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Getting Ready for Expo

Expo/Western. From the Expo Construction Authority.

Seeing as the Exposition Line has been delayed yet further by technical problems at the Washington/Flower intersection, I thought I’d take a minute this week to talk about how Metro should focus their service in the South Mid City/Culver City area to take advantage of the new light rail service. 

In the next two months, Los Angeles will gain perhaps the most significant piece of transportation infrastructure built in the city since the Red Line. The Exposition Line, even in its truncated Phase 1 form, could truly revolutionize the way hundreds of thousands of Angelinos get from downtown to the West Side.

Initial ridership estimates for Phase 1 are in the 40,000-range. Based on the size of the market, and the demographics of the area, I believe Expo will blow this projection out of the water. With the right measures, Expo could improve upon the already very impressive performance of the Blue Line – projected to carry 15,000 riders when it was built, the Blue Line is now by most measures the busiest light rail line in the country, carrying 80,000 riders per day.  These additional steps to ensure the success of the line, and the fullest possible use of this investment, are simple and would not take much effort to implement. See what you think.

Connecting the Culver City Station with major job centers

1. Target Specific Destinations with Bus Service Changes & Add Phase 2 Shuttle

While the Expo Line will get riders from downtown to Culver City in Phase 1, many key destinations are just beyond this terminus. Effective integration of the 733 bus line on Venice and the north-south bus lines on La Brea and La Cienega will ensure that riders have access to both the Venice area and areas of Wilshire and the Miracle Mile. The Expo Line also presents a great opportunity to modify service on the admittedly lightly used express routes from mid-city to other areas of LA County. Metro already plans to reroute the 534 bus line to the Culver City terminus of Expo, and have the 439 bus stop at the La Cienega Station. Service could also be modified on the 439 to serve the Westfield Mall and other popular destinations in southern Culver City. A huge amount of office space exists in suburban-type 4-5 story buildings along Slauson Avenue and the surrounding area, perhaps a more targeted approach by Metro buses could attract riders who commute to these buildings from downtown or other areas the Expo Line serves. The 534 line could be rerouted to directly serve downtown Santa Monica, although this change may run afoul of service agreements between Metro and Big Blue Bus.

In addition, I believe a very effective strategy for increasing the utility of the phase 1 line is running a shuttle along the approximate route of phase two with limited stops to simulate future rail service. It could follow Venice south to Overland Avenue, cut up to Pico then turn on Bundy to meet Olympic, then finally turn on Cloverfield to meet Colorado. This shuttle could increase ridership and eliminate the numerous transfers and indirect routing of other current bus options from Downtown Culver City to Santa Monica. A big part of the appeal of the Exposition Line is the “air line” (meaning most direct path) it takes between Downtown LA and Santa Monica. Forgoing this more direct routing to get passangers of phase 1 to Santa Monica would significantly increase the utility of the line.

One other instance where direct, convenient bus service is unavailable is from Downtown Culver City and the Venice/Robertson Station to Century City. Thousands upon thousands of people work in Century City, and the addition of an express AM/PM peak express line from the Culver City station would be beneficial. Even with traffic congestion, this route would only take about 10-15 minutes with no stops, thus would provide by far the fastest travel time from Downtown LA to Century City. This stopgap measure would be great until the Westside Subway Extension opens to Century City (and on Avenue of the Stars/Constellation, mind you).

2. Change Metro’s Fare System to Avoid Penalizing Rail Users

I have already extensively discussed Metro’s pressing Fare System Problems. The opening of the Exposition Line will greatly exacerbate these problems. Passangers who need to get to Union Station from Culver City will not only be inconvenienced by needing to transfer to the Red/Purple Lines, but also will have to pay a second $1.50 fare at 7th and Metro Center. Even more preposterously, passengers going from Culver City to Long Beach or anywhere south of Pico on the Blue Line will be required to step off the platform at Pico, pay and additional fare and return to the spot at which they alighted their Expo Line train just to avoid falling afoul of Metro’s fare inspectors. The one-vehicle one-fare policy really will not work in a rail system with multiple transfers expected (let alone the gridded bus system, which is even worse).

