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Exposition Phase 1 Bike Facility: A Review

In honor of the Exposition Line opening it is time for a comprehensive review of the Phase 1 Bike Facility. I use it every day to get to work, to ride recreationally in the Santa Monica Mountains and to get to the Ballona Creek Bike Path.

The Exposition Phase 1 Bike Facility begins at the intersection of Exposition Boulevard and Vermont Avenue adjacent to the USC campus. From this point until Exposition and Harcourt Avenue, the facility is a 4-6 foot wide bicycle lane. At Harcourt Avenue, the route turns north and resumes as a 5-6 foot wide bicycle lane from Jefferson Boulevard and Harcourt Avenue to Jefferson and La Cienega. Here the alignment transitons into a 12 foot wide bicycle and pedestrian path immediately south of the Exposition Line right of way from La Cienega to National. The final portion of the facility is another 12 foot wide bike/ped path from Jefferson/National to approximately Washington/National, here north of the Expo ROW.

The Good

The very existence of this bicycle facility is a great thing for the City of Los Angeles. Never before has such a comprehensive and convenient east-west bicycle route existed in the city. For the most part the bicycle lanes and pathways are adequately designed  and the connection to the existing bike path at Ballona Creek that leads to Marina Del Rey is well thought out. The Los Angeles Department of Transportation has been helpful in responding to cyclists’ concerns over design issues so far – hopefully they will note the issues below.

The Bad – Safety and Design

Like any new traffic pattern, the Facility needs adjustment after a break-in period. Significant engineering design and safety issues exist with the current configuration of the Facility. I will discuss them from east (7th Street/Metro Center) to west (Culver City).

No Bike Route from Downtown to Expo Park

This issue is somewhat of a no-brainer. While the EIR for the Expo Line stated that a bicycle facility would be constructed for the entirety of the line, no bikeway or even bicycle route exists from Downtown LA to Exposition Park. The abundance of north-south streets with significant excess capacity, especially Flower Street, could have made for a great bicycle lane (even a green lane like Spring Street). Unfortunately no such route was built as part of this project. The isolated, and dangerous nature of accessing Downtown LA from the south via bicycle is a huge problem that this Facility did not solve.

Bike Lane in the Gutter – Entire Route, Especially Vermont-Gramercy and Harcourt-La Cienega

Excuse the civil engineering lingo – but when designing the cross section of a street, you never consider the gutter as part of the traveled way. The ETW is usually the limit of the gutter – and for good reason. Asphalt concrete pavement and reinforced concrete gutters settle at different rates due to their differing material properties so a large gap forms at the junction of these two materials forms after several years or months of roadway usage. With tires often less than 1″ wide, this gap is dangerous for cyclists. When riding these bike lanes a rider is forced to stay to one side of the crack – on the gutter side it is in the door zone, so there is little choice but to exclusively use the innermost two feet of the bicycle lane. Numerous catch basins also exist in the bicycle lanes which present an even greater hazard to bicycle riders and must be avoided at all costs. Placing dangerous conditions within a lane designed for the exclusive use of cyclists is poor design – new striping that does not include the gutter as part of the bicycle lane is needed as soon as possible.

Right Turns at Exposition/Normandie and Exposition/Western

In both the easterly and westerly directions of travel on Exposition between Vermont and Gramercy traffic is at its highest along the entire route. This traffic includes right turning vehicles which must cut across the bicycle lane. Other cities make good use of “Begin Right Turn – Yield to Bikes” signs at all right turn pockets and despite the lack of pockets, these locations would be an ideal candidate for similar signage reading “Right Turn – Yield to Bicycles.” I have nearly been hit several times by motorists turning right without looking to see if a cyclist was present and some motorists take the bicycle lane while waiting at a red light far in advance of the intersection, impeding cyclist travel to the stop bar. A further step to improving safety would be banning right turn on red at these intersections and striping bike boxes so cyclists have improved visibility to right turning motorists.

The Exposition/Rodeo/Gramercy Intersection

This intersection is the most complex and potentially dangerous along the entire phase 1 route. Rodeo diverges from Exposition across the LRT tracks. In the westerly direction of travel, the bicycle lane is acceptable for continuing on Exposition. Cyclists who wish to switch to Rodeo at the intersection face the harrowing task of crossing non-perpendicular railroad tracks. This task is nearly impossible on a road bicycle and the potential for crashing and remaining on the tracks and in a traffic lane is dangerously high. Because of this risk a “No Bicycles” sign should be installed at this intersection in the lanes that turn ont o Rodeo. Cyclists wishing to access Rodeo may easily do so at Arlington Avenue right up the road where the tracks cross a cyclist’s path at a 90 degree angle.

