Category Archives: Metro Rail

Neighborhood Entitlement and Transit Projects

Transportation is inherently political. Every part of modern life – from globalization, to the way we shape our cities, to the people with whom we interact – is directly related to the means by which get around. Once the realm of engineers in an office with a scale and a slide rule, large transportation projects have transformed into political behemoths whose main purpose is to satisfy every single possible stakeholder. Whether this means a large constituency of economically disadvantaged people being cut off from a city by a massive freeway (think the 10 in Los Angeles) or even a few San Francisco Garter Snakes near your construction site (BART to SFO), environmental regulations and the public input process for transportation projects are here to stay. This attitude, however, goes up against the main principle of most intraregional transportation projects – that regional investment in a rail line or roadway benefits local residents the most – but critically provides a great benefit to the region as a whole, and thus is worth the collective expenditure. Balancing these two interests – smaller constituencies like environmentalists and immediately local residents, and the larger groups who often foot the bill (regions, states, federal governments) is a critical matter of debate in American transportation policy and the topic of another discussion entirely.

Two upcoming transit projects highlight the dramatic difference between agencies and cities that have taken a constructive approach to neighborhood entitlement, NIMBYism and balancing local and regional interests, and those that have simply failed. These projects are East Link Light Rail in Seattle, Washington managed by Sound Transit, and the Crenshaw/LAX Corridor in Los Angeles, California managed by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro).

First on the Crenshaw Line –

The Crenshaw/LAX corridor in Los Angeles runs from the corner of Exposition Boulevard and Crenshaw Boulevard in Leimert Park to Avaiation Boulevard and Imperial Highway near LAX. It has been a cornerstone of the Measure R transit projects and hailed as a badly needed second north-south transit line through South Los Angeles. As expected, Metro chose the Locally Preferred Alternative as a LRT line that traverses Crenshaw Boulevard until it reaches the Harbor Subdivision, after which it continues along that subdivision (now owned by Metro) until it reaches the Green Line Aviation Station. Most local residents and business owners are satisfied with this plan – the only matter of contention is how much of the line will be tunneled under Crenshaw and the addition of a Leimert Park station near proposed stations at Crenshaw/King and Crenshaw/Slauson. Budgetary obligations have forced Metro to only tunnel the line until about 48th Street, after which the line will run in the median of Crenshaw Boulevard and also consider eliminating the Leimert Park station. After long periods of public comment on the project’s environmental documents (EIR/EIS), Metro agreed to build the Leimert Park station. The $160 million? Metro will find it somewhere (to be decided). Even after this not-so-trivial tradeoff with the local community, Metro has still found itself embroiled in a lawsuit over the EIR. Lawsuits, massive change orders, gross negligence in construction contract writing, and public opposition nearly doomed the Exposition Line to failure and have made Expo nearly three years late and $300 million over budget. Is Crenshaw destined to follow in its footsteps?

East Link:

Yonah Freemark has the situation with East Link summed up well on his post on a Sound Transit’s compromise with the City of Bellevue. Essentially, Bellevue demanded a tunnel for its somewhat dense downtown, despite ample room on streets for the addition of Light Rail. Due to innovative engineering, a higher cost estimate for the surface option than first anticipated and crucially – a mutually beneficial agreement between Bellevue and Sound Transit, the tunneling option is now the Locally Preferred Alternative. This agreement was based upon a potentially precedent-setting decision Sound Transit made – Bellevue offered to pay for about half of the additional cost for the tunnel and Sound Transit, in the spirit of fostering community support and shrewdly avoiding possible future litigation, agreed to pay the second half. This arrangement is the ideal way to address local concerns to a regionally beneficial project. Locals win because they get their tunnel, and they did not even have to pay for all of it. The region wins due to the much lower likelihood of costly, time consuming litigation, and the general goodwill towards the project created by a selective distribution of funding to satiate local constituencies.

