City Wants to Fund Flower Street, Arts District Rail Projects

Los Angeles looks at establishing a TIF to fund rail improvements


In the past several months anguished articles have been popping up about the Arts District subway extension, a project that seemed in danger of stalling after Metro CEO Phil Washington commented that it would take divine intervention to get a station at 6th and Santa Fe built. Far from what you would expect for a project on the outs, in this month’s Metro board meetings, the project is suddenly everywhere.

It makes a bold-faced appearance in the map of new Artesia Line alternatives, as though its construction were in no doubt at all.


It is also being being added to the unconstrained project list for SCAG’s Regional Transportation Plan at the request of the city of Los Angeles. And, there it is again, appearing as the centerpiece of a grant application from the city to Metro to complete necessary studies for the establishment of an Enhanced Infrastructure Finance District in the downtown area.

The district defined by the City would cover the vast majority of downtown LA and is envisioned as the primary funding vehicle for a suite of transit spending including the extension of the heavy rail subway from Union Station as well as “capital improvements to the Blue / Expo Line throughout the Flower St and Washington Blvd corridors,” active transportation projects, increased bus service in southeast downtown neighborhoods, and the expansion of a 7th Street pedestrian corridor all the way to the L.A. river.

Part of the feasibility study would involve gauging the revenue that could be raised over the life of the EIFD, but the tentative project list is ambitious. Based on prior Metro documents, the projects listed will likely come in somewhere over $1 billion if they involve undergrounding the Blue and Expo Lines on Flower and Washington.

EIFDs are relatively new instruments established by the state legislature in 2014 following Governor Brown’s decision to wind down the redevelopment agencies. The districts can be used to create Joint Powers Authorities with the power, like the old CRA, to collect and spend marginal tax growth resulting from increases in assessed property value. This makes the EIFD an ideal financing mechanism in locations where real estate development is intensifying.

Under the legislation, the creation of an EIFD is limited to cities, counties, and special districts, which excludes Metro. But as a means of incentivizing cities to consider upzoning parcels near transit, Metro is offering grants to cities that want to study setting up EIFDs.

Another EIFD has been proposed for parcels within one mile of the Los Angeles River that could use 75% of the tax increment belonging to the City and County of Los Angeles to fund a series of unfunded river revitalization projects, and which would overlap the new prospective EIFD in the Arts District.

This type of city-driven Metro expansion would be precedent-setting in Los Angeles. The City also indicates its intention to go further, saying it will “explore using various transportation funds (Measure R & M local return, etc) to leverage the EIFD funds in order to implement projects on a faster time line.” This is a strategy I advocated Los Angeles to take elsewhere, using some of the $250 million annually that they get from transportation tax local return to accelerate projects within their jurisdiction.

So it seems, at least in a limited way, that Los Angeles is ready to take the reins. But even while Metro has cast doubt on the project, they have nonetheless been facilitating the arrival of rail in the Arts District. The previous round of studies, completed early last year, found incongruities between the plans to redesign the railyard to accommodate the Purple Line Extension and the work necessary to build a 6th Street station. Metro has since changed that project in order to facilitate the construction of the station near 6th and Santa Fe.

The Blue and Expo Line improvements are included in the Mayor’s 28×28 initiative to complete transit infrastructure before the Olympic Games return to the City in 2028, and have no dedicated funding elsewhere. According to the timeline laid out by staff in the application, the City plans to kick off the study in early 2019 and environmental work for the district and associated projects would be targeted for completion by December 2021.


Metro Discovers a Better West Santa Ana Branch

Throughout the county these days – from Glendora to Torrance, Sylmar to Norwalk, Whittier to West Hollywood – discussions are being held that will shape the future of transportation in Los Angeles. Along with the tens of billions of dollars voters approved for mass transit have come a brigade of yet-unanswered questions regarding the best way to maximize benefits from these new investments.

And nowhere is the conversation proceeding in a more uncertain direction than in the southeastern cities which are intended to be served one day by a rail line connecting downtown Los Angeles and the city of Artesia. The Artesia line has been paraded by the agency’s Office of Extraordinary Innovation as a target for private investment and trumpeted by Mayor Eric Garcetti as a project that will be open by the time the 2028 Olympics hit town. So the clock is ticking, potential funders are milling about, and the only problem is… well, Metro has no idea what route this line will eventually follow -particularly in downtown Los Angeles.

After last year’s scoping period for the project failed to yield a consensus, or even a firm grounding of approval, staff is hurriedly preparing six new alternatives for the northern section of the route, to complement the six it already had.