In the easterly direction of travel all hell has broken loose. Here a hybrid solution of sorts exists to guide cyclists across the tracks. From the stop bar, the bicycle lane turns sharply right over the tracks, through a gap in the fence, then left on to the main traveled way of Rodeo/Exposition. I applaud this rather creative solution to an impossible intersection, but most cyclists do not know this is the proper way to ride this intersection. Better signage indicating the correct route would be helpful. The unconventional cycling route through this intersection means that motorists are not looking for cyclists in the correct places. Motorists traveling due north on Gramercy are not looking for bicycles turning left on to Exposition during a red light. More than five times I have nearly been hit by motorists turning right on red from due north on Gramercy. “No Turn on Red” and “Watch for Cyclists” signs are immediately needed at this intersection on Gramercy to prevent catastrophic collisions.

Right Turns at Exposition/Crenshaw

Similar issue to Expo/Western and Expo/Normandie, although only in the easterly direction of travel and right turn on red is already forbidden. A simple “Begin Right Turn – Yield to Bikes” at the beginning of the right turn pocket lane would do wonders. Here motorists are not used to waiting for a right turn signal and many do not obey it properly – better signage is needed for motorists.

Jefferson/Harcourt Intersection

In the westerly (northerly on Harcourt) direction of travel the signal timing for this intersection is horrendous. Either the detector loop is failing to pick up on my bicycle (all the others along the Facility pick it up fine) or the allocation of Harcourt compared to Jefferson that it takes more than 3 minutes to change cycles. I have stood on the loop for over 5 minutes waiting in vain to get a green to turn left on Jefferson – it simply does not work. The only solution is to ride on to the sidewalk and press the pedestrian crossing button which is time consuming and very inconvenient. Generally, this left turn on Jefferson from Harcourt changes the a trip Exposition Bike Facility from competitive with driving to much slower than driving due to this issue. LADOT – please check the loop and also adjust the timing here. It is unacceptable.

Jefferson Blvd

Generally awful and dangerous pavement conditions exist along the portion of Jefferson the Facility traverses. Bad pavement just before the Jefferson/La Brea intersection in the westerly direction of travel has nearly caused several crashes (because of the gap between gutter and pavement, see above) and numerous potholes exist between La Brea and La Cienega in the westerly direction of travel.

Jefferson and La Cienega

This intersection presents one of gravest dangers for cyclists, especially in the westerly direction. The Facility transitions from a bicycle lane on Jefferson to a dedicated path south of the Exposition Line tracks. One single sign directs cyclists to this path, but there is no good way to access it from the westbound side of Jefferson. Crossing in the crosswalk south across Jefferson then west across La Cienega is time consuming and bicycles should be treated as vehicles, not pedestrians, and forced to use crosswalks and the sidewalk. Most cyclists (myself included) continue straight on Jefferson through this intersection, where, due to the presence of a double left turn pocket in the opposite direction, Jefferson westbound constricts into two 11′ lanes. The risk of being sideswiped by a motorist both in the intersection and just past it on Jefferson is extremely high. Immediate action is needed to prevent collisions, injuries and even death at this point in the Facility. Here are tw0 solutions:

1. Re-stripe the intersection to include a bicycle lane in the westbound direction on Jefferson between La Cienega and National. A temporary measure until this bike lane can be implemented would be sharrows on Jefferson with large “Share the Road” and “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” signs so motorists expect bicycles in the right lane.

2. If cyclists are to use the existing bike path south of the tracks, a proper way to actuate the signal to access the bike path from the west must be implemented. Ideally, a new cycle in the light, activated by detector loops in the westbound bike lane would prove a red in all directions, with a green bicycle signal to allow cyclists to turn left from the right side of the roadway. Because of the large delay this extra cycle would cause motorist, a less ideal addition would be a push button in the bicycle lane to activate a walk signal south across Jefferson. From there, cyclists could cross west across La Cienega on to the bike path.

Coming back in the easterly direction things are a bit better. Access to the bike path is straightforward at Jefferson and National and the transition back into the bike lane at Jefferson and La Cienega is relatively safe. One huge issue, however, is the massive column that blocks the view of right turning motorists. Sight distance around this column is essentially zero and it makes for a harrowing experience crossing La Cienega on the south side of Jefferson as a cyclist or pedestrian. This would be another great location for a right turn on red ban or perhaps ban of all right turns.

LADOT needs to do something about this intersection before someone is seriously injured or killed.

