USC Price School of Public Policy

MTA Panel

Local Experts Take on Transportation Issues

Measure R is among the issues discussed by panelists offering insights on the future of transportation in Los Angeles.

By Cristy Lytal

Professor Raphael Bostic

The experts appearing at a recent panel hosted by the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development agreed that transportation is much more than a way to get from point A to point B.

“Transportation is one of the most important issues facing public policy today,” said SPPD dean Jack H. Knott, who served as moderator. “It affects almost all of the different aspects of the development of a city.”

Los Angeles’ “transportation transformation” was the subject of the panel discussion, which took place at the downtown headquarters of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). The event was the third in the SPPD Dean’s Speaker series, which has focused on the revitalization of Los Angeles.

“Transportation defines our opportunities – whether that’s education, whether it’s work, whether it’s visiting grandma,” said Genevieve Giuliano, professor and senior associate dean at SPPD and director of the METRANS Transportation Center.

In addition to Giuliano, the panel consisted of Robin Blair, director of planning for the MTA; Dennis Zane, CEO of Urban Dimensions and executive director of Move L.A.; and Rich Macias, director of regional and comprehensive planning for the Southern California Association of Governments.

The panelists offered their insights into the future of transportation in the L.A. region while touching on challenges ranging from geography to bureaucracy and population growth.

One major point of discussion was Measure R, in which L.A. County residents voted for a half-cent sales tax increase to fund transportation projects. Approved in November, it will generate nearly $40 billion over the next 30 years.

“Folks from USC are going to get a light rail line to the coast in very short order,” said Zane, one of the measure’s key supporters. “There will be an extension of the Gold Line from Sierra Madre out to Azusa and up to Montclair not long after. Plans for a bus transit or a light rail system in Crenshaw – it might even go down to the airport – are under way. Measure R gave us a way of self-funding many of the projects that were otherwise waiting in the queue for federal money.”

Blair, whose job is to put Measure R and federal stimulus money to good use, was less sanguine about what could be accomplished. “I have to tell you that the bureaucracy determines the outcome,” he said.

He reported that the first round of federal stimulus money will be used for filling potholes rather than building a light rail system because the funds come with the stipulation that they must be applied to projects that are “shovel ready” in nine to 120 days. He also pointed out that it is easier to secure funds for building transportation systems than for their long-term operation.

Giuliano questioned whether light rail is the correct answer to L.A.’s unique transportation challenges.

“L.A. has the highest average density of any metropolitan area in the United States,” she said. “As we get more and more dense, cars work less and less well. Because of the broad, decentralized structure, conventional public transit is also not a good fit. We have to invent our own solutions that are complicit with our geography.”

Macias discussed one creative response from the Southern California Association of Governments: a lanes project which will charge a variable toll for using carpool lanes.

“The fee structure has to be designed to encourage and discourage because at peak hours, you want to charge the highest price,” he explained. “The premise is that buses will be free, so they will be a benefit to the transit user as well.” He added: “The public doesn’t like obstacles, but they will entertain options.”

Giuliano agreed that “it really is our responsibility to pay for whatever we use in the way of our automobiles.” She cited the United States’ uniquely low fuel tax, parking charges, license and registration fees, and automobile sales tax as a cause for the widespread dependence on cars. “Public transit is fighting with one arm tied behind its back,” she said. “We have to artificially keep fares low because we have artificially kept the cost of driving low.”

In a conclusion to the evening’s discussion, Knott left the audience with a question.

“What is it that would give us in L.A. the kind of transportation system that would make sense for us?” he asked. “Some kind of effort around that – that would involve students in particular – would be a valuable and interesting project.”

Photo by Tom Queally
From right: Robin Blair, director of planning for the MTA; Dean Jack H. Knott; SPPD Professor Genevieve Giuliano; and Rich Macias, director of regional and comprehensive planning for the Southern California Association of Governments