Life after “Death” for Rail in LA. September 19th, 2013
By Noel T. Braymer
In 1998 the future of rail transit, particularly subway construction looked bleak in Los Angeles. Construction of the Red Line subway from downtown Los Angeles to North Hollywood was a mess. The Red Line construction had created a huge sink hole in east Hollywood. Many buildings were damaged because of ground subsidence along Hollywood Blvd despite promises this wouldn’t happen. The Red Line project was behind schedule and over budget. Early ridership was well below projections on the first 2 segments of the subway.
In 1998 Los Angeles County cancelled all plans to extend the Red Line after the last segment to North Hollywood opened in 2000. This included a ban on all future subway construction, including planned Red Line extensions to East Los Angeles, west to Pico and San Vicente as well as a tunnel to extend the Green Line to the Metrolink Station in Norwalk. Budget problems were so bad that Los Angeles County cancelled construction underway to extend the Green Line to LAX. Also stopped was construction for Light Rail from downtown Los Angeles to Pasadena.
This was the plan for the Red Line in 1995
Things looked much brighter in 1990 when voters approved a half cent sales tax increase by over a two thirds majority in Los Angeles County for transportation improvements including expanded rail transit. This was in addition to another half cent sale tax increase for transportation approved in 1980. This first sales tax increase made possible the construction of the first modern Light Rail Line in Los Angeles; the Blue Line between downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach. The success of the Blue Line led to the construction of the Green Line mostly in the median of the then under construction Century Freeway between Norwalk and El Segundo with a connection to the Blue Line at Willowbrook. In 1993 the first 4 miles of the Red Line Subway started operations from Los Angeles Union Station. Metrolink also started service in 1993 on its first 3 routes. The Northridge earthquake in January 1994 accelerated plans to extend Metrolink to the Antelope Valley from Santa Clarita after the earthquake destroyed its freeway connections to Los Angeles.
Other regions in Los Angeles County still wanted rail service and went to work to get it. Supporters of Light Rail from Pasadena to Los Angeles found that many of the problems with cost overruns for rail transit projects were from lack of oversight.They proposed the creation of local construction authorities to be responsible for projects to build them on budget and on time instead of the operating agency. The State Legislature created the “Los Angeles Pasadena Blue Line Construction Authority” to complete construction that was already 11 percent done.The now renamed Gold Line opened in 2003. Since then all rail transit projects in Los Angeles have been built by construction authorities working only on a single project.
This is part of a map for what in 1995 was called the Pasadena Blue Line which wouldn’t connect to the Blue Line to Long Beach
There was also great support for rail transit in East Los Angeles. Local leaders decided to go for a Light Rail service and gave up on extending the subway into East Los Angeles. East Los Angeles unlike the Blue, Green or Gold Lines didn’t have an existing right of way to use for Light Rail. So a private median on existing roads would be needed for Light Rail in East Los Angeles. The problem was East Los Angeles was both one of the oldest neighborhoods in Los Angeles County and one of the most densely populated. There were some some parts of East Los Angeles where there wasn’t room for a private median for Light Rail on the surface. What was finally proposed included 2 subway stations out of 8 new stations on the 6 mile extension of the Gold Line. The Gold Line extension to East Los Angeles overturned the ban on subway construction and broke ground in September 2005.
Ten years after the future of rail transit looked like it was finished the voters of Los Angeles County approved a third half cent tax increase with Measure R for improved transportation. This was the election of November 2008 which also approved the Bond Issue for California High Speed Rail. With this new transportation money more Light Rail projects were possible such as the Expo Line to Santa Monica, the Crenshaw Line with joint service to LAX with the Green Line, extension of the Gold Line to Azusa and a downtown Light Rail subway in Los Angeles to connect the Blue, Expo and Gold Lines. Also being funded with this new tax were a subway extension on Wilshire to Westwood, extension of the Green Line in the South Bay and a new line to Orange County.
What is the secret that turned things around in 10 years? In a word Teamwork. A common problem in public transportation is agencies and departments of agencies often compete for funding and ridership. Different departments and agencies view each other as “the enemy”. There was open hostility by the backers of the “Wilshire Subway” to Light Rail between Long Beach and Los Angeles. The subway people were angry that Light Rail would take ‘their” money and looked down or were afraid of the area to be served by the future Blue Line.
Yet the first Heavy Rail project almost sank all future expansion of rail transit in Los Angeles. What saved future subway construction in Los Angeles was Light Rail. Transportation services depends on each other to collect and distribute passengers to each other. With expansion of Light Rail came connections to other Light Rail lines, to the Red and Purple subway lines and more riders to Metrolink. The result is rail ridership has continued to grow. This has increased the desire of other communities to be included in this rail network. Light Rail is cheaper and easier to build and could be extended faster to more of Los Angeles County than an all subway based service could. This has expanded the ridership base which was increased ridership on all trains.
This is a current map of the existing Rail and Rapid Bus Lines in Los Angeles County with the dash lines showing the planned extension for rail service. Click on the picture to enlarge image.
Another important part of the sales tax measures is they had something for everyone. Not only rail transit received money from these sales taxes, but also bus service and roads. When more people have a stake in a proposal then more people will support it. Increasingly the “road lobby” understands that their future is tied to support for rail and transit. When San Diego County planned to rebuild the I-5 between Del Mar and Oceanside there was opposition to homes being condemned to expand the freeway. The public asked what about more trains? Now the I-5 project is tied to double tracking the railroad in San Diego County. The result is the I-5 won’t be expanded as much or condemn as many homes as first planned and there will be more local trains.
A major problem with High Speed Rail in California has been it wasn’t a good team player. The plans for High Speed Rail often ignored other rail services by not planning to share new infrastructure and lacked connections to existing rail services. As proposed High Speed Rail could easily suck up what little rail funding was available. In 2012 the Legislature rejected the original High Speed Business plan. A major rewrite of the HSR Business plan included better connections and more money for regional rail service as part of the package for High Speed Rail. This is the measure that passed the Legislature.
For High Speed Rail and all rail passenger service in the State to grow and succeed they all need to improve service and connect passengers to each other. This is at the heart of most major rail passenger services the world over. It seems ridiculous to talk about traveling over 400 miles from the largest city in the State to the 4th largest in 2 hours and 40 minutes when today it can take trains 2 hours and 52 minutes to travel from the largest to the second largest city in California for a distance of 127 miles.