Like many transportation related matters, striking an appropriate balance is key in assuaging local concerns while building a transportation system that serves an entire region well. In compromising with Bellevue, Sound Transit has shown an aptitude for the political realities of transit projects while still managing to get the City to pay for a major portion of the tunnel it demanded. I would like to challenge Metro to come up with a similar arrangement for Crenshaw – offer a longer tunnel and the Leimert Park station, hust make a local contribution in the form of a parcel tax on the businesses who gain from the tunnel, or some other means, contingent to the agreement. Meeting the community halfway is the best way to proceed on alignment issues – just look at Expo. Metro refused to budge on the grade crossings at Farmdale and Trousdale/USC. What if the University had chipped in for a grade separated line until Vermont, or custom architecture at the three stations adjacent to campus? Because Metro refused to propose mutually beneficial options in good faith, as Sound Transit has now successfully done, South Los Angeles has ended up with an operationally inferior LRT line that is years late and hundreds of millions overbudget. Metro – it is time to start compromising with communities. Otherwise, see you in court.

Advertisements

It is Time for Beverly Hills to Give Up

Beverly Hills High right in front of Century City from photobucket user rvega1971

Rationalism – a view that reason and experience rather than the nonrational are the fundamental criteria in the solution of problems.

Rationalism – an ideology that led to the free market, democracy, and essentially western thought.

Rationalism – something that the Beverly Hills School District and the small minority of Beverly Hills residents who oppose the Constellation Purple Line Station Option completely lack.

The Westside Subway Extension Project is one of the most important rail transit projects in the United States. When (and if) the stars align and this line opens to VA/405 around 2030, a mass of humanity bigger than almost any other subway line in the United States will flock to Metro’s boxy stainless steel trains. Beverly hills has already agreed to a station at Wilshire Boulevard and Rodeo Drive in the center of downtown, and a station at Wilshire Boulevard and La Cienega Boulevard in the far eastern part of the city. Riders will flock to these two stations due to the high density of jobs and attractions in close proximity. The issue that Beverly Hills still contests is the placement of the first station west of the city in Century City. Two options exist, a station in the center of the commercial district at Constellation and Avenue of the Stars, and a station at Santa Monica Boulevard and Avenue of the Stars. Both options would include the construction of a cut and cover station under streets owned by the City of Los Angeles and leading tunnels built by deep-earth tunnel boring machines (TBM). The key issue of contention is the route of the leading tracks from the east – under the Constellation/Ave of the Stars alternative, the deep bore tunnel will pass over 100 feet below Beverly Hills High School. The Santa Monica station option avoids the High School.

Key in this debate is the solid fact that the Constellation station option will attract a much larger number of riders, due to the location of the station in the middle of the Century City district. Jobs on the southern end of the area would be far more accessible to Metro riders and more workers and shoppers would be likely to take transit if the walk was under half a mile, as opposed to over a mile in the Santa Monica option.

From an engineering standpoint, the Santa Monica option is more of a challenge. A large fault runs down Santa Monica Boulevard, greatly increasing seismic engineering costs. Also, the uninviting nature of Santa Monica Boulevard in the area would require a large amount of street redesign for pedestrian use. Finally, the northern side of the street is occupied by a country club, hardly a big draw for transit riders, and would immediately limit the utility of the station. Transportation planners normally draw a half-mile circle around a station to estimate pedestrian access. If half of that circle is a golf course, it makes sense that many, many less riders will use the Santa Monica Station than a Constellation Station.

Irrational fear and ignorance are the primary responses Beverly Hills High School has provided to having a subway tunnel hundreds of feet below its campus. Numerous schools elsewhere in the world have subway tunnels under them – Berkeley High School in Northern California has a cut and cover subway tunnel just below the surface that has no influence on the regular operation of the school. Other far more vulnerable targets, like the US Capitol, have rail tunnels under them.

Point is, all of the negative factors Beverly Hills High School has perceived to be solid fact are indeed untrue. Metro and LA County need to stop listening to their proverbial whining child and build the Westside Subway in the most effective possible manner – we really only have one chance to do it right. Here’s one vote for the Constellation Station option with hopefully many more to come.

Feasibility of a South Vermont Subway Line

Corridor Area with parallel and connecting bus service numbers and approximate ridership.

 

Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion and progress on the Westside Subway Extension Project here in Los Angeles. Today I’d like to take a look at a somewhat more neglected subway extension project – a subway/elevated heavy rail transit (HRT) line down South Vermont Avenue, from the Wilshire/Vermont Station to the Vermont Station on the Metro Green Line. This corridor is the busiest north-south route in the Los Angeles Basin, with over 100,000 combined daily bus trips on Vermont, Western, Broadway and Figueroa. In addition, Vermont Avenue closely parallels the Harbor Freeway and its Transitway. Sadly, this facility fails to capture significant ridership. The zone fare system alienates low income riders, frequency outside of peak hours is dismal (one bus per hour!) and the mid-freeway station design is not pleasant or desirable for transit riders.

