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?
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.
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.
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.
The Crenshaw Corridor is a transit project in Los Angeles that has been under review for over ten years. It follows Crenshaw Boulevard from Wilshire Boulevard to the Harbor Subdivision freight line and along that line to the Aviation Boulevard Green Line station. This transit project is fully funded under Measure R and is planned to begin construction around 2014 and be completed in 2018. Metro has already completed an alternatives analysis on the line examining bus rapid transit (BRT), light rail transit (LRT) and a no-build option. A few months ago, the agency decided on the LRT option and is now beginning to design a light rail line to go from Exposition Boulevard to the Aviation Station.
Although I support Metro’s decision to choose light rail on this corridor, the BRT option had a distinct advantage in its connection to Wilshire Boulevard instead of the LRT option’s stub end at Exposition Boulevard. Granted, with LRT Crenshaw riders may be able to have direct trains to Downtown Los Angeles and USC. With BRT however, riders would have a direct connection to the Metro Purple Line at Wilshire Boulevard. This connection provides better connecting opportunities and a more popular “anchor” for the transit line. The disadvantages of BRT are a slower operating speed, less separation from traffic and lower capacity. At first, the capacity concern does not seem to be a problem. The LRT option that Metro has chosen is forecast to attract just over 20,000 riders per day, less than the BRT Metro Orange Line in the San Fernando Valley. Unfortunately, a slower operating speed will be a nail in the coffin for this line. Under current design, the Crenshaw Line will connect directly to LAX with a Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA)-designed people mover system at Century and Aviation Boulevards. This connection will make the Crenshaw line the main transit line for LAX. With that designation speed and branding are critical, although LAWA’s Fly Away bus service will still be faster than the rail line from Downtown LA.
Although the southern segment of the Crenshaw LRT is often discussed and is now fully funded, a northern extension of the LRT alignment to Wilshire Boulevard is hardly mentioned and has no timeline for completion nor a source of funding. This northern extension, mostly in subway, would bring Crenshaw trains under Crenshaw, San Vincente, Pico and La Brea, serving two stations and terminating at a transfer station with the future Metro Purple Line at Wilshire/La Brea. A Crenshaw LRT line with a Wilshire connection would potentially twice as many riders as a line that would terminate at Exposition Boulevard. A serious study of this extension should be a priority for Metro’s planning team. A phasing program should be instituted to ensure the completion of this LRT extension as soon as the Purple Line is extended to Wilshire/Fairfax. Indeed, like the Exposition Line, Phase 1 from Expo to the Green Line could be paid for by local sales tax funds (as is already planned), and the more expensive, but more cost effective, phase 2 from Expo to Wilshire could be submitted to the Federal Transit Administration for New Starts funding in the future. Ignoring the potential connection to Wilshire Boulevard will leave Los Angeles with a second light rail line which goes from nowhere to nowhere, after the Green Line.
Along this vein, the construction of a station box for the Crenshaw Line at Wilshire/La Brea is critical during the construction of the Purple Line platforms. Without this forward looking approach, hundreds of millions of dollars and a convenient transfer at this station would be at stake. The Washington Metro built its transfer stations before both lines were in operation and ended up saving vast sums of money and building very convenient transfer stations. I cannot state how critical this plan is. Without the station box at Wilshire/La Brea it is entirely possible that a northern Crenshaw Line extension would be abandoned.
The operation of the Crenshaw LRT line is also of concern. Current plans for operation will have Crenshaw trains terminate at the Exposition/Crenshaw station, missing an opportunity for them to run to Downtown LA. This missed opportunity has arisen due to the extreme capacity constraints at 7th Street/Metro Center (see this older post). Without an exclusive right of way downtown, both the Expo and Crenshaw lines will be overcrowded and unable to run at reasonable headways at peak times. Fortunately, Metro is planning for full bidirectional connections of the Crenshaw Line to the Exposition Line and the Metro Green Line. Many new service patterns will arise from these connections like a South Bay-Exposition train along the Crenshaw and Green Lines, or even a Santa Monica-LAX train along the Exposition and Crenshaw Lines. Without these connections Metro would be missing a huge opportunity to interline its light rail services. With such interlining will the current map and naming scheme hold up? Metro has almost 10 years to decide, so don’t hold your breath.
The Crenshaw Line has merit as a LRT project. Hopefully planners and politicians will see the immense need for an extension north of Exposition Boulevard and include a station box at Wilshire/La Brea when the Purple Line station is built. Without it, the effectiveness and connectivity of the Crenshaw Line will be greatly reduced and Los Angeles will end up with another light rail line from nowhere to nowhere.
In a post later this week I will discuss the politics of transportation planning in Los Angeles. That discussion will be very pertinent to the Crenshaw Line, so stay tuned.