Metro’s Excessive West Santa Ana Branch Cost Estimates Are for Wrong Type of Project

Metro's bogus numbers dismiss surface heavy rail by citing inflated 20-mile tunnel costs

Metro is using the wrong estimates to refuse to evalutate HRT on the West Santa Ana Branch. An L.A. subway train on the trail tracks along the river, under the now-removed 6th Street bridge. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Metro is using the wrong estimates to refuse to evalutate HRT on the West Santa Ana Branch. An L.A. subway train on the trail tracks along the river, under the now-removed 6th Street bridge. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Late Monday, Metro clarified its methodology for estimating the construction costs and dismissing a heavy rail alternative for the agency’s planned West Santa Ana Branch transit project. It turns out that when Streetsblog called for surface heavy rail on the WSAB, Metro dismissed the proposal by citing costs for a different project: all-tunnel or all-elevated. Even with this dismissive manipulative apples-to-oranges comparison, Metro used inflated cost estimates.

The reasoning behind these excessive estimates was not included in the official staff report, but was later admitted in a comment posted on Metro’s The Source:

Without the benefit of reengineering and redesigning the project for heavy rail (HRT), Metro took the most recent costs we have for Metro tunneling projects. For aerial we applied the industry norm that aerial is approximately two-thirds the cost of tunneling. We then assumed that all 20 miles of WSAB would need to be grade separated, hence the range — all aerial or all underground.

We assumed that a heavy rail alternative could not cross intersections at street level due to safety and other potential impacts. There are about 83 intersections along the entire 20-mile alignment, meaning that it would be difficult to run the line at street level for any length.

We see what you did there.

An analogous exchange might be something like Streetsblog asking “why don’t you look into buying a good quality bicycle?” and Metro responding “we can’t buy a bicycle because it costs way too much,” then Metro admitting “those costs are for luxury cars.”

Metro is citing the cost of a 20-mile tunnel. Nobody has remotely suggested this. Including an excessive full-tunnel cost makes no sense, other than to mislead people.

Though that in itself is wrong, when Metro cites its unasked-for 20-mile tunnel cost, they’re putting their thumbs on the scale. Metro’s WSAB estimate adds an extra 28 percent to their current HRT Purple Line extension phase 1 per-mile cost. Per a 2018 Metro The Source post comparing tunneling costs, Metro is building the PLE1 for $720 million per mile (“3.9 miles long and has a budget of $2.82 billion”), but instead of using that figure for tunneling, Metro estimates a WSAB tunnel would cost $1 billion per mile. Even compared to the cost of tunneling the Regional Connector LRT subway ($920 million per mile – 1.9 miles long for $1.75 billion), Metro has added eight percent.

But why is anyone talking about a 20-mile long tunnel? (Other than Metro. Who brought it up first. When they were being dismissive.)

Let’s take a look at Metro’s other estimate. Metro is asserting that an “all aerial” WSAB HRT would 1) cost $12.3 billion dollars and 2) that elevating the entire line is necessary.

Metro admits that its $12.3 billion estimate is based on the “industry norm” and that aerial structures cost “two-thirds the cost of tunneling” – though, as explained above, Metro has inflated its tunneling estimate.

A $667 million per mile estimate appears excessive, compared to Hawaii’s $500 million per mile for elevated rail.

Metro assumes that the project would be “all aerial” because HRT “could not cross intersections at street level.”

(We agree that HRT would need quite a bit of grade separation. Because it’s faster and third-rail electrified, the public needs to be safe and the train needs to fly over many intersections or roads need to be diverted or lowered under the tracks. Options to make WSAB HRT work would probably include flyovers, street closures, and other measures. LRT would also need some of this, though, if it’s going to be safe and effective.)

But HRT does run at-grade all over the world — even third-rail-powered HRT like Metro’s Red/Purple Line.

Cities do this with a variety of configurations. BART eliminated all grade crossings by closing roads and grade-separating tracks. They also fence off the right of way. Much of BART is elevated on aerial viaducts, but not everywhere. Go to Chicago, and you’ll see third-rail-powered HRT lines that have grade crossings–they use swing gates and barriers to prevent people from wandering onto the tracks, with a short break in the third rail where it crosses the street. In New York, you’ll find grade crossings on third-rail train lines on Long Island and in Westchester County. Go to London and you’ll find the same.

