA bus Service in Toronto. It is considered a "success" How can service that replaced an established GO bus route be considered a success? Granted, I like VIVA. But to call it a success is wrong.

JB said...

You're acting like it's totally impossible to add light rail to replace a dedicated bus route.

Given that ridership has hit its 2020 goals 12 years early, making the case for a dedicated rail line isn't exactly rocket science, especially if fuel prices stay high.

Anonymous said...

The early environmental documents during the 101 feeway/Chandler right of way was looking at heavy rail along this route. Underground in the east valley and above ground throught he Sepuleda basin. I think the bigger issue is to grade separate any rail line on Chandler. As I remember the ridership numbers didn't look too bad.

arcady said...

The problem is that a whole pile of money was spent pulling up the rails and paving over the ROW, and now even more money will have to be spent to pull up the pavement and put in rails, rebuilt stations, and meanwhile the line will have to be shut down for a couple years. That's why it's important to build it right from the start, or at least right enough to last for a couple decades.
Of course, there's still the minor problem of the law prohibiting anything but a subway on Chandler, so really the BRT was much more of a political choice as a technological one.

Anonymous said...

I live a few blocks from the orange line, and gave up on it when I waited for three packed busses to board at the North Hollywood station. Had they left the existing train tracks in place, longer trains could run and hold more passengers.
L.A. is treating mass transit like a novelty, they don't realize that we really hate being trapped in our cars, but have no alternative.

Anonymous said...

I actually worked on the environmental documents in the mid 90's. While all forms and combinations of rail were evaluated, it was clear that light rail was the way to go. Unfortunately, the Jewish community was extremely vocal and opposed to any rail in this area unless it was underground, which was cost prohibitive.

Morgan Wick said...

"What? Full buses ARE success!"

What were the Jewish community's objections to non-underground rail?

Anonymous said...

What were the Jewish community's objections to non-underground rail?

Probably not rail per se, but that the line would split an Eruv, which is a big deal to the Orthodox (many in NoHo)

Unknown said...

i dont know about all the eruv stuff, but the mta could not have built the orange line as a subway do to the sales tax ban on tunneling.

also they could not have built at grade rail on that corridor due to a reason that escapes me at the moment [maybe it was the eruv]

so busway it is. the problem with the orange line is not that it is a busway, but that it does not have signal priority.

ladot does not want to give up the intersections to the orange line. and since people in this city really dont understand red lights, all the orange line buses have to slow to about 5-10 mph when entering ANY intersection along the orange line row.

that is the issue with the orange line.

arcady said...

Of course, if it were built as a rail line, all those intersections would have crossing gates, and the trains would be able to go 55. And basically, what happened is that there was some law prohibiting building any rail as anything but subway there, and another law prohibiting spending county money on a subway. So we get this sub-standard system which has already pretty much reached capacity, but can't be upgraded without a lot of money and a lengthy shutdown. We might well see a subway down Ventura before the Orange Line is converted to rail.

Anonymous said...

I'll take any kind of transit success story I could get in L.A. The more success we have with lines like the Orange Line, the more we could use our success to leverage a bigger, better system.

Why was the Orange Line built as a busway? A big reason is that L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky went to Curitiba, Brazil and had an obsession with busways.

Zev was not going to get off his butt to build a rail line. It was either the busway or let the right of way lie fallow.

He got his busway, and it seems to have cured his obsession. He's not demanding that any other lines, like Expo, be considered for a busway instead of rail.

As for the right of way being rail, it's coulda-woulda-shoulda now. You have a successful busway that can't be shut down for years to be converted. Also, the costs of the busway would be imputed into the converted rail line. So, if we have to spend over $1 billion to build even light rail, we'd have to add the $400 million spent to build the busway.


Anonymous said...

From Tom Rubin"

First, full disclosure: I was the chief technical expert in the environemntal challendge that got the Orange Line EIR tossed out and made MTA do it over -- for all the good that did.

