Expo Line's Path To Service By Next Summer Still Not Clear
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There is 80 miles of light rail transit service in the Los Angeles region, and none of it reaches the northwest end of Los Angeles County.
Since 1980, Los Angeles County transit planners have attempted to reach the Pacific Ocean by way of the mid-city via the Exposition Light Rail Transit Line. The project is on target to be completed in 2015, three-and-a-half decades later.
Critics and advocates of the Expo Line have debated for the past two decades whether mostly street-level light rail through a moderately busy corridor is the best solution to connect two major employment centers―Santa Monica and Downtown Los Angeles.
An estimated 65,000 people are expected to use the Expo Line daily after the project's second phase is completed, says Rick Thorpe, the chief executive officer of the Expo Line Construction Authority.
Preliminary engineering for the second phase―the stretch from Culver City to Santa Monica―began in May with design and construction slated to start in the fall.
Service to La Cienega Boulevard will begin operation in about a year. The completion date remains fluid because of, among other things, the implementation of extra enhancements where the Expo Line meets the Blue Line and a controversy about the Farmdale Avenue crossing near Dorsey High School.
Only one of the first phase's 38 street-level crossings has not received approval from the California Public Utilities Commission: Farmdale Avenue. Safety concerns have been raised there by the Los Angeles Unified School District and community groups such as the Citizens' Campaign to Fix the Expo Rail Line. (UPDATE 6/24: The L.A. Times reports that the Farmdale Avenue crossing has received tenative approval from the California Public Utilities Commission. The final decision remains likely to be announced in July.)
Despite the promises of its widespread use, Damien Goodmon, Fix Expo's chairperson, has led a campaign seeking that the line be built on a platform above ground, in a trench or inside an underground tunnel. He believes that the street-level design will damage the communities it cuts through.
Light rail projects, he said, are just excuses for building that bring with them traffic and increased safety risks―issues he feels the Expo Authority has not sufficiently addressed.
Goodmon calls the project a mistake, one that will cost tremendous amounts of money to fix in the future.
"The project as it is right now is to do something, and let politicians say I delivered," he said. "The goal is contracts and development with no transportation angle."
With all but the Farmdale section nearing completion, there's not much Goodmon can change about the line's design in the neighborhoods he represents. Whether the Fix Expo group can at least put the brakes on a street-level crossing at Farmdale could be known as soon as July.
RESPONDING TO THE OPPOSITION
On the other side of the track is Darrell Clarke, a leader of the Friends 4 Expo Transit group, who says the project is a good connector to the west side of Los Angeles.
"Other parts of the city have received rail lines, but we have the greatest congestion and the least options," he said.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky has supported the project from the beginning and views the Expo Line as a mandate of county voters.
"I respect other views, but my view is that millions are being held captive away from their lives by traffic," Yaroslavsky said. More than 73 percent of voters in his supervisorial district supported Measure R.
Goodmon said he believes people who live adjacent to the tracks will eventually withdraw their support for the Expo Line.
"Once the train starts rolling, when they hear the noise and feel the vibrations, people will change their minds," he said.
Thorpe said the Authority will use sound checks after the line opens to evaluate if measures taken to mitigate sound are working. If not, Metro would take additional steps to lessen sound impacts such as installing insulation, erecting more sound walls or replacing single-pane windows with double-pane windows, as was done along the Gold Line in Pasadena.
Yaroslavsky thinks people will slowly appreciate the Expo Line. Pointing to the Orange Line Busway, he notes that people once opposed to the project now advertise proximity to the busway when trying to rent their properties.
In the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana area, people spend more than 485 million hours stuck in traffic annually. That number will increase as the population in the Southland statistical area, which includes places such as Thousand Oaks and the Inland Empire, is expected to rise from 18 million to 30 million during the next 40 years.
More than 330,000 cars a day go through the 110 Freeway just south of Downtown. Nearly 67,000 people use the bus lines parallel to the Expo Line. And other than near the intersection of State Routes 57 and 60 in Diamond Bar, the Los Angeles County freeways that are most trafficked are the 110, Interstate 10 west of Downtown and Interstate 405 near LAX.
Compared to 55 percent of commuters in New York City, only 12 percent of Los Angeles workers commute using mass transit.
According to an Expo Authority handout, 30 percent of people who work in west Los Angeles live in the area. That equates to 300,000 people commuting into the area by car. The same pamphlet says the population of Santa Monica doubles to about 150,000 people during the day when workers are present.
Yaroslavsky said a car trip that takes 90 minutes one-way into Santa Monica will take a little more than an hour on light rail.
Clarke has commuted for 30 years from Santa Monica to Downtown Los Angeles. Since he began to formally present his support for the Expo Line a decade ago, he said traffic has worsened.
"It's not just going Downtown that's bad, the Interstate 10 is worse coming west in the morning and by 2:30, you can't go east," Clarke said.
He said the Expo line's primary riders will be people from west Los Angeles and people working in Santa Monica.
