LA Regional Transportation, Explained

LA city transportation is complicated. Alas, LA county and regional transportation can be just as challenging.

My goal in this article is to do two things: (a) explain “who does what” in regional transportation and (b) show how and why that came to be. So let’s get started.

Four of the most important regional transportation organizations in the Los Angeles area are:

1) Metro: operates buses and trains in LA County; programs transportation funding for the 88 cities and unincorporated areas in LA County

2) Metrolink: operates a regional rail system linking LA and surrounding counties

3) SCAG: develops regional land use and transportation policy for six Southern California counties

4) COGs/Sub-regions: assist in transportation decision-making for specific regions within LA County

A quick note before we begin- you can go here to learn the differences between the city and the county of LA. But as context for this article, all references to LA County refer to the area spotlighted below:

(1) Metro

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.

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 runs and oversees many other critical transportation programs, including bike and freeway funding programs, open streets initiatives, 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. Metro is governed by a 13-member board consisting of elected officials from different parts of LA County.

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.

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.” For one, the new name emphasizes that Metro does more than just operate public transit now and is invested in all aspects of transportation.

Second, contrary to what you may have heard, the original Metro name makes clear that Los Angeles has always had a mass transit system. Even when all the rail lines ceased operations, Los Angeles still operated mass transit in the form of a bus system. Moreover, LA does not need to build out its rail system to develop a “comprehensive” mass transit system- as the many bus lines on the map at left demonstrate, that comprehensive system exists right now, even if it needs significant improvements to attract more riders.

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.

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 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.

It is important to note that while Metro may operate buses and trains that run on and cross over 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 of this constraint on Metro’s operations can be seen on 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 is frequently constrained by local decisions that are not made in the best interest of a thriving public transit system.

(2) Metrolink

Formal Name: Southern California Regional Rail Authority

Year Formed: 1991

Budget: $263 million

Staff: 800

What Metrolink Does: Metrolink operates a regional rail system with seven lines that cover five counties in Southern California. (Technically six counties, since two lines touch the northern part of San Diego County.)

Here is a map of the Metrolink system:

Metrolink is Joint Powers Authority (JPA), which means a group of different governmental bodies joined together to govern Metrolink. This form of governance often occurs in situations where a proposed transportation entity cuts across the geographic lines of several different jurisdictions.

Metrolink is governed by an 11-member board consisting of elected officials throughout the region that Metrolink serves.

Metrolink service began service with three lines in 1992 after they purchased the right to use three rail lines from freight companies. Metrolink would add the rights to use more lines over the years, including a large expansion after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and it would benefit from its connection to an expanding Metro rail system. As you can see from the map above, every Metrolink route except one links up to Union Station in the city of Los Angeles.

Metrolink is a commuter rail system, which is different Metro’s rail system in that Metrolink serves longer trips, in particular going to work and back. These are big trains with comfortable chairs that have schedules and require you to buy a ticket. They are far less useful for doing things like running errands or making shorter trips. Metrolink’s efforts to increase the frequency of its rail routes are complicated by the fact that it is only a tenant of its tracks and thus cannot make decisions like how many trains to run and when to run them on its own. (Additionally, Metrolink should not be confused with AMTRAK, the national train organization that runs train routes all over the country and shares some of Metrolink’s rail lines.)

Metrolink is a much smaller system than Metro, both in budget and it hours of service. Metrolink trains are larger in capacity and they travel longer distances, but there are fewer of them and they travel much less frequently. Interestingly, while Metro’s buses and rail lines are experiencing ridership declines in recent years, Metrolink’s ridership continues to increase.

Metrolink used to be headquartered at Union Station with Metro, but in 2019 they moved into the new Wilshire Grand building in downtown LA, where they now share a building with SCAG, another regional organization dealing with transportation. SCAG is next up in our summary series.