The Bad – Operations and Enforcement

Generally two major problems exist in the enforcement and operations area.

1. The neighborhoods through which the Exposition Line runs are not yet accustomed to a bicycle facility. Illegal stopping in the bicycle lane, and placement of trash cans, transient’s carts and other objects in the bicycle lanes are hazardous and desperately need to be reduced or eliminated. A combination of community outreach and education, and stronger enforcement by LADOT traffic officers could significantly improve the safety and sanctity of the bicycle lanes.

2. Street sweeping in the bicycle lanes is woefully inadequate. Piles of broken glass and rocks force cyclists out of the bike lane into traffic and cause numerous flat tires. Nothing discourages casual cycling like needed to stop for 10+ minutes to change a flat tire. LADOT needs to step up their street sweeping program along the route in order to ensure safe passage for cyclists.

The Verdict

Thank you Metro and LADOT for building this bike facility. Its a big step towards making Los Angeles a more bicycle friendly city. With a few tweaks and changes, the Exposition Phase 1 Bicycle Facility will be a great place to ride and soon will take cyclists all the way to Santa Monica with Phase 2 (under construction). Bring it on!

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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.

LA Metro’s Ineffecient Fare System

Although there is little buzz at the moment, the structure of LA Metro’s fare system is  a huge burden to riders of the massive bus and rail system and will soon get worse.

Currently, fares for a single ride are among the lowest in the nation, at $1.50. San Francisco’s fare is $2.00, and New York’s is $2.25. The key difference between the fare systems of these cities is the basic condition of your fare purchase: in San Francisco, your two dollars allows you access to any part of SF Muni’s system for an entire two hours. In LA, your fare is entry to one single vehicle. Even if you only have to go one or two miles, then transfer, your fare becomes 3.00.

The reasoning behind this practice was widespread fraud of transfers. This concern, however, makes casual riders of Metro extremely discouraged from riding. A day pass is available for $6.00 (the equivalent of entering four vehicles), but in order to purchase one on the bus, you must have Metro’s delay plagued, and limited-use TAP card. Metro’s grid-based bus system in Central Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley adds insult to injury by requiring transfers to go pretty much anywhere.

Rail lines are even worse. Unlike the New York Subway, which readily permits transfers between its numerous lines, LA’s Metro Rail requires an additional $1.50 fare payment when you switch rail lines. With the upcoming opening of the Exposition Line, crazy situations will arise – a ride from USC to Pasadena will require a day pass or three separate fare payments. A trip from Long Beach to Mid City will require the rider to walk down the platform at the Pico Station, purchase another proof of payment paper, then return to the exact spot you used to be standing!

Express fares on the few express lines Metro runs are even more confusing. Most bus operators do not know the zone structure and the selective application of zone fees (students/seniors don’t pay it) means that express buses using expensive infrastructure (Harbor Transitway) are empty, while local buses on parallel streets (Figuroa, Vermont, Broadway) are literally packed to the gills. The higher fare on the Silver Line is also unwarranted, and levying the standard fare would increase ridership and network efficiency.

The fare system without transfers is very inconvenient for causal riders, so it would be great if Metro’s RFID fare card TAP could hold a cash purse, and maybe automatically buy you a day pass when you exceed 4 tags in a 24 hour period. Well, TAP cannot do this. I’m no expert on Cubic Transportation System’s RFID fare cards, but if the (*cough* useless) MTC in the Bay Area can coordinate all seven major transit agencies in the Bay Area under Clipper Card, Metro really needs to get its act together with TAP. Speaking from experience, the process to obtain student, senior and disabled TAP cards is very arduous and takes weeks for processing.

Metro should use the opening of the Expo Line to reform its fare structure, implementing a system of transfers for casual riders based on paper TAP cards, or a similar system. Metro should also eliminate zone fares and levy the standard fare on the Silver Line to stop giving riders a disincentive to take express buses, which are cheaper to operate due to their higher speeds. Reducing turn time on TAP cards, implementing a cash purse and automatic purchases of day passes on TAP cards

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.

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.

Washington Blvd and Flower St: The Intersection from Hell


Light rail in Los Angeles is, by most measures, a great success. The Blue Line is the second busiest LRT line in the United States with 80,000 daily riders, and the Green and Gold Lines together attract around 70,000 more riders. During peak periods, the Blue Line operates at a high frequency, with 12 trains per hour and is capacity limited by its numerous grade crossings and the stub terminal at 7th Street/Metro Center. With the upcoming opening of the Exposition Line, the capacity constraints of the Downtown portion of the Blue Line, which Expo will share, will become a pressing issue. The most pressing bottlenecks are the 7th/Metro Center terminal, which only has two tracks, and the Washington Boulevard and Flower Street intersection. After the opening of the Exposition Line, this intersection will truly become hellish.

