Wachs Expresses Skepticism About L.A. Monorail Project

Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning Martin Wachs spoke to Forbes about the possible construction of a high-speed monorail in Los Angeles. Local officials are evaluating proposals for a $6.1 billion monorail that would aim to reduce traffic congestion in the city. Transit systems in Germany, Japan, China and India use monorails, but the Los Angeles project would be the first in the United States. Wachs is skeptical but open to the possibility that a monorail could work in Los Angeles. “When you actually work out the numbers and do a careful and thorough design, and consider that in most places where a transit route is being contemplated it’s being added to an existing network, it just hasn’t penciled out,” he said. Wachs recalled working with science fiction author Ray Bradbury on a monorail proposal that was rejected 50 years ago. “The world’s a better place for having people who are visionaries, but it also needs traditional engineers.”


Wachs on Tempered Hopes for State’s High-Speed Rail Project

A Los Angeles Times article on prospects that California’s troubled high-speed rail project could find new life under a Biden administration cited Martin Wachs, professor emeritus of urban planning. The project, initially designed to connect Los Angeles and the Bay Area with trains running at 220 mph, has faced a massive funding shortfall and difficulty acquiring needed land, among other challenges. While President-elect Joe Biden is a self-professed train fanatic, an imminent federal bailout of the high-speed rail project is unlikely. “Prospects for some financial participation by the federal government are better than they were, but it is easy to overestimate them,” said Wachs, a lead researcher at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin. “There could be a few billion dollars, but it would not eliminate the need for the state to put the project on a sound financial footing.”


 

Wachs on Understanding the History of L.A. Traffic

A StreetsBlog article highlighted the findings of a new paper by Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning Martin Wachs and graduate students Peter Sebastian Chesney and Yu Hong Hwang about the history of Los Angeles traffic congestion. Their paper, “A Century of Fighting Traffic Congestion in Los Angeles: 1920-2020,” delves into the many arguments over how to battle congestion in the city over the last 100 years. While solutions including improvements in public transit and construction of new freeways have been proposed, these strategies have never brought more than a temporary reprieve from the unrelenting growth in congestion, the authors say. They argue that in order to address traffic congestion today, experts must understand the city’s complicated history with public transit and transportation infrastructure. Today’s proposals are not much different from past solutions, and even though mistakes have been made, it’s not clear that lessons have been learned, they wrote.


Wachs on the Past, Present and Future of L.A. Traffic

Urban Planning Professor Martin Wachs joined the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy’s Then & Now podcast to discuss the history of traffic congestion in Los Angeles. Wachs was joined by MURP student Yu Hong Hwang and history Ph.D. candidate Peter Chesney. The three described the findings of their recent report, which challenged the myth of Los Angeles’ car culture. Wachs also noted that increasing transit capacity does not necessarily reduce traffic congestion. “Transit is important, but it is not an antidote to congestion,” he said. Instead, he explained that investing in transit means providing people with alternatives to driving so that they can choose to take a bus or train instead of a car. Looking forward, Wachs suggested implementing congestion pricing in Los Angeles. “We will have to learn to live with traffic congestion as long as there is a strong consensus that we would rather sit in traffic than pay a fee to avoid it,” he concluded. The report’s authors also discussed their findings in a recent webinar.


Wachs on Local Ballot Measures to Raise Funds for Road Projects

Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning Martin Wachs spoke with Transportation Today about local ballot initiatives aimed at securing tax dollars for funding road projects. With federal funding in decline, this type of ballot initiative — known as  LOST for “local option sales tax” — could be on the rise. Wachs cited a study showing that most of the transportation measures put before voters in 2018 were approved. Successful LOST measures have several things in common, including citizen audits, flexibility within limitations, and an end date that puts voters in charge of whether or not it’s renewed, said Wachs, a scholar at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin. The article also cited Jeremy Marks MURP ’20, who said a database has been created to provide planners and other interested parties free, comprehensive information on every LOST measure put before California voters.

Taylor, Wachs on Fairness in Transit Planning

Professors Brian Taylor and Martin Wachs of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin co-authored a Streetsblog article calling for transportation equity as public officials decide how to move forward on transit projects in a pandemic-battered economy. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, L.A. Metro has reeled from revenue losses, raising questions about whether some planned rail and road construction projects should be postponed or even canceled. Taylor and Wachs argue that priority should be given to improving bus service in lower-income communities where most carless families live. “People of color and those from low-income households are more likely than others to depend on transit to get to health care, schools and jobs. Equity demands improving transit service where they live,” they wrote. They added that expanding transit operations creates stable, unionized jobs with health and retirement benefits, which are much needed in the current economy.


 

COVID-19 Pandemic Could Cost California Transportation Billions in Revenue New research highlights need for policymakers to prepare for a future shortfall

California could lose up to $20 billion in transportation revenue over the next 10 years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to research released May 12 by the Mineta Transportation Institute, or MTI.

Researchers Asha Weinstein Agrawal of MTI at San Jose State University and Hannah King and Martin Wachs of UCLA Luskin projected how much revenue will be generated over the next decade by state taxes on fuel purchases and fees on vehicle ownership. COVID-19 has reduced those revenues substantially because people are driving less and therefore buying less fuel.