Image from a Metro Presentation

The new ones are being presented on Wednesday to the Planning and Programming Committee despite being less than fully fleshed out. One is little more than a diagonal line with “To Be Determined” attached. Nonetheless, they are a likely to be included for study in the environmental review process, as a result of the exceptionally fractious politics of the project, which in all honesty probably warrants its own post. For now, I’m going to look at the new alternatives and their potential implications for the quality of the overall transit line.

Two things stick out in the new alignments:

  1. Metro is now considering routes that bypass Union Station, with routes that veer either east to the Arts District or west into the downtown core
  2. All of the new routes begin at the current Washington station, meaning the Pacific Boulevard alternatives, favored by many in southeast Los Angeles for their station serving the industrial job center of Vernon, appear to be falling out of favor.

The Case for Bypassing Union Station

Let’s start with the first point, since avoiding Union Station is counterintuitive to many Angelenos. After all, it’s the rail hub of Southern California, a landmark, almost synonymous with the region’s rail heritage. But – and this is important – it’s also a total mess.

Shoved in the armpit of two concrete rivers, nestled next to the largest prison complex in the entire country, Union Station will never be anything but a place to make transfers. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that transferring at the station is also fraught.

This diagram from Metro’s Union Station Master Plan illustrates how the station evolved with the arrival of the Red and Gold Lines in 1993 and 2003, respectively. The underlying layout of the station has remained the same since the streetcar days, but more and more services have been squeezed into the margins. The result is challenging transfers like the one from the subway to the Gold Line, or from anything to the Silver Line.

Maybe there are remedies to this, but the clearest one is to stop trying to shoehorn local transit services into LAUS.

In the face of a solid bloc of downtown stakeholders opposing any route on Alameda that’s not below-grade, and a request from government agencies that the West Santa Ana Branch not run through the Union Station railyard, Metro still offers three new routes that end at the station. According to the report, station locations include, “underground west of Union Station; underground west of Metro Gold Line platform; and at-grade east of Metro Gold Line platform.”

The first two options would mean that there would be a subway station at the level of the subway’s mezzanine, something like 700 to 900 feet away from the Red and Purple Lines. Connections to the railyard and bus bays would be even more belabored. We should really stop and think what we’re trying to accomplish by tacking another disjointed transfer here.

Where light rail is concerned, Union Station offers only the pretense of good connectivity; it can’t deliver more. The only remaining space at the station would result in transfers of such poor quality that it would be best to avoid Union Station if there’s any hope of making better line-to-line connections elsewhere.

As it so happens, the new alternatives do provide us that possibility.

Serving the Downtown Core

The Downtown Transit Core option 1 alternative as depicted here is revelatory. It is a major break with the agency’s typically conservative approach, presenting an ambitious, forward-looking alternative for the Artesia Line. The most logical elaboration of the sketched alignment would cover 2.8 miles from Washington station north on Alameda to 4th, which it would then follow west into the heart of the Financial District.

With 7th blocked by the subway, 4th Street (or 5th in a pinch) is the ideal corridor for providing service through downtown. Fourth aligns with the Pershing Square subway station as well as potential stations at 6th and Santa Fe and the infill 4th/5th and Flower station of the Regional Connector. Beyond downtown, it lines up with possible extensions to Glendale via Glendale Boulevard, to West Hollywood via Beverly and Santa Monica Boulevards, and to Whittier via Whittier and Washington Boulevards.

Those potential routes are beyond the scope of the initial West Santa Ana Branch project to be sure, but the corridor represents what should be an aspirational goal in Metro’s planning: fast, high-quality connections today, and the possibility of rational extensions in the future.

With respect to those connections, the Downtown Transit Core 1 alternative hits all the must-haves. It connects to the Blue Line, to the subway at Pershing Square, and to the Regional Connector at Flower. It also would spread the congestion currently concentrated at 7th/Metro across three stations, helping to assure the long time stability of the downtown area transit network.

What to Make of the Other Alternatives

Workable solutions could be made from either of the other two alternatives, though it would be less easy. DTC-2 is barely more than a sketch, but, if the premise turning toward downtown before hitting 4th or 5th, that leaves few options: 1) following 9th Street over to Pico station; 2) following 9th Street and then heading north toward 4th; 3) taking 7th.

I really don’t regard 7th Street as a legitimate option here. Following 7th all the way west would require a 3rd level underneath 7th and Metro, and unnecessarily dump tens of thousands of new passengers (locally-destined traffic, transfers to the Red, Purple, Blue and Expo Lines headed in all directions) on the system’s most crowded point.

