Opinion + Voices

UCLA faculty voice: California's slow ride to new transit

To speed up the opening of new transportation projects, California should streamline its environmental review and approval process

Expo Line construction
Downtowngal/Creative Commons

Culver City stop on the Los Angeles Metro Expo Line, under construction.

Ethan Elkind is the associate director of the Climate Change and Business Program, with a joint appointment at UCLA School of Law and UC Berkeley School of Law. He is the author of the new report "Back in the Fast Lane: How to Speed Public Transit Planning and Construction in California." This Op-Ed appeared Aug. 6 in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Traffic is crushing, buses and BART train passengers are packed in like sardines, and California’s airports and planes are jammed. We’re told relief is on the way, from new rapid-bus and rail-transit lines to high-speed rail. But unless “decades from now” is your idea of right around the corner, Californians have to exercise extreme patience waiting through the interminable planning and construction processes associated with major new transit projects.

In almost every area of life, productivity has increased: We get more done better, faster and cheaper than those who came before us. But when it comes to infrastructure projects, despite all the advanced technology, we seem to be rivaling ancient pyramid builders — without the free labor.

headshot of UCLA School of Law professor Ethan Elkind
Ethan Elkind

What explains the delays and cost increases? Certainly some of it is better safety standards, higher prices for real-estate acquisitions and construction materials, and more advanced construction equipment. But ultimately these public infrastructure projects, from the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to Boston's Big Dig, too often seem to get mired in complacent public-sector management and oversight. Developer campaign contributions can shadow the awards process with conflicts of interest, and good project management often seems lacking.

But even before the construction phase, planning for these badly needed mobility projects can take years with little ultimate benefit. Voters in San Francisco approved the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit line in 2003, but the plan didn't receive final approval until late 2013 because of lengthy and counterproductive environmental review. It’s now scheduled to open in 2018.

This situation should not be acceptable to Californians. While we want to ensure careful transit planning with proper community input, safety and cost-effectiveness, the multiyear processes are unnecessary and counterproductive. We must accelerate high-priority transit projects, which are vital for our economic competitiveness, quality of life and environment.

To put transit back in the fast lane, Californians should insist that our leaders:

Engage in strict oversight of construction management and awards and ensure no conflicts of interest due to construction-firm campaign contributions, possibly through the creation of more independent construction authorities.

Reform state laws to reduce litigation over environmental review of transit projects.

Allow local agencies to prioritize transit infrastructure over automobile traffic without requiring expensive new planning studies.

California’s infrastructure and mobility crisis is too central to our lives and economy to ignore. The steps outlined above could help, provided that residents pay attention and demand action. Ultimately, the state will still need to increase spending on transit, such as by enabling more local funding measures by reducing voter approval from two-thirds to 55 percent. But we can certainly do more with the resources we have, and Californians should demand no less.

Case in point

In 1925, Los Angeles opened a downtown subway tunnel (four-fifths of a mile long). After just one year of planning, construction took 18 months at a cost of $3.5 million ($47.4 million in today’s dollars). In 2014, after four years of study, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority estimated it would cost over $1.427 billion to build a similar 1.9-miledowntown “regional connector.” At $751 million per mile, it's almost a 13-fold price increase from the 1925 project. And the 23.75 months per mile construction rate became 40 months in 2014.

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