The Thin Red Line: A Case Study of Political Influence on Transportation Planning Practice

Many critics of the federal transit finance program in the United States have argued that grantsmanship excessively influences the planning process, as local officials pressure transportation planners to produce cost and ridership forecasts that favor locally preferred projects. This article extends this critique from cost and patronage forecasting to other aspects of transit planning, particularly routing and tunneling safety evaluations, through a case study of the planning for the Wilshire “Red Line” subway in Los Angeles—a long-debated and still active project. Specifically, we examine the decision-making process behind the decades of planning of the Wilshire Red Line subway, which has seen conventional routing and alignment studies alternately manipulated, ignored, and blocked in response to the shifting views of key public officials. While political influence over planning processes is both inevitable and probably desirable, the extent to which modal, cost, ridership, and route analyses of the proposed Wilshire subway have been crafted, manipulated, and ignored to serve prevailing, if ever shifting, local political preferences calls into question the role and legitimacy of such analyses.

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