Following 9th to Pico seems similarly lackluster, more or less duplicating the Blue Line on Washington, and, even worse, failing to connect with the subway at all, resulting in yet another crush of passengers transferring to the Red and Purple Lines at 7th Street.

Ending the line in the Arts District near 6th and Santa Fe would probably be the alternative that would make the most people angry. The area, though it’s getting media heat for real estate development, remains isolated. A terminus here would serve no purpose but to feed trainloads of passengers to the subway, while simultaneously necessitating (and almost single-handedly justifying) the acceleration of the construction of the Arts District’s pet project.

Like the not-dissimilar setup at 4th and King in San Francisco, the Arts District would be a temporary solution at best, requiring some eventual continuance of the line into the main business district and beyond. But the east-sheering Arts District route works against the need to go west.

Image uploaded from iOS

This isn’t a common occurrence in Metro’s history. As planning progresses across the county, many lines (Van Nuys, Whittier, Crenshaw) are under constant threat of degrading into boondoggles hamstrung by failures to think far enough ahead. In this instance, Metro has admirably taken community feedback and turned it into an opportunity to improve a major capital project. All that remains to be seen is whether they can follow through.

The Busy Future of 7th and Metro

In recent weeks, there has been a surge of interest in the carrying capacity of the Metro rail system. These discussions seem to be precipitated in part by state Senate Bill 827, which would override local zoning codes near transit corridors and allow for increased housing production. Although ridership has been falling on the Metro network for years, the outperformance of the Expo Line relative to projected ridership has been used to suggest that the line is running out of room, a conclusion not borne out by the data.

In a separate but perhaps related push, Metro’s launching their own investigation. The directors have asked staff to report back in 90 days on the capacity of the rail system, as well as that of individual stations. According to Henry Fung of Metro’s Citizens Advisory Council, one of the aims here is to assess 7th/Metro and its ability to cope with the increased passenger volumes it will undoubtedly see between now and the Olympics, a decade in which Metro will aggressively pursue acceleration of major transit projects.

It’s true that 7th Street/Metro Center, the safety pin holding together the east and west halves of the network, is quite busy these days. When Metro released its ridership data for the 2017 budget year, I put together a list of the rail stations in order of daily activity and shared it on Twitter. 7th and Metro, which is serviced by the light rail Blue and Expo Lines and the heavy rail Red and Purple Lines, drew the most attention by far. Averaging over 53,000 weekday boardings in fiscal 2017, the station rates among the most utilized in the United States.

Now, Metro leadership will have to figure out what to do with the station, as it will likely continue to become busier in the years following the Regional Connector’s debut. That’s not how it was supposed to work. If any single project had the potential to forestall the crowding in store for 7th/Metro, it would have been the Regional Connector. The under-construction light rail connector will create new stations in the downtown area, and simplify transfers for crosstown transit riders. But what it doesn’t do is reduce the system’s dependency on 7th/Metro as the primary transfer point between the light rail and heavy rail systems.

While transfers are possible at Union Station, they are tortuous and riders will avoid them given the opportunity. The Regional Connector makes it easier for westbound passengers to skip changing trains until they arrive at 7th Street, an arrangement that riders will be only too happy to accept. As a result, the opening of the Purple Line and the Artesia Line – now shooting for completion in the next 8 to 10 years – will add stresses on the system at the place where they will be felt most. New transfers to the Purple Line at 7th/Metro will number in the thousands, if not the tens of thousands, daily.

So what can Metro do to take pressure off its busiest point?

5th and Flower Station

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Image from Metro’s 2012 DEIR

Through most of the planning process for the Regional Connector, Metro intended to put a station between 4th and 5th, next to the Bonaventure in the Financial District. The station was removed following the release of the Draft Environmental Report to make room in the budget for the below-grade alignment that was adopted as the Locally Preferred Alternative. Metro is building this segment of the project in such a way that it can still build 5th and Flower as infill at a later date, and it should plan to do so sooner than expected.

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Depiction of 5th/Flower from Metro’s 2012 EIR

The station location is about 1/3 of a mile north from 7th/Metro, which is close by Los Angeles standards, but also about the same distance as separates the new stops at 2nd/Hope and 2nd/Broadway. A 5th/Flower stop would serve existing jobs and alleviate congestion at Metro Center and remains a good idea.

Because of its proximity to office towers in the Financial District, 5th/Flower would help sort passengers based on their destination. As it stands, 7th/Metro is both the system’s most important transfer point and also the egress point for its second densest job center. 5th/Flower would reduce congestion at 7th/Metro by spreading out passenger exits, particularly for light rail riders, reserving more space at 7th for riders changing trains.


