Category Archives: Westside Subway Extension

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.


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.


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 Feds Endorse 30/10: A Breakthrough for Los Angeles

We may be seeing this line on the Metro Map sooner than anticipated.

The news is in. Barbera Boxer announced on Friday that the Federal Department of Transportation has endorsed Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s 30/10 plan to build all transit projects funded by Measure R at an accelerated pace using loans from the Federal Government. The first project to benefit from 30/10 will be the long awaited Westside Subway Extension. At the same news conference, Metro announced that the Environmental Impact Report will begin immediately for the entirety of the project. That means that the three to four phase construction plan may be off the table and the entire six miles from Wilshire/Western to Westwood may be built in one gigantic piece.

I am surprised that USDOT has come out in support of this plan with so few reservations. Never before has a region negotiated such an arrangement. Now for the details: 30/10 is a promise to complete Measure R projects more quickly than the flow of tax dollars coming in. Loans from the Federal Government with future Measure R sales tax revenues as collateral will fill the gap. This accelerated schedule means that most Measure R projects would be completed in 10 years instead of 30 (hence the name).

Projects most effected are those that are high on the priority list, especially the Crenshaw Corridor, Westside Subway Extension and Regional Connector. With 30/10 in effect, three or more tunnel boring machines could descend on Los Angeles in the near future to dig tunnels Downtown (Regional Connector), in Leimert Park (Crenshaw Corridor) and under Wilshire Boulevard (Westside Subway Extension). No metropolitan area in the United States has built so much new rail transit and so many new subway tunnels this quickly since the 1970’s for the Washington Metro. The scheduled completion dates for all of these three headline Measure R projects is now 2020 or earlier. Amazing.

With the plan on the table to spend all available sales tax revenue on projects before the 2030 expiration of Measure R, what will happen in Los Angeles after all of the 30/10 projects are built? This question has yet to be answered. Two other sales taxes, Measure A and Measure B, that are mostly used to subsidize transit operations, will expire soon also. Los Angeles must continue to push forward with new transit investment. Projects not included in Measure R include the Santa Monica/West Hollywood Subway Extension, upgrading the Metro Orange Line and El Monte Busway to Light or Heavy Rail, a South Vermont Avenue Subway, the Crenshaw Line north of Exposition Boulevard and countless other expensive but necessary transit expansion project. A ten year gap in construction is unacceptable. When Metro accepts funding for 30/10 it must also detail how it will continue to improve transit in Los Angeles without the billions of dollars from Measure R that will run out earlier than expected. Although politically unpopular, officials should announce a new source of revenue for transit expansion after 30/10 like a property tax, parking rate increases or tolls. Los Angeles cannot stop building transit until it has effectively increased the population traveling by transit to 10-15 percent, from the paltry 4-5 percent today. Imagine what LA could be like with 1 million less cars on the road. If Metro gets its act together, this fantasy could become reality in a mere 20-30 years.

For further reading on this topic, check out Yonah Freemark’s great post on 30/10 at the Transport Politic. Also, check out The Source, Metro’s in-house transportation blog.

Westside Subway Phase 3 and Beyond

Part 3 of 3 on the Los Angeles Westside Subway Extension

After discussing phases 1 and 2, the only two segments of the Westside Subway Extension that currently have an opening date, the only further topic of debate are sections of the extension not covered under Measure R funding. These two major portions of the line, shown in dashes on my map, are the Wilshire Subway past Westwood/VA Hospital and the West Hollywood Subway. Of these two possible extensions to the Measure R funded Westside Subway Extension, the Santa Monica Extension of the Wilshire Subway is the most cost effective and would attract the highest number of riders.

The West Hollywood Subway (Pink Line on map) fills a large gap in Los Angeles’ rail network, but ridership projections leave something to be desired. Santa Monica/Fairfax and Santa Monica/La Brea are projected to attract less than 1,200 riders per day, a pitiful amount for a heavy rail subway station. Unless density increases substantially along the Santa Monica Boulevard and San Vincente Boulevard corridors in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, this subway project should not be a priority for transit investment.