Currently, the Washington/Flower intersection consists of Flower Street, a 3 lane one-way street, Washington Boulevard, a 6 lane arterial, and the Blue Line LRT tracks curving across part of the intersection. See the diagram for which lanes are impacted by LRT operations. After the installation of the Exposition Line, LRT tracks will also run through the intersection, continuing down Flower Street. This will affect several new directions of traffic and pose further hazards and danger to pedestrians, who are already banned from crossing the north side of the intersection. Critically, any change of signal timing due to a LRT delay, pedestrian crossing the street, or automobile incident (accident), will cause immediate gridlock for the 150,000 or more LRT passengers, 30,000 drivers and countless pedestrians who use this intersection.

Adding insult to injury, the California Public Utilities Commission has required the installation of a special signal system at this intersection, causing a further delay to the opening of the Exposition Line. Just yesterday, Washington Boulevard was closed for construction and I walked the site a bit. Rail has finally been installed for the Exposition Line, but much of the electrical equipment, including the overhead contact system (OCS) for LRT trains, has yet to be installed.

So, why write about this intersection from hell: to propose an alternative. Granted, it is far too late to make serious design changes in the Exposition Line, but in the future a huge change will be necessary: a massive grade separation structure. The mess of rail, road and pedestrian infrastructure at Washington/Flower, along with a nearby intersection with a far more heavily used arterial (Figueroa Street) make this situation nearly impossible to address using an underpass or overpass of the roadway. Rather, the best option remains raising or submerging the LRT tracks. Approximately half a mile north of this intersection, the LRT tracks enter subway on the way to the 7th Street/Metro Center Station.

Two alternatives for grade separation exist. The cheaper, easier method would be a large elevated separation structure over the intersection. Now, for maximum efficiency, a full flying junction of the Blue and Expo Lines would be required. That means this elevated separation structure could consist of three elevated levels, meaning there would be a 60-80 foot tall concrete structure over this intersection. Steep grades may be necessary for a return to grade level on the northern branch to 7th/Metro Center to get under the Santa Monica Freeway, so this option is not ideal.

Now, as in my last post, planning for the future and investing heavily in high capacity, high-quality rail transit infrastructure is my favorite outcome for any rail project. In this case, just like the connection between the Regional Connector and the Gold Line, an extended subway and flying junction underground separation structure would be ideal.  Extending the subway south from 7th/Metro Center all the way to Washington Boulevard and Hill Street to the East and 21st Street to the South. Such an arrangement could increase capacity in this junction exponentially, and could also greatly improve the pedestrian environment south of Downtown Los Angeles.

But, what if this underground grade separation structure is not enough? The 2030 estimated ridership for both the Blue Line and the Expo Line is well over 120,00o riders each, meaning this junction could have to handle over 200,000 riders a day. That is more than BART’s Transbay Tube in Northern California, a facility that is widely considered at full capacity, and a facility that can accommodate 710-foot long heavy rail trains, not 270 foot long LRT trains. To handle this number of riders the combined Expo/Blue Line segment between this grade separation and the junction between the Regional Connector and Gold Line, would require 50-60 trains per hour, nearly a train every minute! No rail line on earth handles this many trains on two tracks, especially with switches on either end of the line.

All signs point to a dedicated second downtown subway for light rail in Los Angeles. Like the separated Blue Line idea in Washington DC, capacity constraints on a single downtown segment of the Expo and Blue lines will limit frequency on the outer branches. This phenomenon exists in San Francisco, where outer branches of the BART system are seriously underserved at times due to capacity constraints in the Transbay Tube and Market Street Subway. Metro needs to give this Expo/Blue Line problem a whole lot more th0ught before Los Angeles ends up with an operations and traffic nightmare.

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.

Exposition/Farmdale: More Headaches

The Proposed Farmdale Station, from buildexpo.org.

Today I return again to a discussion of the oft-maligned Exposition Line under construction in Los Angeles. Most of the first phase of the project from Downtown Los Angeles to Culver City is ready to go. When I last checked the progress of the line in early May, tracks were laid and catenary poles were installed. Still, one grade crossing out of thirty nine must be approved by the California Public Utilities Commission and the elevated structure for the Venice/Robertson station is not yet complete. The biggest issue is this lone grade crossing, Exposition Boulevard and Farmdale Avenue.