The alignment of Vermont Avenue also provides for an ideal opportunity to construct HRT. South of Gage Avenue, Vermont has a wide 20-30 foot median, currently occupied by crude landscaping – potentially ideal right of way for an elevated HRT line. In this article I will discuss what a potential South Vermont Line could look like, how to integrate stations with the neighborhood and what a potential construction and planning schedule could look like.

The line would begin at a complex flying junction with the current Red and Purple Lines at Vermont Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard. Around Third Street the stacked Red Line tunnels (they are already stacked for the junction at Wilshire/Vermont) would diverge onto the west side of the street. A new platform at Wilshire/Vermont would host trains for this extension, which would be built directly under the intersection of Vermont and Wilshire under Vermont Avenue. A short 500-600 foot tunnel would connect this new platform to the existing off-street Wilshire/Vermont Station.

From there this line would continue in subway south until Gage Avenue with stops at Olympic, Venice, Adams, Exposition, Vernon and Slauson. The section between Wilshire and Exposition will likely have the highest ridership, in correlation with the high load factors of the 204/754 bus lines along this corridor. The population and job density in this 4 mile corridor is also very high, and redevelopment potential is limited due to existing structures and dense development. The Vernon and Slauson stations present great opportunities for Transit Oriented Development due to the lower density development in these areas and large swaths of surface parking and vacant lots. The underground nature of these stations should make them especially enticing to developers who obviously prefer building sites that lack rail noise and vibration.

At Gage Avenue, Vermont Avenue widens into a much larger boulevard, with a 30-40 foot median. This streetscape would be ideal for an elevated rapid transit line. The reduced costs of an elevated alignment would indicate a fairer level of investment for the communities along the southern portion of the route due to their lower densities and lower potential ridership. Nonetheless, this elevated portion of the line would still attract a huge number of riders and Transit Oriented Development opportunities are plentiful at the intersections of Vermont and Century, Manchester and Florence.

This elevated guideway would be similar to BART’s aerial structures in the San Francisco Bay Area: visually unobtrusive concrete viaducts that effeciently carry relatively quiet rapid transit trains. The connection to the Metro Green Line at the Vermont/Century Freeway Station will be a simple elevated station, parallel to, and above, the current freeway-level light rail platforms. Elevators and escalators will connect these two facilities for easy transfers.

Finally, an HRT vehicle maintenance facility should be built in conjunction with this extension project. Vacant land along the 105 freeway would be ideal for this purpose and could preclude a future extension further into the South Bay Area if funding and ridership are sufficient.

I have quite a bit more to say about the potential for this South Vermont Subway line, but let me just say this: parallel bus services carry 100,000+ riders per weekday, connecting bus services currently carry 60,000+ riders per weekday, and the community’s socioeconomic composition makes it predisposed for high levels of transit usage. If built in phases, like the Westside Subway Extension, this South Vermont Subway could be completed in 15 years or less at a cost of 4-6 billion dollars – chump change compared to the current level of city, county, state and federal levels of spending. Let’s get the gears rolling! South LA deserves an effective rapid transit line too!

BART’s Future Washington Metro-Style

This is a map I composed my Senior Year in high school, cleaned up and updated for posting on here. It details the potential future configuration of rapid transit in the Bay Area, including running Caltrain as a rapid transit service with an integrated fare structure. The graphic style invokes the classic Washington Metro map, where uniformity takes precedence over geographical accuracy and scale. A metro map, after all, is intended to help you get around the metro system, not drive around the area. I hope you will find this map as enjoyable to view as it was for me to create.

Rail Transit in Los Angeles – A Map

I did a map like this for San Francisco a while back. Take a look and see what you think. I only included Central/West Los Angeles.