On the other hand, the current plan to terminate the Westside Subway Extension at Westwood/VA Hospital is not wise and an extension past this terminus should be a priority. The Exposition Line light rail phase 2 will closely parallel the Wilshire Subway alignment south of 26th Avenue. Duplicate rail transit lines are not necessary, but the lack of a connection between the Westside Subway Extension and the Exposition Line is a missed opportunity. Although ridership estimates show that the Santa Monica extension is cost effective, a short extension from the Westwood/VA Hospital station to a Olympic/Bundy interchange station with the Exposition Line would eliminate the need for three miles of duplicate transit service to Downtown Santa Monica. Riders could instead make a relatively painless transfer to light rail, which, with closer spaced stations, would in fact serve the dense Santa Monica Downtown core more effectively than a single subway station.

Such an alignment would be ideal for a future extension of the Westside Subway. All of this analysis leaves out the possibility of dedicated bus lanes on Wilshire Boulevard West of the Westwood/VA Hospital station which would be an even more cost effective way to get riders from Westwood to Santa Monica quickly. In the end, Los Angeles needs to prioritize its limited transit dollars on projects more effective than subway heavy rail transit in lower density areas like West Hollywood and central Santa Monica. A short extension to meet up with the Exposition Line or dedicated bus lanes would be an adequate replacement for a true “Subway to the Sea”, as this transit project has sometimes been called. In the end transit expansion is about serving the most riders with the lowest cost, not building expensive grade separated transit where the demand doesn’t exist for it.

Los Angeles Westside Subway Extension Phase 2

Part two of three on the Los Angeles Westside Subway Extension

Beverly Hills is a city known for its wealth and celebrities, but is also a city with a very dense core. Phase 2 of the Westside Subway Extension will bring two stations and about two miles of tunnels under Beverly Hills, serving its commercial and office centers along Wilshire Boulevard. This second phase will also include a station at Century City, the third largest employment center in Los Angeles County.

Unlike phase 1, many details need to be worked out on the precise placement of stations and the alignment of the tunnels.  The first station of phase 2, Wilshire/La Cienega is very close to a potential junction with a line to the North Hollywood station along San Vincente and Santa Monica Boulevards. Alternatives four and five of the current study (see this metro presentation) include this line. The West Hollywood line is unfunded under Measure R and will only attract significant patronage at its terminus, Hollywood/Highland. The four other stations on the line are predicted to draw less than 2000 daily riders each. For these two reasons, the West Hollywood line is very unlikely to be build in the near future. However, to future proof the Westside Subway Extension, the location of the Wilshire/La Cienega station must be the further east of two alternative locations currently under consideration. A station on the east side of the intersection of Wilshire and La Cienega would permit a normal island platform configuration instead of a stacked configuration (think Wilshire/Vermont). The tunnel bellmouths and connection structure could then be located about 1000 feet west of the island platform station, plenty of space for the underground grade separation necessary for the junction.

Metro’s study is considering several alternatives for the Century City station, both for the station’s location and the alignment of the tunnels on either side of the station. Century City is essentially a square development with office high rises on the east side, a large upscale shopping center to the northwest and housing to the south. Santa Monica Boulevard borders the area to the north, and Olympic Boulevard to the south, with Constellation Boulevard running right through the middle. Avenue of the Stars is the north-south arterial through the middle of the development. The two station locations under consideration are Santa Monica and Avenue of the Stars and Constellation Boulevard and Avenue of the Stars. The optimal location for the station is plainly the latter. Santa Monica Boulevard in the area of Century City is nearly a freeway with eight traffic lanes, making it a pedestrian’s nightmare. This hostile environment plus cutting the catchment area of the station in half due to the neighboring Los Angeles Country Club makes the Constellation/Avenue of the Stars location much more preferable. The only downside for this station location is increased construction disruption and slightly increased cost. Both of these negatives hardly outweigh the advantages of a pedestrian friendly station that lies in the center of a major employment center instead of outside it.