Let me first respond to several technical issues that have been raised:

1. The Orange Line is nowhere remotely close to capacity. All MTA has to do to is to "platoon" bases, to run two articulated buses together -- like running a two-car train instead of a one-car one -- and there you are, double the capacity. Of course, if MTA would just get the signal preference right, after totally screwing up the original timing, that also would be helpful in getting more work out of each bus and operator, as well as the faster operating speed encouraging more ridership. On this one, however, there are major problems and it is doubtful if anything much can be done, particularly after the mess MTA made of the first round with the City.

2. There are a number of reasons why MTA wound up doing BRT in this alignment -- most of which have nothing to do with technical transportation factors:
a. MTA had to do something to spend a lot of money in the Valley because of the Valey secession vote, something had to be done to show Valley voters that they weren't getting screwed as bad as some people were saying. Don't bother saying this is totally illogical and what does MTA spending have to do with an internal City of LA issue, you are right -- but, trust me, that was a BIG part of the decision process.
b. MTA spend over $150 million to buy the guideway to put the Valley East-West subway UNDER, so it had to build something there so this money wouldn't have been "wasted."
c. A subway was out for two main reasons: (1) Zev's Prop. A of 1998, which prohibited using Prop. A (of 1980) and Prop. C sales tax funds on a subway. (Well, actually, it didn't, MTA is hugely successful at getting around such restrictions, such as it did when it used these same local sales taxes to pay for a major share of the Gold Line Eastside extension, with its major subway section, but, you know, the law says what MTA wants it to say, unless you want to go to court and fight a very expensive battle with someone who has unlimited access to taxpayer money to get what it wants.), and (2) where the Hell was MTA going to come up with over $2 billion?
d. Surface rail was out because then-Senator Robbins, who represented the area, got a section of the Public Utilities Code added that prohibited surface rail (before the Feds provided him with extended long-term governmental housing). The same law ALSO prohibited service BRT, but, in a VERY smooth move, MTA got one word changed in a last-minute, totally without any legislative history at all, change. Nobody outside MTA even knew it existed until months later when I was dogging the code section to prepare for the brief and suddenly found that my "old" language didn't match what was now on the web as the current version. (You gotta give the Devil its due, Good One, MTA; never saw this one coming at all.)
e. BRT was the mode of choice for one reason -- it was cheap. Ignoring the cost of land and the environmental work (which would have been almost identical for BRT or LRT), BRT was under half the cost of LRT. You can argue if this was good or bad, or the right way to make the decision or not, but that doesn't change the fact that MTA didn't want to spend the extra money for LRT, plus didn't want the political battle with the Orthodox Jewish community to change the law against LRT, so it went with with the cheaper way and the stealth change of law, which no one opposed because no one knew about it until it was long over.
f. VERY important point -- no one in the Valley (well, no one who counted) was pushing for LRT, the politico's wanted to BUILD something before the sucession election and BRT was the only thing that could be made to work. COULD MTA have been made to go with LRT? Well, the DEIS/DEIR's for what we now know as the Orange Line and the Expo Line BOTH started out as favoring BRT (the Orange Line had ONLY BRT, the Expo one had both on Expo, plus other stuff on Wilshire, but, trust me, BRT was what was highly favored for Expo when the DEIS/DEIR was being prep'ed), but, for ONE of these, the locals put a lot of pressure on the electeds and, guess what? One of them got LRT instead.

3. The cost of pulling up the rail that was on the alignment was minor -- and would have been necessary if light rail was put down. There was one very old track that would have had to be replaced by TWO new tracks. No way the old track would have been of any use for anything except slow freight movements. In fact, MTA pulled out the old rail line on the Burbank Branch (which is the name for the whole thing that MTA bought, which went from the Burbank Metrolink station to North Hollywood, where the Orangle Line starts, to near Warner Center, where the Orangle Line goes South and West to Warner Center, and then North on Conoga to Chatsworth) off of Chatsworth several years ago and pretty much paid the bill out of petty cash.

4. There is almost no travel time difference between LRT and BRT; the only real technical difference is the faster acceleration between LRT and BRT. Normally, this is just a matter of seconds (for example, for the initial off-the-line acceleration, LRT will normally do three mph/second, while most buses will do two mph/second, which means that it takes five seconds for a light rail train to get to 15 mph, but 7.5 seconds for a bus -- I'm simplifying things a bit, but, this is the essence).