(3) SCAG

Formal Name: Southern California Association of Governments

Year Formed: 1965

Budget: $65.3 million

Staff: 130

What SCAG Does: SCAG does regional land use and transportation policy for six Southern California counties (see map).

Here is SCAG’s birth compressed into three bullet points:

  • In the 1960’s, the federal government began requiring regional planning as a condition for receiving federal funding for highways and transit.
  • In 1963, the state of CA passed similar legislation calling for required regional planning as a condition for receiving state funding for transportation
  • SCAG emerged in 1965 as a voluntary association of cities in the Southern California region. The organization was a result of this push away from top-down planning and towards a type of planning that would be more context-specific and responsive to local needs. SCAG now has the formal governance structure of a JPA (see definition above in Metrolink section).

Though earlier I stated SCAG does regional “policy,” SCAG is a technically regional “planning” organization. This means that similar to municipal planning departments, SCAG does not build, operate, or maintain any transportation facilities. But unlike municipal planning departments, SCAG does not have the ability to make specific land-use decisions for cities. Some may differ, but I believe it is more helpful to characterize SCAG’s planning activities as taking the form of high-level, macro recommendations that better fit the definition of policy recommendations.

SCAG has a broad mission that extends beyond transportation to incorporate housing, economic development, infrastructure, and sustainability. Transportation still touches almost all of what they do- for example, their housing and sustainability plans encourage building housing and jobs near public transit.

SCAG is governed by an 86-member Regional Council that includes representatives from 67 different districts in the Southern California region (but not the San Diego area).

It can be hard to talk about SCAG without getting mired in two sets of weeds: politics and acronyms. Very briefly: SCAG is recognized by the federal government as the Southern California region’s official Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), and it is recognized by the state of California as the region’s official Council of Government (COG) and also by the state as a Regional Transportation Planning Agency (RTPA).

While the federal government passed legislation over several decades designed to strengthen the power of MPO’s like SCAG to direct transportation funding decisions, the CA state legislature consistently opposed such efforts and in turn passed laws that directed funding and decision-making away from MPO’s and COG’s. State law instead directed funding even more locally to the county level and empowered County Transportation Commissions (CTC’s) like Metro (see above). The consequences are that SCAG has less authority than it otherwise might, and less power than other MPO’s across the nation.

That said, SCAG is heavily engaged in the transportation space- see here for a sampling of their many transportation endeavors. SCAG carries out certain federal and state-mandated plans, such as the the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), the Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS), the Federal Transportation Improvement Program (FTIP), and the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA). SCAG also does very good stuff to promote active transportation, as can be seen in their Go Human campaign and their effort to foster a more productive discussion about traffic congestion (100 Hours Project).

Perhaps what SCAG does best is provide a forum for “regional problem-solving” via convening meetings and forums that allow elected officials from different parts of Southern California to discuss their common challenges. They try to solve high-level problems that extend across different cities and counties, like traffic, public transit and air quality, but similar to the dynamic mentioned in our prior discussion of Metro, SCAG can only do so much through its plans and recommendations. In practice, SCAG operates within even stricter constraints than Metro, since ultimately the real power to do land use and transportation planning and spending lies with both local cities and County Transportation Commissions.

(4) COGs/SubRegions

Formal Name: Councils of Government

Year Formed: Varies (8 in LA County)

Budget: Variable, but to cite one example: a total of $10 billion has been carved out of the 2016 transportation sales tax Measure M to be split between the COG’s and spent over several decades.

Staff: Variable

What COGs Do: Assist in transportation decision-making for specific regions within LA County

The creation of SCAG in 1964 was an attempt to move more transportation planning from the state level to the regional level, and SCAG itself facilitated the localization of its regional planning even further through the creation of 14 sub-regional councils of government, or COGs (see SCAG map above).

The LA County portion, which is the largest county in SCAG with a population of over 10 million people, is split into eight different subregions or COGs.

