LA Metro in 5 Minutes

Nathan S. Holmes
Feb 3 · 5 min read
Metro 2 Line — Y Diaz

This article explains what Metro does and how that came to be. It is part of a series that provides short guides to different governmental transportation organizations in LA and CA.

Formal Name: Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Year Formed: 1993

Budget: $7.2 billion

Staff: 10,000

What Metro Does: (1) Operates buses and trains in LA County and (2) guides significant transportation funding for the 88 cities and unincorporated areas in LA County (see here for an explanation of LA jurisdictions).

LA City = red area; LA County = total area

Metro is without question the most important transportation organization in the Los Angeles region.

The transportation advocacy group Investing in Place has a great short video about Metro here, and to paraphrase the video: while best known for its buses and trains, Metro oversees many other critical transportation programs, including bike and freeway funding programs and rail station area real estate development.

It always helps to follow the money: Metro’s $7.2 billion FY 2019–20 budget dwarfs that of any other county or regional transportation entity in Southern California.

History

Here is a very brief distillation of Metro’s complex history into four bullet points:

  • The first “Metro” is created (1951): Companies in the private sector operated trains and buses for the first half of the 20th century, but after WWII they exited the field due to declining profitability. In response, the state legislature created the public agency called the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority, which was charged with both running a bus system and restarting a rail system in the region.
  • The Southern California Rapid Transit District (RTD) is created (1964). After the first version of Metro proved unsuccessful in restarting a rail system (see their Wikipedia entry for why), the state legislature killed it off and created the RTD in the hopes that a new organization would achieve better results.
  • The Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) is created (1976): The California legislature passed legislation requiring all counties in the state to have regional transportation commissions in order to oversee funding for highways and transit. The goal behind giving power to a county-level commission was part of a larger movement towards more local decision-making and away from state control of funding.
  • The RTD and LACTC are merged to form the current “Metro” (1993): This version of Metro combined both the RTD (which oversaw the operation of buses and the effort to start a new rail system) and the LACTC (which oversaw the spending of money on buses, rail, and highways) into one organization called the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Metro is now governed by a 13-member board consisting of elected officials from different parts of LA County.

Current Operations

It is worth highlighting that the current Metro has a slightly different name than the first version of Metro- it replaced the “transit” part of the name with “transportation.” The new name emphasizes that Metro does more than just operate public transit now and is invested in all aspects of transportation.

You can go to Metro’s website to see a more complete list of their ongoing projects- place your cursor over the “Projects” tab and you will see projects under construction (including subways, rail lines, freeways, and other facilities), future projects in the planning stages, plans and studies underway, and a variety of programs that Metro manages in the areas of active transportation, transit-oriented development, sustainability, and innovation.

In short, Metro touches almost everything in transportation in some manner- whether if relates to public transit, cars, walking, biking, or other modes.

Metro’s power largely exists in its function as the major hub for transportation projects in LA County. Money flows to Metro in two primary ways:

  • Top-Down: Money from the federal and state government goes through Metro to be spent on programs and projects in all the cities and unincorporated areas throughout LA County. The level of oversight and influence Metro provides is different for each pot of money, since each source has different strings attached. Fifty years ago these funding streams represented the majority of LA County’s transportation funding, but in recent decades both federal and state funding have declined as a percentage of Metro’s overall budget.
  • Ground-Up: Local sales taxes for transportation increased significantly as a source of Metro’s budget in recent decades, and in fact the money from four LA County sales taxes alone now accounts for about 50% of Metro’s budget. (Prop A in 1980, Prop C in 1990, Measure R in 2008, and Measure M in 2016) These four half-cent sales taxes mean that Metro now gets two cents for every dollar spent in LA County to be spent on a spectrum of transportation programs and projects. Metro also issues bonds to further raise funds off of this anticipated future sales tax revenue.

Of course, to say that Metro is the “most powerful” organization in transportation is not the same as saying Metro is “all powerful.” Metro operates within many constraints, two of which are worth mentioning here.

Constraints

(1) It is difficult to understate the ramifications of the sales tax as Metro’s chief source of funding. Metro has transportation planners who are able to make recommendations for wise future transportation investments, but this practice is complicated when projects and programs are pre-determined by voters at the ballot box. In order to persuade the 2/3 majority of voters on board to vote for the sales tax, the ballot measures stipulate a list projects and programs on which the money can be spent.

While this sales tax money undoubtedly provides a valuable source of funding for transportation, this “transportation planning by ballot box” also makes it difficult for Metro to further goals in the areas of increased ridership, social equity, sustainability, and fiscal prudence, since the project list was not necessarily formulated with these goals in mind. UCLA Urban Planning Professor Michael Manville published a sharp analysis of this dynamic here.

(2) Another important constraint to highlight is that while Metro may operate buses and trains that run on streets throughout the region, it does not “manage” these same streets. That authority belongs with local cities. As a result, Metro cannot declare bus-only lanes in order to free its buses from being stuck in traffic, nor can it always dictate bus stop locations or the presence of amenities like bus shelters.

A good example can be seen with the Wilshire bus lanes that run from downtown Los Angeles to the west side of Los Angeles. The city of Los Angeles has designated the righthand lanes on Wilshire as bus-only lanes, but when the Los Angeles gives way to the city of Beverly Hills for a stretch of a few miles, the bus lanes disappear because Beverly Hills is unwilling to take away space from cars.

Despite its financial might and countywide jurisdiction, Metro must work through significant challenges to improve transportation in LA County.

Go here for the main page of this transportation series.

Nathan S. Holmes

Written by

Live in Los Angeles. Background in teaching and urban planning.

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