On the Exposition Line
The Los Angeles to Santa Monica Exposition Line light rail project is years behind schedule and over one hundred million dollars over budget. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is building the line as a gigantic compromise. In this manner, a light rail line on the Exposition rail right of way is unique in the history of Los Angeles’ modern endeavor to build rail transit.
The late 1960’s and early 1970’s were an interesting time for American transit. Lydon B. Johnson’s great society program bestowed large amounts of federal funds upon infrastructure projects, especially to a brand new Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA). Nearly all large metropolitan areas in the United States began to design large heavy rail systems with sleek new trains and suburban auto-oriented lines. The first of these systems was San Francisco’s BART, followed closely by Washington’s Metro and Atlanta’s MARTA. The Southern California Rapid Transit District (SCRTD) drew up plans for a BART-like system in Los Angeles.
Every Metro Rail line in Los Angeles follows (roughly) a line planned forty years ago by SCRTD. The Metro Blue Line follows the South Central/Long Beach Line, the Metro Red and Orange Lines follow the San Fernando Valley Line and the Metro Gold Line follows the Eastside and Pasadena Lines.
The Exposition Line is the lone modern deviation from SCRTD’s plan. In the SCRTD plan, Santa Monica is served by a Wilshire Boulevard subway line all the way to fourth street, near the beach. As noted in my posts on the Westside Subway Extension, funding and political issues stopped the Wilshire Boulevard subway at Western Avenue and even its imminent extension will only reach Westwood under Measure R. This is where the Exposition Line comes in. Although its route is far south from major destinations, the Exposition Line is the only short term solution to east-west rail transit to Santa Monica.
Estimated ridership for the line is very high for light rail, around 50,000 per day for phase 1 and 80,000 per day for the completed line, so every decision made is critical for the future heavy use of the line.
All of this background information indirectly addresses the reasons that the Exposition Line is so delayed and over budget. The Expo Line’s (relatively) new conception and status as a compromise to a subway line mean that community support has been lacking. The Exposition Line phase 1 passes by the University of Southern California, Dorsey High School and Foshay Learning Center. All three institutions opposed the line, demanding tunnels in front of their campuses to mitigate train traffic and noise. Concerns at Dorsey High School in particular have caused a one year delay. The school demanded a grade separation at Farmdale Avenue and Exposition Boulevard, fearing that students would be hit by trains. This claim is silly considering the numerous schools already near the Metro Blue and Gold Lines. When Expo Line planners refused a grade separation on cost grounds, Dorsey High School used its influence to demand a station at Farmdale Avenue. This station will be the least used on the entire line and will further slow the already hour long journey from Santa Monica to Downtown Los Angeles.
Construction issues with the connection between the Metro Blue Line and the Exposition Line at Flower Street and Washington Boulevard have further increased delays on the project.
Beyond the delay and cost overruns, I question the use of the Metro Blue Line tracks from Washington/Flower to 7th Street/Metro Center. The combined number of riders after phase 2 of the Exposition Line opens will be over 160,000 per day many of whom will ride on this segment of track. Currently, 7th Street/Metro Center is the terminus for light rail trains, meaning that it is operationally limited to around 20 trains per hour. The Metro Blue Line already runs 12 trains per hour during rush hour. In the future, the line from Flower/Washington to 7th Street/Metro Center will be haplessly inundated with traffic and will limit train frequency on the rest of the Exposition and Blue Lines.
The trouble with the Exposition Line would have been entirely avoided if transit was more of a priority for government in the United States. The six or eight billion dollars for a full Westside Subway Extension would be money better spent than the two billion spent on the Exposition Line. If light rail has to be the solution, a new line in Downtown Los Angeles is a necessity to cater for future growth in ridership and train frequency.