The trains will pass by 24 to 30 times an hour during rush hour. Freight trains that originally ran along the Expo right-of-way until the early 1990s passed by at 10 miles per hour twice a day, while light rail will pass by 240 times daily.
One study between 2001-2006 showed a positive correlation between increased gas prices and increased transit ridership in L.A., which in turn meant less traffic on the freeways.
Studies have shown that improved travel times attract more people to a region, bringing back the traffic. As a result, politicians and supporters emphasize the Expo Line offers another alternative to travel east-and-west in the county.
Thorpe said he doesn't think traffic will improve after the Expo Line opens because transit is only catching up to the demand. In other words, transportation infrastructure in L.A. has not kept up with the population, and new light rail lines don't lead to the point of surpassing demand for transit.
Goodmon maintains that transit projects should reduce congestion.
"There is no desire to reduce the traffic crisis," Goodmon said. "There is just a desire to build and Metro has failed if traffic still exists."
Clarke, a 25-year-long advocate of the project, said he realizes that one piece of a network won't reduce traffic, but slowly building toward a larger system will.
A flier distributed by Light Rail For Cheviot Hills in March reads, "We feel it is time to accept that the line will come through at grade, put our energies in a more positive place, and move forward to make it as neighborhood-friendly as possible!"
The trains, which comply with the same traffic laws as cars, will go as fast as 35 miles per hour between Downtown and Gramercy Place. Those speeds are not fast enough to require bells, whistles or crossing gates.
"At those slower speeds, you usually flow with the adjacent traffic on either side," Thorpe said. "The trains and the automobiles are all controlled by traffic signals."
West of Gramercy, the Expo Line enters a right-of-way parallel to but not in the street, so trains will reach speeds of up to 55 miles per hour and crossings include significantly more safety features.
Goodmon repeatedly draws attention to the statistic that while the Blue Line has killed 99 people since it opened in 1990, the completely grade-separated Green Line, opened in 1995, has resulted in zero deaths. The rate of deaths caused by Blue Line collisions is three times higher than anywhere else in the nation. However, in seven years the mostly grade-separated Gold Line, has resulted in zero accidental fatalities.
"You can't just blame that on people," Goodmon said. "It's the environment, not the people, because the numbers are just too far askew."
He said Metro's ignorance of the environment in which rail lines are built is "faulty and ridiculous."
Thorpe counters that the freight train line next to the Blue Line is to blame for some of the accidents.
"People try to rush through some of those crossings because they worry about being held up by a 10-to-15 minute-long freight train," Thorpe said.
While crossings at Vermont, Western and Normandie Avenues were re-evaluated after Metro's 2002 grade crossing policy was released, few changes occurred in the final Expo Line plan.
The L.A. City Council has supported the street-running alternative for the Expo Line since 1991, according to Councilman Bernard Parks, who has served on the Metro Board for four years and on the Expo Board since its inception in 2006.
Scott Malsin, a Culver City councilman and an Expo Authority board member, said Santa Monica wants the line at street-level, so it can better fit the line into the city's street culture.
Goodmon finds it unfair that Culver City and the west side are receiving an aerial station and that the extension of the subway line along Wilshire Boulevard is going underground.
He sees the problem as the principal fact about politics, "The powers at-be recognize power and ignore those without it."
Both Goodmon and Mike Eveloff, a member of Neighbors for Smart Rail, said L.A. politicians did not produce a great vision for the Expo Line because just two council districts out of 15 are affected by the project. Without a coalition of officials willing to use the city's money to threaten court action, the project was not modified to improve traffic or become safer through Los Angeles.
"Metro complies with those powerful groups who threaten to mess with them in the courts or mess with their lobbying," Goodmon said.
Thorpe said the crossing over Washington and National Boulevards was always going to be above ground, dispelling the notion that Culver City had their way with Metro.
"Venice Boulevard was always going to be grade-separated, the only issue was whether [the light rail line] went over and came down in the middle of Venice and went south or whether it went over all of Venice and kept on the railroad right-of-way," Thorpe said.
The original plan was to stop it short. After Metro received special Prop 1B funding, the Expo Authority decided that rather than build an interim station at a cost of $10 million and then tear it down, it would rather construct a station at a point that allowed either going over Venice or across Venice.
Meanwhile, Wilshire Boulevard is a 15-mile-long linear corridor packed with jobs and housing. Because Wilshire is home to high-rises and not single-family homes, surface streets provide less absorption capability than along Exposition Boulevard.
"There's nothing similar about the two streets," Parks said. "Wilshire can't deal with a double rail-line down it's middle."
According to 2005 data from the Southern California Association of Governments, Wilshire Boulevard until the Department of Veterans Affairs Hospital had more than 100,000 cars drive by daily. Exposition Boulevard near USC had a third of that traffic. Yaroslavsky said he expects a subway to reach the hospital by 2020.
However, he said a light rail line could fit on Wilshire, but the subway with its longer train is needed because ridership could reach 100,000 people―with 20 percent of riders coming from the San Gabriel Valley.