Main features include a Downtown LA Bus Tunnel, new Busways along Venice, Slauson, Sunset, and the Mission Subdivision, a subway/elevated extension down Vermont Avenue, extension of the Crenshaw Line to Santa Monica/La Brea, and the inclusion of a Heavy Rail West Hollywood Line. Finally, on this map I suggest that the Westside Subway Extension should go all the way to Downtown Santa Monica and the ocean.

Enjoy.

A True Rapid Transit Plan for San Francisco

Considering the huge amount of time it took me to create this map, I only have a few words to go with it:

The main ideas on this map are:

1. Geary/19th Avenue BART Line including a Second Transbay Tube

2. Folsom/Van Ness BART Line also connecting to the Second Transbay Tube

3. Replacing the N-Judah Muni Metro line between 19th Avenue and the Market Street Subway with tunneled LRT

4. Los Angeles-style busways on San Francisco freeways, including mid-freeway stops as noted

5. A north-south LRT line in the Sunset

6. A bus terminal and transit hub for the Golden Gate Bridge at Van Ness and Geary

7. Extension of the F-Market and E-Embarcadero lines to the Palace of Fine Arts

8. Extension of the T-Third Street line to North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf

9. Infill stations at 30th/Mission and Oakdale

Wilshire & Geary: Two Streets and Two Subway Projects

Like many other things, California was the birthplace of modern rail transit in the United States. BART in the San Francisco Bay Area was the first complete, publicly built, rapid transit system in the United States and represented a paradigm shift in the mentality of transit planners. BART ran from the Outer East Bay (Fremont and Concord) to San Francisco and Oakland’s Downtowns. The line to San Francisco is a branch, and the system is rooted in Oakland. This stands in stark contrast to the New York City Subway or Chicago L, which serve the center city extensively and end in the inner suburbs. These cities have heavy rail, diesel commuter systems which use existing freight tracks without grade separation.

The Bay Area got BART instead of a traditional commuter rail system because of politics. President Lyndon B. Johnson was supporting his Great Society idea, injecting a large amount of public spending for grand, shiny projects like heavy rail systems. Diesel locomotives, or even traditional electric locomotives used on the Northeast Corridor, simply were not as cool. Now, the problem when the “cool” factor gets into transit planning is cost. BART continues to expand at the insane cost of 200+ million dollars per mile. More significantly, BART is the only heavy rail (subway) technology that is feasible to build in Northern California due potential to connect to the current network. BART’s trains are over 700 feet long, with far too many seats and too few doors for urban service.

Los Angeles has a heavy rail service also, but it is entirely different than BART. Los Angeles’ Subway, the Red and Purple Lines, only serve the City of Los Angeles and they travel the most dense areas in all of Los Angeles County. This distinction is easy to see in ridership per mile, where Los Angeles has about 9,000 riders per mile, while BART has 4,000. Train lengths in the LA Subway are 450 feet, and cars have three doors and far fewer seats than a BART train. This is the type of true subway both Los Angeles and San Francisco Need.

The purpose of this article is to compare and contrast two streets in two big, dense cities, that both need heavy rail subway lines under them. Also, I will go into the reasons why one of these subways will be built in the next ten years, and the other won’t.

These two streets are Geary and Wilshire Boulevards in San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively. Both streets carry the two busiest bus lines in the United States, the 38-38L in San Francisco and the 20-720-920 in Los Angeles. These lines carry over 60,000 passengers a day, a huge amount for a bus line. Metro cannot physically run more buses on Wilshire during peak hour because of intense bunching. Both of these transportation corridors are East-West with parallel bus service also carrying over 100,000 passengers a day on the 1-2-5-31 in San Francisco and the 2-4-14-16-316-704-714 in Los Angeles. Obviously transit demand in these corridors is huge.

The legacy of BART and the Red Line have dictated the progress on high capacity transit alternatives on Wilshire and Geary. Both Metro and SFMTA are implementing exclusive bus lanes on these streets. In neither situation are exclusive lanes sufficient. Underground, high frequency, heavy rail transit is sorely needed in both situations. Since Los Angeles began with a legitimate urban subway system, instead of a suburb-centric heavy rail system, extension along Wilshire Boulevard is (relatively) cheap and feasible. Under Measure R’s schedule, the Westside Subway Extension will reach Westwood by 2036, although with the 30/10 plan, the entire project may be complete 15 years earlier.

