The Regional Connector and Rail in Los Angeles
Recently, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA) celebrated the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Metro Blue Line, the first modern rail transit line in Los Angeles. In the 20 years since the Blue Line opened, rail has slowly, but surely, begun to spread around Los Angeles County and all of Southern California. With the Exposition Line Phase 1 (possibly) opening soon and groundbreaking for the Gold Line Foothill Extension and Exposition Line Phase 2 right around the corner, the future looks bright for rail in the Southland.
Now, unlike the Washington Metro, the LACMTA Metro Rail network is not the result of a single system being built out in phases. With the exception of the Blue and Red Lines, which were planned in concert, each Metro Rail project has been tacked onto the previous system, making for a patchwork of a rail system. This approach has worked fine, but has left a critical gap in the Metro Rail network in Downtown Los Angeles.
This gap, of course, is the 2 miles between the Metro Gold Line at Union Station and Little Tokyo and the Metro Blue/Expo Lines at 7th Street/Metro Center. To travel between the Financial District and Union Station, riders must transfer to the heavy rail Metro Red or Purple Line. This adds considerable time and inconvenience to longer light rail trips, especially those that start and end near Downtown Los Angeles (e.g. USC to Highland Park). Such a trip currently takes 35-40 minutes.
The upcoming Regional Connector Project will hopefully solve this issue by digging a 2 mile tunnel and separation structure to integrate the Blue, Expo and Gold Lines and form two continuous light rail lines, a north-south line from Pasadena/Azusa to Long Beach, and an east-west line from Santa Monica to Whittier/South El Monte. The Final Environmental Impact Report/Statement (FEIR/EIS) is near completion. This document will detail potential operation patterns, impacts on current and future transit riders and help LACMTA choose a Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA).
Not to preempt the professionals, but I have strong opinions about this project, considering its critical nature to intraregional connectivity and rail operations. The Regional Connector, especially the interface with the Gold Line around Little Tokyo and the trackage between Little Tokyo and Union Station, has the potential to become a bottleneck for the entire system.
The generally accepted alignment at the moment is a bored tunnel beginning north of 7th Street/Metro Center, continuing under Flower Street then turning south onto First or Second Street. From there the line will interface with the existing Gold Line in a wye intersection, permitting trains to run between any of the four terminals (Long Beach, Santa Monica, Azusa and East LA). The current alignment of the Gold Line around First and Alameda Streets is hardly ideal, with a grade crossing at a very busy intersection. Cost and road conditions predicated the installation of a grade separation at this location, but with the Regional Connector, a new solution is needed.
Two options exist for the First/Alameda intersection near the Little Toyko station. The cheaper option would be to have two portals for the Regional Connector line, one just after the Little Tokyo station (railroad north) and another just railroad south of the station (see diagram). This option could be easier to construct, but also would not alleviate capacity concerns in the intersection. With projected train frequency of 24+ trains per hour in this area and ridership of 200,000+ on all light rail lines that converge in the area, capacity concerns should be at the forefront. Also, the construction of two tunnel portals on existing light rail or street right of way could present major delays and inconvenience to current riders and drivers.
The other alternative is a fully grade separated, underground flying junction between these three lines, along the lines of the Oakland Wye on BART in the San Francisco Bay Area. This option is obviously very expensive and would involve a considerable amount of tunneling. The Eastside light rail line would remain underground after the Mariachi Plaza Station, continuing in .75 miles of new tunnel, including a new underground Pico/Aliso station in the style of Wilshire/Vermont Station with side platforms on two levels, due to the upcoming junction. In the vicinity of the intersection of First and Alameda Streets, the flying junction would split off, allowing trains to access the Long Beach and Santa Monica lines. The remainder of the junction would join right before a new, underground Little Tokyo Station, which would also have side platforms on two levels, due to the adjacent junction.
Finally, as part of this expensive, high capacity alternative, the segment of the line between Little Tokyo and Union Station would be replaced by a new tunnel and an underground station at Union Station, perpendicular to the Red and Purple Line platforms at a lower level. The current bridge over the 101 Freeway has very sharp curves and limits trains to 15 miles per hour or less. This limits capacity and slows travel time. Under this plan, a portal between the underground Little Tokyo Station and the bridge over the freeway is essentially impossible because of grade and space limits. The Pasadena light rail branch would emerge from tunnel just north of Union Station, near its current surface-level station.
The Regional Connector, done right, could do wonders for rail in Los Angeles. It could dramatically reduce congestion on the Purple and Red Lines between Union Station and 7th Street/Metro Center, connect disparate parts of the light rail network, and dramatically improve traffic in the east part of Downtown Los Angeles. By following my plan for a massive grade separation, flying junction, and replacement of 1.5 miles of the current Gold Line in tunnel, the network would have the capacity and speed to attract new riders and dramatically increase in usage. Now only if we could find a few billion dollars to build this project. Ah! BART to Livermore, or BART to San Jose or eBART! Funny to discourage all of BART’s wildly wasteful suburban extensions. I’d say this project merits the money more than almost any other in the US right now, especially the high capacity alternative I would (unprofessionally) recommend.