In Boston, London, and New York (and other places), rail lines use dual-mode trains that have both third-rail shoes and overhead pantographs, and can draw power from either one. If third-rail grade crossings were really the issue, L.A. could attach overhead collectors to the existing subway trains, and switch from third-rail to overhead wire once above ground. The costs of this may not be trivial – though it’s likely to cost less than the three multi-billion dollar tunnel alternatives that Metro is currently favoring.

These are called options.

Options are what transit agencies are supposed to look at when they do required environmental studies.

Metro’s refusal to investigate legitimate WSAB HRT options didn’t start with the latest staff report. One of the alternatives studied early on was low-speed MagLev. Low-speed MagLev is basically heavy rail that floats on magnets embedded in a guideway. Level street crossings are impossible with a MagLev, because there’s no way cars can safely drive across the guideway. (The other “options” studied: a streetcar and bus rapid transit. Really.)

Why did SCAG and Metro include low-speed MagLev in its alternatives analysis, if, as Metro now says, an elevated guideway (which isn’t even necessary for HRT) apparently automatically disqualifies a mode from consideration?

It sure looks like Metro determined in advance that it would build LRT on the WSAB, whether it made sense or not, and no matter what their studies showed. All the studies, all the public outreach now makes it look like the agency is just going through the motions of fulfilling environmental laws without actually weighing valid options.

Today and tomorrow, Metro board committees are considering narrowing down the WSAB options to three multi-billion-dollar LRT subway tunnels through downtown L.A.

The agency is doubling down on problematic, lawsuit-prone, low-capacity, expensive tunnel options – when a viable tunnel and right-of-way through downtown L.A. already exists along the river for the Red/Purple Line that they could simply connect to, if the trains used on the WSAB were compatible.

New Denver RTD electric-catenary heavy rail crossing at grade. Photo from Wikimedia Commons
New Denver RTD electric-catenary heavy rail crossing at grade. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

One sad irony is that, in Denver, Phil Washington’s team oversaw construction of HRT to the airport, which cost $50 million per mile. The heavy rail, electric multiple units on some of the lines in Denver are essentially indistinguishable from what a Red/Purple Line surface extension would look like in L.A. Let’s follow the example of Denver and build a line that will be faster and higher capacity – without costly tunneling.

We Streetsblog editors are big supporters of LRT where it’s appropriate: where you’ve got some right of way, but large segments have to run on city streets. This means we supported Expo, the Eastside Gold Line, the Blue Line – all because LRT makes sense in those corridors. But LRT isn’t the answer to every situation. Above all, Metro has an obligation to do legitimate studies and look at real options. Instead, on the WSAB they picked LRT, and then pushed to defend that decision without considering legitimate alternatives. Their latest bogus HRT cost estimates show they’re still doing it.

If the WSAB line were compatible with the subway, the hardest portion of the alignment–the stretch through downtown to Union Station–is already built. This deserves some true analysis, not just throwing out bogus numbers.

Addendum – added 5/17: Some people (including some who work at Metro) have been saying to me (Joe) that it’s “too late” in the process for SBLA to bring up this HRT alternative. We have a couple of responses to this:

First, in late April 2018, Metro added four new alternatives, each of which include new tunnels under downtown L.A. These tunnels range from ~2.1 miles to ~2.5 miles, with the shorter alternatives opposed by Little Tokyo stakeholders. Was it also “too late” for Metro to add roughly $2B worth of tunneling to a $4B project? A time when expected costs are going up is a good time to look into other options.

Also, we (Roger) didn’t start bringing this alternative up a month ago. For many years, Roger has been meeting with Metro staff, commenting on studies, writing publicly about this – including at the Daily News in 2012. If Metro staff failed to study the WSAB HRT alternative, it’s not because it wasn’t brought to their attention until too late. It’s because they chose to decide and defend, instead of actually evaluating options.

  • Thanks for calling Metro out on this.

    Are we building a city transportation system for the next decade or for the next century (or three)?

  • James Fujita

    I’d be happy with a Denver A-Line-style WSAB. Of course, we’ll have to wire up the Purple Line tunnels because the A-Line is not a third-rail/ overhead combination.