Of each of the transportation entities I cover here, COGs are perhaps the least well-known and the hardest to describe. They vary in size, funding, and organizational structure- for example, the Arroyo Verdugo COG is made up of just three cities (340,000 people), while the Gateway Cities COG consists of 28 jurisdictions (over two million people). Another example: the South Bay COG has a budget of close to $1 million in order to fund the large staff running its many programs, while the Westside Cities Council is run by three part-time staff.

Investing in Place has again done fabulous work on this front. You can see a 90-second Youtube explainer on COGs here, and they have some more in-depth overviews of COGs here and here. A quote from the latter link:

COGs represent their associated members in larger planning organizations at the regional, state, and federal level. Within Southern California these (larger organizations) are SCAG, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), Air Resources Board and others. COGs often enter in Memorandums of Understanding within these larger agencies to formalize their relationships and goals. (COGs and SubRegions in LA County, page 4)

COGs function as a place for city elected officials and staff to collaborate on solving issues that span cities, but at a smaller “sub-regional” level relative to larger regional organizations like Metro and SCAG.

Perhaps the biggest role that COGs play in transportation is via their relationship with Metro. As previously discussed, Metro is where much of the funding for larger transportation infrastructure comes from, whether it be rail lines, busways, or other multi-modal projects. Metro worked with COGs to determine the desired project list that went on the ballot for the recent Measure M sales tax, and Metro continues to work with COGs to implement transportation programs like the Multi-Year Sub-Regional Program (MSP).

In essence, if Metro has the transportation money in LA County, then COGs play a significant role, both formally and informally, in determining where that money goes within their sub-regions. That said, some COGs have more authority and larger staffs, and they have more influence than other COGs with less formal structures and fewer dedicated staff.

An example of the COGs at work is in this recent LA Times article about a controversial decision to spend $4.4 million in Measure M funds on an improved internet system in the South Bay region of LA County. The coalition of 16 cities referred to in the article is the South Bay COG, a group who formally opposed Measure M back in 2016. Though the decision to spend transportation dollars on an internet system was made by LA Metro, it was the South Bay COG that came up with this idea.

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My first article on the streets in the city of Los Angeles described the main departments who manage transportation in the city and included background on the origins of these departments. By and large, it showed how these departments were created from the “ground up” at the municipal level to do things for the people of Los Angeles.

By contrast, the organizations in this article on regional transportation were “top-down” creations of legislators at the state level. These legislators did so largely in response to what transpired in the three-decade span between the end of WWII and the mid-1970’s, when transportation decisions were overly concentrated in the hands of state engineers and the input of local communities was discounted.

In the end, the challenge of finding the right blend of local context and regional perspective is a challenge that continues to this day. But hopefully the material in this article offers a clear view of the logic behind the current array of organizations working in transportation at this critical mid-level tier of government.

For the those looking to keep up with the news relating to regional LA transportation, your best source is Streetsblog Los Angeles.

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Post-script: I haven’t followed formal source citing in writing this article, but believe I have taken care not to steal any insights outright. The following sources proved very useful:

  1. The transportation advocacy group Investing in Place has excellent educational material on how LA transportation organizations work
  2. Matthew Roth’s essay on Los Angeles Transportation in volume #1 of this two-volume set is terrific, though the book is very hard to find.
  3. William Fulton and Paul Shigley’s Guide to California Planning is one of the best books about planning out there, and the chapter “Transportation Planning and Financing” was very helpful here. (I’m admittedly still working off a cheap 3rd edition since the new 5th edition is kind of expensive.)
  4. Robert Leiter and Elisa Barbour’s excellent chapter on Regional Planning in Southern California in this book about Planning in LA has a lot on SCAG’s history.
  5. Agency websites and Wikipedia are always useful.
  6. I had several colleagues from Metro, Metrolink, and SCAG give this article a look, and as a result I feel comfortable declaring that that the article shouldn’t haven anything majorly wrong.

If you have some experience in any of these organizations and think there are some elements of this overview that could be corrected or improved, I would love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading!

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