The Exposition Line has always been plagued with intense community opposition, or so it appears. As a grounding statement for this discussion it is important to note that the opposition to the Exposition Line has been a tiny group of people who enjoy close news coverage because of cultural biases against transit in the United States. The worries of few (very, very few) are inhibiting the progress of a billion dollar transit project to connect Downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica and relieve the horribly congested 10 freeway and are costing taxpayers millions of dollars due to construction delays. Those are the ground rules of this post, so to speak.

Phase One of the Exposition Line passes by two major schools (Dorsey and Foshay), a large private university (USC) and a community college (LATTC) on its route to Culver City. The line is at grade adjacent to all of these educational institutions with unrelated traffic-based grade separations near USC and LATTC. The major issue with the Exposition/Farmdale crossing is its position right next to Dorsey High School. Fix Expo, a group that claims to be in the best interest of residents in South Los Angeles, is crying foul over this at grade crossing, alleging that trains will run over multitudes of high school kids. They have gone as far to put pictures of light rail crashes (with cars and trucks, not pedestrians, mind you) outside community meeting places and overwhelmed rational thinkers at recent California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) meetings regarding the crossing. CPUC rejected Metro’s original proposal for a simple four quadrant guarded grade crossing at Farmdale, largely because of the advocacy of this Fix Expo group. Metro is now proposing a station stop at Exposition/Farmdale so that trains passing through the intersection would be moving very slowly.

First of all, Metro should not even be taking the Fix Expo group seriously enough to appease them with their station proposal. The original plan for a plain at grade crossing was entirely reasonable. Farmdale is not a high traffic street by any measure. Grade separations per Metro’s Light Rail Grade Separation Policy, adopted before the construction of the Gold Line in 2003, dictated that intersections with Venice, La Cienega, La Brea and Figuroa be grade separated due to traffic concerns, but other busy streets such as Western and Crenshaw to be left at grade. If Western and Crenshaw don’t get grade separations it is outrageous for Metro to delay Expo Line Phase 1 by 18 months minimum, and spend 30-40 million dollars on a station that is bound to be lightly used and will greatly slow travel time from Santa Monica to Downtown Los Angeles. All around, even the station compromise for Exposition/Farmdale is unacceptable to me.

Unfortunately, the CPUC has derided my first choice and at the moment the options for Exposition/Farmdale are station or full grade separation. Between these two, the station option is clearly the less potent poison. Again, the argument for full grade separation is that trains will run over high school kids. Well Fix Expo, don’t cars already run over a much, much, much higher number of high school kids every year? How do you feel about Dorsey Students crossing La Brea Avenue near their school with it’s six lanes? If Metro is required to grade separate its train line in front of Dorsey High School, why don’t you lobby LADOT to grade separate every single pedestrian crossing around the high school, or in all of South Los Angeles? Obviously I’m taking this argument a little beyond its original bounds, but really? Light Rail Vehicles are run by professional operators, do not make unpredictable moves because they operate on a fixed guideway and, per CPUC regulation, must frequently sound a loud horn when crossing streets at grade.

Sadly transit in the United States has been maligned as dangerous, especially the recent resurgence of at grade rail transit like the Exposition Line. People accept as a fact of life that automobile passengers and pedestrians are going to be killed in events we even call “accidents”. Using the word accident implies that the event was inevitable and also implies a lack of responsibility. That is how deep car culture is ingrained in the United States.

The logical and comprehensive argument against Fix Expo I just presented leaves only one conclusion: Fix Expo has ulterior motives. Indeed Fix Expo blazes the same trail as several other advocacy groups who tried very hard to prevent the Exposition Line from being built in the first place. Fix Expo’s scare tactics and delay inducing behavior is costing taxpayers one million dollars per month for every month the Expo Line stays dormant. Perhaps they hope to destroy the current resurgence in popularity for transit in Los Angeles. Beyond that, I cannot imagine why this group wants to stop the Expo Line. It is a well designed, modern light rail transit line which will connect communities in Jefferson Park, University Park and Leimert Park to Culver City and Downtown Los Angeles. Metro is building the line with closely spaced stations to serve all the communities along the route and grade separation structures are being used at all intersection where vehicular and pedestrian traffic justifies the (huge) expense. For what it is (see this post), the Exposition Line is a good, even great, transit project.

Hopefully Expo will open to at least Culver City by the time I graduate at USC (May 2013). Personally, I’d enjoy high quality rail transit two blocks from my apartment. At the current pace, I have my doubts.

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.

Progress Report on the Exposition Line

Today is such a nice day that I had to go out and explore the progress on the Exposition Line. Here are some of the observations from outside my window.

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