This situation leaves us with Geary Boulevard in desperate need of heavy rail transit. The organization of the BART District, with equal power shared across Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco Counties, essentially requires equal geographic distribution of BART dollars and extensions. When Contra Costa County got the extension from Concord to Pittsburg/Bay Point, Alameda County got the extension from Bay Fair to Dublin/Pleasanton. San Francisco essentially gained nothing during this time, but that is due to Proposition K, San Francisco’s transportation sales tax, not including any funding for BART extensions. In a new round of extending BART, Alameda County is getting the Warm Springs Extension, and potentially BART to Livermore, while Contra Costa County is getting eBART. Again, San Francisco County is doing its own thing with the Central Subway, Van Ness and Geary BRT and the Transbay Transit Center Program receiving the bulk of the funding.

The essence of the issue with a Geary Boulevard subway is it requires a New Transbay Tube, a mega project on the scale of East Side Access and Access to the Region’s Core Projects in New York City, with a cost that could exceed 6 billion dollars. The issue for BART and the Bay Area is finding a sustainable funding model for this huge project, in my opinion a three way split between San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa, so that San Francisco has a platform on which to build its new heavy rail service to the Richmond District.

Maybe, after enough pushing, BART will become more of an urban network, with higher stop frequency in Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco, and large transit villages outside the urban core.

The Failures of Cost Effectiveness


In my last two posts, I have discussed large-scale modifications of Los Angeles’ Light Rail System, namely large subway segments replacing existing surface tracks for the purpose of increasing capacity by removing two critical bottlenecks on the system: the connection between the Gold Line and the Regional Connector and the divergence at the intersection of Washington Blvd and Flower St. This post will further reveal my position on capital funding of transit projects, and why heavy investment in rail infrastructure expensive and politically difficult, yet far more beneficial in the long term.

Cost effectiveness is a hot term in transit funding these days. The Federal Transit Administration makes an objective review of all projects vying for New Starts funding based on cost effectiveness. This evaluation broadly looks at three things: cost of the project, ridership projections and solvency of the agency sponsoring the project. Ridership is looked at in terms of gross riders, new transit riders and passengers who switch transit modes. Sponsoring agencies get high scores if they lack budget deficits, and have operations money to pay for the New Starts project if built. In this formula, riders who switch from driving to transit are disproportionately valuable for the cost effectiveness score.

This cost effectiveness rating is helpful in weeding out some really awful projects from New Starts money, like the Orange Line Metrorail in Miami, but critically doesn’t account for land use changes and long-term economic impact of large-scale transit projects.

The most modern examples of high cost transit projects in the United States are, of course, the three large heavy rail systems build in the early 1970’s in San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Atlanta. The Washington Metro, widely considered the best of the three, has made an incredible impact on the DC Area in the last 40 years. Downtown Washington has remained a center, and inner suburbs like Bethesda, Silver Spring and the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor have vastly grown in density and livability. Many of the practices followed by the planners of the Washington Metro contributed to this success. These included expensive subways in areas of limited density, like Rosslyn-Ballston, an entire network planned, with construction in phases, and a general vision for the future. A newer extension to Dulles Airport abandons many of these principles, especially the lack of a subway through the Tyson’s Corner area. The reason a tunnel through Tyson’s will not be a part of the extension is the FTA New Starts cost effectiveness requirement, which would have classified the project as “medium” instead of “medium-high”, potentially eliminating 900 million dollars of Federal funding.

In 40 years, Tyson’s Corner could be an entirely different place, with far more density, due to a large investment in rail transit now. Paying a little bit more now could facilitate a huge amount of future economic growth. Situations like the original Washington Metro System and BART in Northern California show the massive growth high-investment rail transit can attract after 40+ years of existence. These situations encourage the high-cost subway alternatives for light rail capacity growth in Los Angeles, which will massively increase total network capacity, permitting the very high frequency rail transit that attracts development. In 40 years, Los Angeles could be an entirely different place, with dense corridors surrounding high capacity rail transit lines. If we concentrate on the upfront costs of projects and neglect the long term benefit of higher investment in infrastructure, we will miss out on a whole new generation of transportation systems in the United States. A dollar now, invested in high-quality infrastructure, will be 10 or more dollars in the future in economic benefit. We just have to overcome political squabbling and funding gaps. An easy solution is to redirect Federal highway subsidies, but that is a story for another time.