An intuitive way to increase capacity is to run more trains. As part of the Purple Line Extension, Metro is planning on doing just that: during peak hours the Red and Purple Lines will every run every 4 minutes, 2.5 times as frequently as they do at present. Reducing the amount of time passengers have to wait on the platform will naturally help manage platform crowding.

Today, 4 minute headways would ensure that passengers would be cleared from the platform before the next train arrived. As Purple Line ridership grows, however, it could become necessary to run more frequent service. When fifteen trains per hour proves insufficient, Metro will have to consider separating the Red and Purple Lines to maximize the capacity of the subway system. Sending the Red Line down Vermont, a project on the far-off horizon, would allow Metro to double again Purple Line service.

Future Transfers

Because the concentration of activity at 7th/Metro is a result of its being both a busy transfer point and a busy destination point, it is reasonable to expect that, as the system grows, Metro’s planners will reinforce the network by distributing transfers more across a greater number of centrally-located stations.

One such opportunity has already passed us by: a decade ago, Alon Levy was bandying an idea to relocate the station at 2nd/Broadway to 1st/Hill for a direct connection with the existing Civic Center station. While this possibility is now foreclosed, it would’ve fulfilled a valuable purpose within the network: a second transfer point between the light rail and heavy rail lines would have bolstered 7th/Metro by providing an alternative for passengers based on their direction of travel.

In the future, it will be important to allow for new rail lines through downtown Los Angeles, as much as possible, to bypass Union Station and 7th/Metro. Already a line has been proposed by the South Park BID that would extend an east-west service across the southern half of downtown, through the Central Business District’s fastest growing neighborhoods, with a connection to the Blue and Expo Lines at Pico station.

I also believe that a line following 4th Street, as proposed by Devin Bunten, could be extremely useful in years to come, with transfer stations at Flower (Blue/Expo), Hill (Red/Purple), Alameda (possibly Artesia) and Santa Fe (Red/Purple/possibly Artesia). Outside of downtown, such a line could extend along Glendale Boulevard or Beverly to the northwest, and Pacific or Whittier Blvds to the southeast.

In the long term, the key will be de-intensifying the transfers at 7th/Metro, and creating a variety of options for passengers traveling to and through the downtown area.

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One possible future for downtown’s rail network


How Many Passengers Can Expo Handle?

Last week, I posted some of Metro’s annual ridership data on Twitter, and Carter Rubin noted that Expo outperformed the Blue Line in boardings per mile in 2017. The Expo Line averaged 4,000 boardings per mile compared to 3,200 for the Blue Line. Per-mile ridership is a measure of a transit route’s efficiency – as trains get fuller, more service is provided at the same operational cost.

Among Metro’s light rail lines, Expo is now – and probably will remain – tops in this particular metric. The Blue Line did at one point average 4,000 boardings per mile, which, given its longer route length, equated to 88,000 boardings per day. But rapidly deteriorating service on the Los Angeles-to-Long Beach route has seen the Blue Line shed about 15,000 weekday riders since then, with no evident relief in the near future.

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Expo’s success is most pronounced in comparison to other lines in Los Angeles. 4,000 boardings per mile is not exceptional for light rail. Even in the U.S., Boston’s Green Line system averages 2.5 times that number. For that reason, I said I would be more impressed if Expo were achieving at least the per-mile ridership of the Red Line subway system, about 8,000 per mile, or double the weekday riders it carries today. Carter’s response was skeptical, and got me thinking about this a bit more. Could the Expo Line carry 120,000 daily passengers? And what would it look like for it to do so?

To put it another way: Given Metro’s operating standards, and before a major capital investment (like a new vehicle fleet, lengthening of platforms, or new rail infrastructure) becomes necessary, does the current Expo Line have enough available space to double its passenger volume?

Metro allows for a full load of 164 passengers in each light rail car, and 218 passengers per car as a maximum crush load. Expo trains are composed of three cars each, and, when the Regional Connector opens in 2021, 12 trains will be able to run per hour. Using these numbers, the Expo Line could handle up to 7,848 passengers per hour passing through a given point in a given direction.

In practical usage, crowdedness fluctuates by time of day, direction of travel, and location along the Expo Line, which was designed to handle the travel volumes planners expected during peak-hour, peak-directional travel. So, functionally, it’s trivial to rule out the upper bound you’d get if every train ran full through the busiest point for the entire service day [7,848 passengers/hr x 22 hrs x 2 directions = 345,312 passengers/day; 23,000 boardings per mile]. And, if Expo ran out of space, it’s likely that it would be while only being really busy for a small portion of the service day.