If all goes to plan, an admittedly unlikely situation, Phase 2 to Century City should open in 2026 and  cost around 2.1 billion dollars.

Los Angeles Westside Subway Extension Phase 1

Part one of  three on the Westside Subway Extension.

The Westside Subway Extension in Los Angeles is the holy grail of transit expansion. Envisioned since the Southern California Rapid Transit District (SCRTD) began planning a heavy rail system for Los Angeles in the 1960’s, a Wilshire Boulevard subway’s only parallel in America is New York’s ill fated (but currently under construction) Second Avenue Subway. Politics, money and even racism have posponed serious discussion on a Wilshire subway for over twenty years. In this post, I will cover some of the history of this project and also the alignment and design of the currently designated phase one, which runs from Wilshire/Western to Wilshire/Fairfax.

As seen on my map, the portion of the line between Crenshaw and La Brea travels along a medium density office/retail portion of Wilshire. Right behind Wilshire are single occupancy homes in Hancock Park, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the City of Los Angeles. Large transit projects through rich areas tend to exacerbate fears of poorer people entering a neighborhood and committing crime. While this notion is statistically untrue, and simply silly (right now someone in East Los Angeles can take the 720 bus to get to the same area), community support for the Westside Subway Extension has been limited in this area.

Past completion of the Wilshire subway was easily possible without this fear the residents of Hancock Park harbored. After a methane gas explosion under a Ross store at 3rd street and Fairfax Avenue (five blocks north of the future Wilshire/Fairfax station) in 1980, Representative Henry Waxman banned federal funding for subway tunneling through the Fairfax neighborhood, effectively ending hopes for a Westside subway. Waxman cited safety concerns, but fears of crime in Hancock Park were more than likely to have been central to the ban. The current Red and Purple Line subways reflect the intention to continue down Wilshire with the short stub from Wilshire/Vermont to Wilshire/Western, while also continuing through Hollywood to the San Fernando Valley as an alternative to the banned Westside route. Without Waxman’s ban, it is likely there would be a currently operating subway line to the Westside.

In the last ten years, Waxman’s ban has been repealed and work has begun again on this crucial transit line. With the passage of Measure R, the Wilshire subway is funded to Westwood at either a UCLA or VA Hospital terminus. Planning has been ongoing for several years and the alignment has been narrowed to five alternatives, two of which are covered with Measure R funding. Deviations from Wilshire Boulevard do not exist in any of the five alignments for this portion of the line, so construction could begin very soon, especially if the design-build method is used.

Being that much of the line run through detached home filled Hancock Park, ridership estimates for the two stations (not including Crenshaw) is about 10000 riders. Granted, this number does not include the large number of riders who currently transfer to the 720 and 920 buses at Wilshire/Western, so initially ridership will most likely be much higher. On the current schedule, this two (or three) station extension will open in 2019 and cost 1.3 billion dollars, contingent upon the construction of the Crenshaw Station.

The Crenshaw Station is the sole matter of contention on this segment of the Westside Extension. First of all, a possible future extension of the Crenshaw Corridor light rail line would interface the Westside subway at Wilshire/La Brea, eliminating the Crenshaw Station’s importance for transfers. Second, the Crenshaw Station area is within half a mile of the existing Wilshire/Western station. Finally, the density in the surrounding area is the lowest density around any planned subway station all the way out to Westwood. With so many things going against it, the Crenshaw Station seems like a poor use of the 200-300 million of construction funds it would use up. The ideal solution for the Crenshaw Station would to build the station box during Phase 1, but wait to complete the station until future density or ridership potential justified it. A large transit oriented development (TOD)  in the future could be incorporated into the station as funds permit. With a station box already installed, conversion to a full service station is quick and relatively inexpensive, especially compared to constructing a subway station from scratch on an active line.

Current trends in transit funding such as the FasTracks program in Denver show that sales tax revenues can drop sharply without much notice. The cost and benefit from the Crenshaw Station simply do not justify its construction at present, although a station box is a must.