A quick and dirty solution would be raising the fare on rail lines to $2.00 and eliminating rail transfers. One $2.00 purchase would entitle a rider to two hours of unlimited access to the Metro Rail and Metro Liner System. Incidentally, this would also solve the issue of the Metro Silver Line’s poor ridership – a terrible fare structure (that’s Foothill Transit’s fault, anyway). Single use TAP cards would constitute fare media, eliminating opportunities for theft and abuse, which were the reasons Metro cancelled bus transfers back in the 1990’s.

With a bit of planning and a lot of political will, Exposition Phase 1 will be an invaluable addition to mobility in Los Angeles. The clock is ticking – every day that Metro Operations tests trains is one day closer to opening. With a solid new fare structure for Metro Rail and Metro Liner along with targeting employment zones with special bus service for Phase 1, Expo will be a roaring success.


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

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

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 Crenshaw Corridor

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.

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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On the Exposition Line

The Los Angeles to Santa Monica  Exposition Line light rail project is years behind schedule and over one hundred million dollars over budget. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is building the line as a gigantic compromise. In this manner, a light rail line on the Exposition rail right of way is unique in the history of Los Angeles’ modern endeavor to build rail transit.

The late 1960’s and early 1970’s were an interesting time for American transit. Lydon B. Johnson’s great society program bestowed large amounts of federal funds upon infrastructure projects, especially to a brand new Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA). Nearly all large metropolitan areas in the United States began to design large heavy rail systems with sleek new trains and suburban auto-oriented lines. The first of these systems was San Francisco’s BART, followed closely by Washington’s Metro and Atlanta’s MARTA. The Southern California Rapid Transit District (SCRTD) drew up plans for a BART-like system in Los Angeles.

Every Metro Rail line in Los Angeles follows (roughly) a line planned forty years ago by SCRTD. The Metro Blue Line follows the South Central/Long Beach Line, the Metro Red and Orange Lines follow the San Fernando Valley Line and the Metro Gold Line follows the Eastside and Pasadena Lines.

The Exposition Line is the lone modern deviation from SCRTD’s plan. In the SCRTD plan, Santa Monica is served by a Wilshire Boulevard subway line all the way to fourth street, near the beach. As noted in my posts on the Westside Subway Extension, funding and political issues stopped the Wilshire Boulevard subway at Western Avenue and even its imminent extension will only reach Westwood under Measure R. This is where the Exposition Line comes in. Although its route is far south from major destinations, the Exposition Line is the only short term solution to east-west rail transit to Santa Monica.

Estimated ridership for the line is very high for light rail, around 50,000 per day for phase 1 and 80,000 per day for the completed line, so every decision made is critical for the future heavy use of the line.

All of this background information indirectly addresses the reasons that the Exposition Line is so delayed and over budget. The Expo Line’s (relatively) new conception and status as a compromise to a subway line mean that community support has been lacking. The Exposition Line phase 1 passes by the University of Southern California, Dorsey High School and Foshay Learning Center. All three institutions opposed the line, demanding tunnels in front of their campuses to mitigate train traffic and noise. Concerns at Dorsey High School in particular have caused a one year delay. The school demanded a grade separation at Farmdale Avenue and Exposition Boulevard, fearing that students would be hit by trains. This claim is silly considering the numerous schools already near the Metro Blue and Gold Lines. When Expo Line planners refused a grade separation on cost grounds, Dorsey High School used its influence to demand a station at Farmdale Avenue. This station will be the least used on the entire line and will further slow the already hour long journey from Santa Monica to Downtown Los Angeles.

Construction issues with the connection between the Metro Blue Line and the Exposition Line at Flower Street and Washington Boulevard have further increased delays on the project.

Beyond the delay and cost overruns, I question the use of the Metro Blue Line tracks from Washington/Flower to 7th Street/Metro Center. The combined number of riders after phase 2 of the Exposition Line opens will be over 160,000 per day many of whom will ride on this segment of track. Currently, 7th Street/Metro Center is the terminus for light rail trains, meaning that it is operationally limited to around 20 trains per hour. The Metro Blue Line already runs 12 trains per hour during rush hour. In the future, the line from Flower/Washington to 7th Street/Metro Center will be haplessly inundated with traffic and will limit  train frequency on the rest of the Exposition and Blue Lines.

The trouble with the Exposition Line would have been entirely avoided if transit was more of a priority for government in the United States. The six or eight billion dollars for a full Westside Subway Extension would be money better spent than the two billion spent on the Exposition Line. If light rail has to be the solution, a new line in Downtown Los Angeles is a necessity to cater for future growth in ridership and train frequency.