Of course, MTA got what may be the world's slowest buses to operate on the Orange Line BECAUSE it wanted to be both Mr. Green AND Mr. Keen (it takes so long for these buses to reach 55 mph that it is not possible to do so before the bus has to brake for the next station, with the exception of only one station pair on the line). However, with this (admittedly rather important) exception, which is countered by the ability of BRT to operate at shorter headways.

The problem with the BRT speed is that MTA totally ignored safety through intersections. LRT is governed by the CA Public Utilities Commission, which has rules that require that, if you are going through an intersection over 35 mph, you MUST have full grade crossing protection, crossing gates, horns, bells, lights, the works. On the Expo Line DEIS/DEIR which came out at the same time as the Orange Line DEIS/DEIR, it very clearly concluded that BRT is substantially the same as LRT for safety and operations, so, wherever LRT would have gates et al, BRT would.

In the Orange Line DEIS/DEIR, which came out at almost the exact same time, MTA REACHED THE EXACT OPPOSITE CONCLUSION, that there was no need for crossing gates because BRT was so much safer.

When I specifically challenged MTA on this, the response was, well, the Miami-Dade South Busway was just like the Orange Line, and that was perfectly safe -- so there! (I then pointed out that, due to the very high collision/injury/fatality rate on the Miami Busway, buses were no longer going through the intersections there at 45 mph (the planned speed for the Orange Line in the DEIS/DEIR), but EVERY BUS WAS STOPPING AT EVERY INTERSECTION, EVEN WHEN THEY HAD THE GREEN.

We told MTA that their 28.8 minute end-to-end travel travel time was impossible because the huge number of incidents would soon force it to slow way down -- and, of course, MTA blew us off. As it turned out, we were proven totally right; in fact, the buses are now ever SLOWER than than we warned.

You have to understand that the Orange Line corridor has one of the largest collections of extremely strange intersections of any guideway transit line in the world -- and MTA was not about to spend one penny more than the absolute minimum to build the line and absolutely did not want to hear that it would be impossible to do what they were saying they were going to do.

So, if MTA had actually put in the money to construct a safe guideway, the speeds would be very similar, LRT or BRT; if they were not going to do what was necessary to make a fast BRT safe, what are the chances it would spend that money to make a fast LRT safe -- when the basic construction costs for LRT would have been twice as high?

I'm not saying this was right; I AM saying, that's how decisions are made at MTA; get used to it.

5. Here's the good part -- in the DEIS/DEIR, MTA claimed 28.8 minutes end-to-end travel time for BRT vs. 50 minutes for (750 Ventura like) Rapid Bus -- so, of course, BRT has this HUGE advantage.

Well, to do 28.8 minutes, the travel speed would have had to average 29 mph -- and the Red Line does 30 mph. Since the Red Line has a maximum speed of 75 mph, vs. 55 mph for BRT (in the original MTA time projections, before they decided on the very slow buses that are now running); since there are two sections of the BRT alignment with maximum 35 mph (Chandler and the Western section of the line off the guideway to Warner Center) vs. no restrictions like this on the Red Line, since there were about three dozen intersections along the Orange Line, some of which will be Red on each trip, and, even with all greens, the plan was to slow to 45 mph, and for other reasons I won't bore you with, NO WAY IN HELL.

Then, the 50 minutes for Rapid Bus turned out to be, NOT the North Hollywood-Warner Center route that the DEIS/DEIR SPECIFICALLY SAID IT WAS FOR, but Universal City-Warner Center, which is over a mile longer, on a street with far more traffic, with far more red lights, and lower speed limits than the best Rapid Bus route (Lankershim/Victory) -- and, as it turned out, the LOCAL bus between Warner Center and North Hollywood was doing the trip in 50 minutes.

So, I kept pushing on MTA to try to get the times right and, finally, it gave up and did so, realizing that, if it didn't, the second EIR could be tossed out (if you lie in an environmental document, you will generally be in deep doo-doo; if you tell the truth about a really lousy project, you generally have no problem going forward if you want to bad enough).