"It's the same reason Hollywood and Downtown has the subway. Along with Wilshire, these are the only three places where subway is justified," Yaroslavsky said.
He said building underground is seven to eight times more expensive.
"Expo is not unique," Yaroslavsky said. "The subway is unique. If everything had to go underground, we won't build very much rail for trains."
Clarke's thoughts are similar.
"The cost is justified for subway in some places if there's no place to put it above ground or there's a huge density. You can get a lot more transit for your dollar with light rail," he said.
Opponents say "build it right or don't build it."
"The problem is right for them is something that has never been done," Clarke said. "Long deep tunnels are not the norm where there is an existing right-of-way. That's a kind of strange definition."
Thorpe said the price of steel rising as China prepared for the Olympics, the price of oil rising as the economy soured and three new labor contracts spiking pay 15 percent have driven up costs of the project's first phase from 2006 estimates of $640 million to nearly $900 million today. The entire 14-mile project could end up costing close to $2.5 billion.
Metro's desire to add another $25 million in enhancements also brought new costs to the project. For instance, the intersection of the Expo Line tracks with the existing Blue Line tracks at Flower Street and Washington Boulevard will feature electrified tracking so trains can be remotely switched from one line to another. At a cost of $5 million, automatic train protection will be installed in the tracks so trains cannot collide head-on at the intersection.
Metro has additionally requested the installation of cameras along the Expo Line to catch people who run red lights in order to beat trains. The problem, first discovered along the Orange Line, lowered the number of people running red lights. The cameras are along the Gold Line Eastside Extension as well.
New vehicles are not on schedule to be here by next summer's opening, so as of now Metro has no cars dedicated to run on the line.
"We don't know what Metro's plan is right now," Thorpe said.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Groups on both sides are projecting a future that won't fully be understood for at least a decade.
Malsin said the Expo Line is a game-changer for the region because little thought was given to organization during Los Angeles' development.
"Over decades, it will transform the way the region is organized in a land-use perspective and that's a real positive," Malsin said.
Wesson said accepting light rail lines is difficult for some, but building them is necessary.
"What happens at the end of the day is that it works pretty well," Wesson said. "Over time, people will adapt and adjust."
Goodmon said the quick and less expensive approach to the Expo Line construction will not work out well.
"We can build cheap, efficiently and not care about 100 years from now, or we can take longer and build something to last for 100 years," Goodmon said.
Malsin said it's easy to understand fears and concerns.
"But my sense now from people in adjacent neighborhoods is that they are very excited because it's transformative and incredibly positive for this region," he said.
Thorpe said the misperception is that light rail has a negative impact in terms of safety, noise and traffic.
He mentioned that at the groundbreaking of a light rail line in Salt Lake City, the first light rail line he oversaw the construction of, 200 protestors showed up with signs that read, "Light rail kills babies." At the opening ceremony, only five protestors returned. In addition to the Gold Line, Thorpe has led the construction of eight lines in San Diego.
"I've built 10 to 12 lines, and there hasn't been an easy one yet, and each one seems to get more complicated," Thorpe said.
He will classify the project as a success if it meets projected ridership estimates.
"Everyone talks about the Blue Line like it's a negative, but it has the highest ridership in the whole country," he said. "If you're talking about moving people, it's the biggest success in the United States from a light-rail perspective."
After 20 years of service, Metro's Blue Line has 78,000 daily riders.
He said this project offers even more positive changes to the region.
"We're taking an old, abandoned railroad right-of-way with couches because it was just a trash dump site, and we're going to turn it into increased mobility with bike paths and landscaping," Thorpe said. "How could that not be great for the community?"
A study that looked at the Gold Line found that people living adjacent to the light rail line took new pride in their community. They started painting their homes and keeping their front yards clean.
"The public right-of-way is now a neighborhood asset rather than a liability. The project's safety has not been compromised in order to gain a neighborhood-compatible design solution," said Fred Click in "Design of Los Angeles's Marmion Way Corridor Light Rail Transitway."
Thorpe expects the line to open to the La Cienega station by summer 2011. By summer 2012, the line should reach Culver City. Although the Neighbors For Smart Rail lawsuit is outstanding, Phase II is on track for an opening in 2015 to Santa Monica.
Thorpe and Wesson both cautioned the flexibility of the project finale.
"I guarantee you by the time Phase II construction is rolling, something will come up every month," Wesson said.
Like Yaroslavsky, Thorpe said he believes the people of L.A. County want the projects outlined in the 30-10 plan as soon as they can get them.
"Think about where the economy was when voters approved Measure R and called for all these rail projects," Thorpe said. "The citizens voted to tax themselves in a real down economy another half-cent because they believed they needed improved mobility in the county."
Thorpe said it's a daunting task in today's environment to get these projects approved, constructed and finished.
"Expo has been under construction," he said, "but getting it finished has been quite the challenge."
To reach reporter Paresh Dave, click here.