Expo line delays should not be tolerated

In Los Angeles, the Exposition light rail line has been under construction since mid-2006, with planning starting well before that. After countless delays, word is coming in that the start date of service will once again miss the plan, this time slipping well into 2012, almost 2 years late. And this time, it’s managerial incompetence that fueling the next delay in service.

Too many delays

Like all major projects, there have been delays and cost overruns. Some nature of delay should always be expected; when a project is so large and complicated, a small delay in the early stages can quickly affect delivery dates later in the project. Some delays cannot be avoided, such as unexpected weather events, civil disturbances (strikes for example) and even unexpected shortages in material.

But aside from “acts of God” and similar events, delays really shouldn’t be tolerated. When a project is put out to bid, the contractor is promising a specific price and a specific delivery date. They must be held accountable to those promises, because any leniency simply results in future bids being “overly optimistic” (also known as lying). This punishes the honest and competent contractor, and awards the one who was willing to take the most liberties with their promises.

The Expo line has hit a series of delays. Metro blames some of them on unexpected problems like lawsuits from NIMBYs and false concerns over safety of the line. But really, how unexpected is a lawsuit? Every project on earth has a NIMBY movement, and they usually end up in court. To express surprise at such a delay is either gross incompetence or a plain lie.

Transit authorities are experts at padding schedules to account for unexpected delays. Wouldn’t it make sense to add such padding to the construction timeline? Why make promises you know you can’t keep? It screws you over next time you come around asking for support.

But that’s not all. The contractor has been late, and late again with their deliveries, but instead of suing them out of existence, Metro has nodded their head and handed over more money as needed. That’s not right, and should not be tolerated.

Earlier this year, the expectation was that the contractor would finish up work around April, hand over the project, and Metro could start running service in August, just in time for class at USC…and only 14 months late.

Then this summer, when Metro released their annual financial plan, there was a little surprise inside. The financials stated that service would begin November 15. The natural response to this was that metro was just being cautious, and service would surly begin in September. The November date was just a placeholder.

But then that final delivery from the contractor kept slipping in May, then June, then July…and well, we’re in September now.

And the serious testing (prerevenue service) hasn’t even started yet.

Delaying launch to avoid ridership?

And now rumors are running around that Metro may be able to hit the November 15 start date….but they’re choosing not to.

That’s right, after over a year of contractor delays, now it’s the operating agency wanting to hold service. And shockingly, the reason seems to be that they don’t want to launch when the service would be wildly used.

I’m not even kidding. Metro is looking to avoid ridership by delaying service until March of 2012.

Expo line will serve USC and Exposition Park. Indeed, for phase 1, USC will be the primary driver of ridership, as staff, students and faculty use the service to reach campus and downtown. While the other stops will attract riders, the line will not have any other major draws until Phase 2 reaches Santa Monica and the full potential of the line is available for commuters.

Besides students and staff, USC is a huge draw due to the location of the Coliseum and the massive popularity of Trojan football. Tens of thousands of fans make their way to the stadium on weekends to see college football.

And apparently, that’s the problem. Instead of wanting to take advantage of this huge ridership potential, and simultaneously help clear the clogged streets of congestion, word is that Metro wants to avoid football season.

A transit agency wanting to not run because people might chose to ride their trains instead of drive?

That’s mind-boggling incompetency, and should not be tolerated by the Los Angeles taxpayer.

One of the reasons given to avoid football season is “safety”. People might get confused about those newfangled trains running on those shiny new tracks. That excuse might have flown in 1990, when Los Angeles had zero light rail lines, but now the region is well accustomed to trains running along streets. And while college students might indeed be a little drunk before the game, a rational solution would be to run trains at slower speeds in the stadium area, instead of not running them at all. It’s especially important to note that there is no concern over the 45mph car traffic on neighboring streets. But a 15mph train? Why, that’s just trouble!

But even that logic is hollow. Will USC fans not be impaired in 2012, 2013 and beyond? Metro might claim that “students learn”, but do they not realize that 1/4 of the student population is brand new every September?

Of course, this also ignores every man, woman and business who chose to believe Metro and make plans around service. Any student who left their car at home because Expo was coming is probably hitting himself for not buying a parking pass. And business who opened, planning on selling coffee or wares to commuters gets to continue to look at an unused rail line. Anyone who took a job along the line, knowing they’d be able to reach it by train is left out in the cold, relying on bus service that keeps getting cut. The fact is, metro provides transportation, and nothing is more important to a city than dependable transportation.

The taxpayer should not accept delays by the private sector, and we should hold them accountable for not meeting their targets. And likewise, we must hold the public sector accountable for the delays they have caused. In Massachusetts, a recently announced delay to a light rail line has been met with outrage, and the word “lawsuit” is being brought up. Quickly, the governor is scrambling to mitigate the delay before the lawsuits pour in.

I think the same approach should be taken in LA. Don’t sue to delay a project (NIMBY-style), but sue when incompetence, negligence and bad management result in delays with real world effects on business, transportation and congestion. Metro should be forced to open ASAP, and not be allowed to keep playing with dates.

Mind you, I’m not saying that a lawsuit should be the first step. The first step would be to hold a conversation with the agency and make it clear that enough is enough.

Only if the agency ignores those concerns, should a lawsuit be used. Hopefully, the threat of one is enough to wake up the agency.

We’re talking about a transit system here, not a ride at Disney, and I don’t think the officials making the decisions understand that.

So enough with the expo delays. Start pre-revenue testing ASAP and get riders on board as soon as the feds agree that the line has been tested enough and is safe. Holding out for a few extra months, just because, is not right.

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