So, the final numbers in the revised final EIR were, BRT, 28.8-40 minutes (28.8 was if the City gave it full traffic signal pre-emption, which was never going to happen and is never going to happen and which the City had made clear as a bell with MTA from day one; it would screw up every N-S arterial in the Valley -- and, it was demonstrably wrong, way too low, anyway. For example, it assumed travel speeds on Chandler that were higher than MTA had agreed to, among other things; the 40 minutes was supposed to be for what MTA is now operating, with limited traffic signal preference), while, for Rapid Bus between the same two points, it was 34.4-38.7 minutes -- LOWER than the "real" BRT time.

So you know I'm not making this up, here's the cite to the MTA revised final EIR page where you will find this (second page of the three):

(Oh, did I mention that MTA posted this on its web site late on the Friday before the Monday morning meeting when the Board voted to reapprove the Orange Line? As if it mattered if anyone besides me found it before the vote anyway, and the Board did not appear all that interested when I told them about it at the meeting; BIG surprise.)

What MTA SHOULD have done is, bag guideway transit and, instead, have SEVERAL E-W Rapid Bus line, including Victory, probably Sherman Way, and probably one (maybe two) other lines further North. This would have produced more ridership because it would have been within walking distance for far more people. There should have also been N-S routes (and a "diagonal" in the NE corner of the Valley). The Rapid Bus lines could have multiple destinations, such as "Victory" line going to the North Hollywood Red Line Station and then down Lankership to Universal City, with one or two stops in between, AND to Burbank CBD and Metrolink station, AND to the Burbank airport. When MTA was forced to model a network of Rapid Bus lines by our victory in the EIR challenge, the Rapid Bus networks had higher ridership, even though MTA went to a huge amount of trouble to pick the most incredibly dumb collection of BRT lines possible, and then made significant assumptions to make it look bad (for example, although there were signicant free parking lots at many of the BRT stations in the model runs, there were no free parking lots for the Rapid Bus lines in their model runs, not even the ones that MTA had well into construction on what would have been the "Victory" line). Yes, if you check the actual EIR that MTA put out, it says that the Orange Line was higher, but after I paid MTA $250 to program the report that showed the ridership by line (which MTA said I had to pay for because it had never done it -- huh?!?!?!?), I have the documents to prove that the BRT LOST on five out of six competitions.

So, the REAL issue was not BRT vs. LRT on this alignment, nor is it now; it was, why are we bothering with a $320 million dollar expense for a guideway (I'm counting only the construction cost of the Orange Line, not the costs of the vehicles, or what MTA has spend to buy the guideway, which was blood over the dam, nor for the redo's and the capital renewal and replacement costs to come).

OK, now I'll say something nice about BRT in this alignment -- it wasn't nearly as dumb as LRT would have been.

Any questions, e-mail me:

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Wow. I made it as a blogger. The expert of all anti-rail experts Tom Rubin has posted here. I'm so honored.

Anonymous said...

I wish people would try to get their facts straight -- I am, most certainly, NOT "anti-rail."

I have worked on several rail projects in my career; in fact, I am actually working on three right now. I am particularly proud of my firm's work on the Vancouver SkyTrain.

It is illogical to be "pro-" or "anti-" any particular means of transportation, they are tools and are good or bad only in context, particularly that of comparison to other options in the particular corridor and/or area. Of course, it is certainly possible to generalize regarding applicability -- there are certain basic conditions where it is quickly obvious that a particular transportation mode won't work -- but this is mainly a case-by-case decision.

While I am not "anti-rail" -- my God, there are many major urbanized areas of the world where, without rail transit, the core cities would be simply unworkable -- but I AM, very much, "anti-bad-transit" -- and, unfortunately, there are many places, particularly in the U.S., where specific light rail projects have proven to be "bad transit."

Los Angeles being a prime case in point; most particularly during the period from 1985 on when a huge amount of money was being dumped into rail projects (including the Red and now Purple lines, which are heavy rail, and Metrolink, which is commuter rail) -- and transit ridership was dropping like a rock.

Tom Rubin

Unknown said...

Well if any thing from what TAR wrote this should have REMAINED a rail line! Be it with light rail or commuter trains.

Matt Fisher said...

Mr. Rubin,

I don't see how it can be that small a cost to pay to rip out the tracks and pave them over into a road for buses. I just don't. This certainly should have been rail, but then it got all screwed up.