Please, chime in. This article is just the beginning of my thoughts and I would like to hear those of my readers.

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.

BART to Livermore: A Costly Proposition

BART opened in 1972, completed its entire base system in 1976 and only began to expand nearly twenty years later in 1994. In 1994 the extensions to Pittsburg/Bay Point and Colma began to open. The former is an 8 mile extension from Concord, the center of Central Contra Costa County to outer Pittsburg, a sprawling suburb. To give you an idea of the surroundings of the stations on this extension, check out this picture:

That’s right: the station is in the middle of a freeway, surrounded by oceans of surface parking and low-density or no-density parcels, many of which aren’t even developed. This extension does serve 15,000 passengers a day, but it is exactly the kind of passengers a rapid transit system like BART is not designed to serve. These passengers mostly make the one-hour journey to San Francisco in the morning and return in the evening, driving to and from the station. BART is currently planning to extend its system further east into the sprawl of far Eastern Contra Costa County, but that’s a topic for a different post.

The point of mentioning the Pittsburg/Bay Point extension is to provide a considerable contrast for the recently announced locally preferred alternative (LPA) for the upcoming BART extension to Livermore, another outer suburb.

BART to Livermore’s LPA makes no cost compromises and has been designed with high ridership as the first priority. Trains will whisk by traffic on 580 at 70 miles per hour until the Portola Avenue exit in Livermore. From there, a cut and cover subway under Portola Avenue will take trains to an intermodal station with the Altamont Commuter Express system. Trains will emerge from the subway and share their terminal station, Vasco Road, with ACE.

Preliminary ridership estimates are in the 30,000-40,000 range, fairly impressive for an extension into essentially the exurbs. Cost, however, is projected at over three billion dollars, over three times as much as the Dublin/Pleasanton Extension which brought BART to the Amador Valley.

Cost aside, BART has avoided its past habit to turn stations into seas of parking with no development in sight by placing the two stations on this extension far (relatively) from the freeway and in currently urbanized areas. Other alternatives for this extension called for a station at Greenville Road, miles from Livermore’s current urban growth boundary.

Now about the cost:

In the grand scheme of government spending, or the GDP of the United States or California, 3 billion dollars is chump change. When it comes to transportation funding, however, three billion is huge. BART has yet to commit any funding at all for this extension, except a small trickle for engineering studies. The Federal Transit Administration, despite its recent pattern of funding huge projects (East Side Access, ARC Tunnel, Transbay Transit Center), is unlikely to provide much funding for a project of questionable short term cost effectiveness.

I say short term cost effectiveness because this project’s capital cost per rider is very high, and these ridership estimates are questionably high (50,000+ riders in an area with only 120,000 residents??) Of more significance is the basis of this project, just like every BART project since the Embarcadero Infill Station was built in 1976: extend BART out further, and further into the suburbs and exurbs.

The bottom line is that the 3 billion for BART to Livermore would be a brilliant down payment for a second Transbay Tube, or a heavy rail line under Geary Boulevard, or even infill stations on current lines in key locations like Solano Avenue (Albany), 58th Street, San Antonio, Melrose and Temescal (Oakland), 30th Street/Mission (San Francisco) and Oak Grove (Concord). These stations would increase ridership, allow for a dramatic increase in transit oriented development and make BART a more effective system for the areas it already serves. 3 billion dollars could likely construct all of these stations with funds to spare for BART’s sorely needed fleet replacement program.

In the end, yes, BART to Livermore is a better thought-out project than previous suburban extensions, namely Pittsburg/Bay Point. But, 3 billion dollars in the scarce climate of transportation capital funding should be put to better use. To reiterate, the priorities and organization of BART forces a suburban focus upon the system, at a negative benefit to most riders. Disbanding BART, MTC, and many of the other agencies that have botched Bay Area transit priorites for the last twenty years and building up a new, consolidated agency, like bamta (see this post) could put the Bay Area on the right track. Just look at New York’s MTA. They may not be a pristine example of a well run transit agency, but they ensure that funding is fairly distributed between the urban and suburban areas they serve. If only the Bay Area realized that a focus on our vibrant urban areas could improve life for all, and money down the toilet for exurban extensions of BART is just that: money wasted.