Projected total revenue varied according to different economic recovery scenarios examined by the researchers.

“Under a worst-case scenario, a slow economic recovery could cause California to receive 17% less revenue through 2030 than the state would have received without COVID-19,” said Agrawal, the director of MTI’s National Transportation Finance Center. The projected revenue for the slow-recovery scenario is $98 billion, compared to a projected $118 billion without the pandemic.

State policy choices could impact projected revenues, according to the study. The researchers identified a recovery scenario that could generate $121 billion, a 3% gain, thanks to a swift and complete economic recovery coupled with policies to encourage Californians to purchase electric vehicles.

“California policymakers are hastily planning for a future with less-than-anticipated revenue,” said Wachs, a professor emeritus of urban planning at UCLA and a researcher at its Institute of Transportation Studies. “The scenarios in this study are not predictions of what will happen, but with so much uncertainty about the future, they help policymakers ask important ‘what if’ kinds of questions.”

The study focused on transportation revenue collected by the state thanks to a package of taxes and fees established in 2017 by Senate Bill 1. This revenue comes from gasoline and diesel fuel taxes, an annual fee on vehicles with the rate based on vehicle value, and an annual fee for zero-emission vehicles.

The report did not include transportation funds in California that are raised locally through transit fares, tolls, sales taxes and property taxes. Nor did it include any federal funding that would aid in transportation recovery.

A shortfall in state transportation revenue would trickle down to drivers.

“Revenue shortfalls will likely result in both reduced maintenance and delayed capital investments,” Agrawal said. “Drivers will have to wait longer for planned improvements like replacing outdated bridges and rehabilitating freeways.”

The researchers modeled scenarios based on transportation-specific variables that are most likely to be affected by COVID-19, including fuel consumption, the number of registered petroleum-powered and electric vehicles, and the price of cars. They also projected potential revenue from possible government policies to stimulate the market, such as tax credits to encourage vehicle purchases.

Comparing them to a baseline of what was expected before the COVID-19 emergency, the researchers examined five recovery scenarios: 1) slow, 2) moderate, 3) moderate with a stagnated vehicle market, 4) moderate with an electric-vehicle stimulus, and 5) fast with an electric-vehicle stimulus.

The study was funded by the Mineta Transportation Institute at the request of the California Transportation Commission. The researchers were scheduled to present their findings during a virtual webinar on May 14.

The lead author of the study was Agrawal. King is a doctoral student in urban planning at UCLA.

Wachs on Return to Normal Traffic Levels When Economy Reopens

Martin Wachs, distinguished professor emeritus of urban planning, was featured in a Los Angeles Times column discussing the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on traffic levels in Los Angeles. During the pandemic, vehicle volume has been reduced by 40% and more in parts of the city, air quality has improved, and traffic is moving 12% to 30% faster. Nevertheless, urban planning experts doubt the roads will stay empty when the economy reopens. Wachs pointed to congestion pricing as the only proven way to get people to drive less. ”The only strategy that works 100% of the time is charging people more money,” he said. “Charge more to park, charge to drive, quadruple the cost of gasoline, impose congestion pricing.” Traffic jams in the Sepulveda Pass could be eliminated by charging people $10 to make the trip, he said. However, many politicians are hesitant to embrace congestion pricing because they don’t believe their constituents want it.


Loukaitou-Sideris, Wachs Offer New Data on Aging Adults’ Mobility Needs

Urban Planning Professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Professor Emeritus Martin Wachs are featured in an American Planning Association article along with co-author Miriam Pinski discussing their research article, “Toward a Richer Picture of the Mobility Needs of Older Americans.” The authors point out that “commonly used data sources on mobility provide high-level insights but fail to provide much detail about the travel experiences of older adults.” After conducting interviews, focus groups and walking audits with a group of 81 older adults in the Westlake neighborhood of Los Angeles, the authors found that many have concerns including fear of crime, heavy traffic and speeding vehicles, and discomfort on crowded or littered streets. The authors recommended government action, including sidewalk repairs and increasing walk time at crosswalks, to better meet the mobility needs of aging adults, particularly those from low-income and minority communities. Their research also has implications for transit accessibility broadly, particularly for people with disabilities. 

ITS Experts Assess Massive Hit to Transit Agencies

Experts from the Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS) at UCLA Luskin are weighing in on the financial burden that the COVID-19 health crisis is placing on public transit agencies. “The virtues of public transit are precisely at odds with coping with the pandemic. … We now have essentially a mandate to not move, to not have a lot of people together anywhere,” ITS Director Brian Taylor told the Hill. The article also quoted Emeritus Professor Martin Wachs, who leads research into transportation finance at ITS. Both ridership and sales tax revenues are down, Wachs said, but transit is “a public service that we must keep operating during the crisis because people who have no option other than transit need to shop for food and get to doctors’ offices and hospitals.” On Curbed LA, ITS Deputy Director Juan Matute said Los Angeles’ Metro system may be forced to cut service dramatically or delay work on key projects. He also noted that, once the health crisis has lifted, “if there’s a severe recession, people who are out of work but still need to get around will become reliant on Metro.”