Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Is Metro’s Highway Program Ready to Evolve?

Update June 22, 2017 – See Board Motion 38.3 that was unanimously adopted by the Metro Board of Directors.


On Thursday, the Metro board is scheduled to adopt the Measure M Guidelines, which set the rules for how all Measure M programs will be administered. As expected for a document of this magnitude, there is a flurry of activity this week by both advocates and board members to shape the final guidelines and resolve the remaining policy issues. For a summary of what advocates are asking for this week, check out Monday’s blog post. Four board motions have been introduced addressing various topics, such as local return and eligibility for various programs. (See motions 38.1, 38.2, 38.3, and 38.4 on the board agenda.)

One of the most promising motions, from Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, L.A. Councilmember Mike Bonin, Supervisor Hilda Solis, and Supervisor Janice Hahn, would revamp the Measure M highway programs to include a more multimodal approach to reducing traffic. The motion would do two things:

  1. It would clarify the eligibility of complete streets, active transportation, and other innovative approaches to reducing traffic and improving safety for highway program funding.
  2. It would modernize the performance metrics used to evaluate highway projects from the outdated Level of Service (LOS) to the newer Vehicle-Miles Traveled (VMT) in order to be consistent with state law.

There is no question that this motion would require Metro highway planners to think differently about their projects. There is a lot of fear among traditional constituents for freeway widening about what this change would mean for their projects. It is true that traditional freeway widening projects are likely to perform poorly under this new paradigm. But this motion does not bring all freeway projects to a halt, and it does not renege on promises to voters to invest in the region’s highway system. What it does do is prioritize those projects that are truly multimodal and contribute to reducing regional traffic rather than inducing more vehicle travel.


Why does LOS need to go?

LOS only looks at one mode–cars–and considers all vehicles the same, whether they have one driver or a bus full of 50 people. Instead, VMT measures the efficiency of the transportation system and recognizes how high-capacity modes, like transit, can move more people more cost-effectively. Even worse, LOS is based on faulty assumptions that ignore how people actually respond to changes in the transportation system. It favors the types of projects that induce more congestion, like roadway widening, rather than those that improve mobility, like transit and ExpressLanes. Using VMT enables project planners to consider the overall capacity of the corridor rather than just the capacity for vehicles.

Furthermore, state law has moved away from LOS and now favors VMT. In just a couple years, cities will be required to make the transition as well. It only makes sense to align regional funding programs with the same metrics that state and local agencies will need to use anyway.

Aligning funding programs with state policy is important because projects that are designed to improve LOS will often fail when evaluated using VMT. Continuing to use LOS during project planning exposes Metro and local projects to legal risks since these projects will have a harder time clearing environmental review in the future. It is smarter planning and a more effective use of Metro’s limited project development resources to align funding metrics with environmental law so that our projects don’t get unnecessarily delayed–or not approved at all. This change makes it easier to deliver highway projects, not harder.


What types of projects are helped by this change?

When looking at the highway programs, it is important to remember that these programs fund both streets and freeways. This motion doesn’t change that. However, changing from LOS to VMT is likely to shape how future highway programs are scoped. For example:

ExpressLanes. The Measure M Guidelines already require freeway projects within Metro’s planned ExpressLanes network to include an ExpressLanes alternative in their environmental analysis. Because ExpressLanes include a pricing mechanism that counteracts induced demand, they are likely to perform better under a VMT analysis than alternatives that add general capacity or even regular HOV lanes. Similarly, a VMT analysis is likely to favor truck lanes if demand is managed through a user fee rather than giving away new capacity for free.

Bus Lanes. A lot of highway projects are actually on arterial streets. Smaller projects like adding turn lanes or signal synchronization are unlikely to be significantly affected by the change from VMT to LOS. However, corridor-scale projects offer an opportunity to consider alternatives like bus lanes that increase a street’s carrying capacity above and beyond what adding a general travel lane would do. Well-designed multimodal projects can move more people more efficiently than traditional street widening projects. That’s what Measure M is supposed to do: maximize mobility for the regional. The right metrics will capture these benefits.

Complete Streets. Sometimes the best way to increase the capacity of a street is to reallocate space from inefficient modes to more efficient ones. Since LOS only measures the flow of vehicles, and not people, these types of projects are at a disadvantage under the old paradigm. New metrics are needed to properly measure the efficiency of a corridor and recognize the role that bus lanes, bike lanes, and improved sidewalks can play in enhancing mobility. Local agencies should have the broadest flexibility possible to access highway program funding for street improvements in their jurisdictions.


Why does this matter?

Highway programs are a significant part of Measure M and we need to make sure that the projects funded by this investment move the region forward. As recently reported by the L.A. Times, transportation is California’s largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and yet it is also the one sector that is not on track to reduce emissions. We cannot meet our targets without changing business as usual. Updating performance metrics from LOS to VMT is a critical step toward achieving our region’s goals, including promoting multimodal transportation solutions, reducing pollution, fighting climate change, and improving quality of life.


Next Steps:

Join us on Thursday, June 22nd, at 9:00 AM, when the Metro board will consider this motion and others. The Measure M Guidelines will be Item 38 on the agenda. Join us! Please email to let us know if you are planning to attend so we can coordinate.

3 responses to “Is Metro’s Highway Program Ready to Evolve?

  1. Excellent blog post on a very important issue! Thanks, Investing in Place, for raising awareness around this!!

    Bryn Lindblad

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