    There should be no essential problem there, as the Blue Line and the Gold Line tunnels are overhead wire.

    In fact, I wonder if this is possible: String up just the Purple Line and paint the new vehicles purple. Paint the third-rail trains red. Have only purple, overhead wire trains head out from WSAB to Wilshire (and eventually to LACMA). That also solves the “which train do I take” problem.

  • James Fujita

    I thought WSAB maglev was a holdover from the Orangeline/ Eco-Rapid era of dumb ideas.

  • As has been pointed out elsewhere, you can add pantographs to the existing and future Red/Purple Line trains. Or add third-rail shoes to the Silverliner Vs.

  • Irwin Chen

    Scott mentioned on twitter that he thinks Metro is fixated on LRT because they have PPP proposal on the table for WASB. If the line is constructed as a continuation of Red or Purple line, that creates problems in revenue recovery for PPP.

    PPP works nest (for Metro) if WASB is constructed as a separate line that the private operator can operate and (perhaps) charge premium fare. If it interlines with Red or Purple line, then 1. no premium fare; and 2. Metro will have to operate it most likely.

    I guess this is the same reason why Metro back paddled away from interline Blue and WASB from earlier feasibility studies…

  • Hugh Brockington

    Great write up. They completely botched the numbers on this one. Its interesting that they are so set on LRT when exactly as you have said… heavy rail can be powered by Overhead catenary. They could even make the entire purple line catenary and have the Red line be 3rd rail, especially since the purple is still under construction

  • Ben Phelps

    this is interesting.

  • Joe Linton

    I don’t know for sure, but I don’t expect that a PPP would have a private partner paid by fare revenue (nor would there be a “premium fare”). In the Denver P3, the fare revenue wasn’t certain enough to pay the PPP – these lines (like Freeways) operate at a loss. The Denver PPP public money came as payments from taxes (like Measure M) and not directly from fares.

  • James Fujita

    Private operators are a huge part of Japan’s transit system. It’s a shame Elon Musk isn’t interested in anything which might actually work.

  • davistrain

    There are numerous examples of transit lines that switch from third rail to overhead both in the past and running at this very moment. The Boston MBTA Blue Line comes to mind immediately, and up until 60 years ago last month, the Key System in the Bay Area.

  • DONE Watch

    Fantastic piece. They’ve been lying about it all and now they are fully busted. They have also been lying about not being a able to provide a one seat ride to union station via option H. Keep writing!!!

  • DONE Watch

    except they dont…

  • But will Los Angeles just end up with yet another fleet of cars with a third (for now) technology. Look at Vancouver, BC, who ended up with a second type of driverless Metro because the PPP that built the Canada Line ordered from Rotem and not Bombardier

  • Affen_Theater

    At-grade crossings open to cars, peds and bikes do not slow down the “heavy rail-ness” at all. As we see at hundreds of crossings all around the state (Caltrain, SMART, ACE, MetroLink, Amtrak California, etc.) and nation, FRA allows full track speed (79 mph, or up to 110 mph with in-cab signaling) through crossings.

  • Affen_Theater

    It is key to figure out the real reason behind Metro’s obvious bias for LRT and against HRT. Until HRT advocates determine and address the real reason(s), arguing facts and figures is arguably a waste of time. Clearly there are other unspoken factors (agendas or motivations) at work here.

  • Roger R.
  • HannahInManoa

    The Boston Blue Line is heavy rail, powered by overhead wire. The LA Metro GREEN LINE might as well be overhead-powered HRT, since it has no grade crossings at all. If the WASB was simply an extension of the Green Line, then it might make sense to go with LRT, but Metro has decided to penetrate central LA from Artesia over the WASB, so HRT should be considered.


Metro's West Santa Ana Branch study area. All images via Metro staff reports

Metro West Santa Ana Branch Light Rail Alignments Narrowed

Today Metro’s Planning and Programming Committee approved four specific West Santa Ana Branch light rail alignments to be used for environmental studies. The West Santa Ana Branch is a historic Pacific Electric Streetcar right-of-way that runs diagonally through southeast L.A. County cities including Paramount, Bellflower and Artesia. Measure M includes funding for two phases of […]