Since we’re dealing with not only number of boardings, but also when and where those boardings are taking place, it will help to separate Expo riders into the two main rush hour commuting patterns, and a third group who ride during off-peak hours. The 2017 budget year, which ended in June, is the most recent for which Metro has made directional travel data available, and Expo’s ridership during the period broke down as follows.

Travel Pattern Boardings
Eastbound AM/ Westbound PM 10,640
Westbound AM/ Eastbound PM 17,798
Off-Peak 23,539
Total Boardings 51,976

About 55% of ridership on the Expo Line occurs during peak hours, basically tracking the systemwide average of 58%. The westbound commute is stronger than the eastbound commute, and so we’ll focus there.

The morning rush has higher per-train loads than the evening rush, despite greater passenger volumes in the evening. Morning activity is more concentrated around the 7:00 AM hour, whereas it’s more evenly distributed during the PM rush.

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These graphs show the extent to which available space on Expo trains is being taken up by passengers when the line is at its busiest. Certainly, it doesn’t look like Expo is on the verge of running out of space. So let’s assume the line hits 120,000 daily boardings, while maintaining the proportion of riders commuting in either direction:

Travel Pattern Boardings
Eastbound AM / Westbound PM 24,564
Westbound AM / Eastbound PM 41,091
Off-Peak 54,345
Total Boardings 120,000

And, if we assume those additional riders use the system the same way it’s being used today, the increased passenger load would look like this:

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If we get to this point, then we’re brushing up against a full load average during the 7AM hour. But that average covers 12 trains per day for hundreds of weekdays throughout the year, and so it’s probably concealing a lot of individual crush-load trains. And a lot of crush-load trains means a lot of vocally-displeased passengers.

While the tolerance for crowding in Los Angeles seems to be lower than elsewhere, it’s worth noting that riders in general tend to interact differently with crowded train lines than with non-crowded lines.

Passengers will avoid crowding if they can. That doesn’t mean they’ll stop riding (at least not as a first resort), but rather that they’ll seek out more comfortable, less irritating ways to take transit. Some will adjust the time of their trip to be earlier or later in the rush hour period, or to be outside of it altogether. Some will change where they board in order to get upstream and board at less crowded points. Behaviors like these serve to spread crowding more evenly throughout the line and across service hours. So in our example we might expect the 8AM and 6AM hours to become busier to the extent that they offer relief, and passenger loads to increase further and further east of Baldwin Hills.

This is only one example of how Expo could look if the number of passengers it carries doubles. We’ve assumed that passenger behavior will stay the same, when it almost certainly will not. In coming years, the openings of the Crenshaw Line, Regional Connector, Purple Line, and (distantly) the Sepulveda Line will each reshape Expo in ways we can guess at, but can’t be sure of.

As far as personal speculation goes, it seems to me impossible that the Expo Line could ever double its off-peak ridership without a thorough reconsideration of Metro’s organizational attitude about off-peak service. Trains that run five times an hour midday are not that useful, and potential riders will probably never opt for them, even though they are still making trips at those hours. So, in all likelihood, if Expo is ever going to make it to 120,000 daily riders, we’d have to see much larger numbers of westsiders using the train either to commute downtown or for travel within the westside.

CSUN calls for improved service for campus commuters

The Daily News and KPCC reported earlier this week that California State University Northridge (CSUN) is set to make a push for a package of transit improvements to its campus. CSUN occupies a central place in the San Fernando Valley and state Senator Robert M. Hertzberg was on campus Monday to make the case that it should occupy a central place in the SFV’s transit plans as well. With 3800+ employees and upwards of 40,000 students, CSUN is one of the largest employment centers in Los Angeles and the largest university in the 23-campus Cal State system. Hertzberg is one among a growing number of Valley politicians calling for an increase in funding share for their subregion. Many in the SFV believe that the subregion got short changed by Measure R, relative to the share of the tax base that the Valley represents.

According to Hertzberg, CSUN sees “more than 100,000 single-occupant car trips to campus” every single week. The campus transit center is served by several Metro bus lines but all of these suffer from relatively poor service. The Rapid 744, which makes a gigantic U-shape along Van Nuys, Ventura and Reseda Boulevards, operates at 20 minute headways throughout the day, with its last scheduled service to CSUN at about 9:15 PM. The 167 bus, which nominally connects Chatsworth and Studio City to campus, runs just once an hour in either direction. As part of its general call for better service, CSUN President Diane Harrison wants to see service levels within 10 miles of campus drastically improved. About half of CSUN’s students live within a 10-mile radius of school, an area encompassing essentially the entirety of the San Fernando Valley, according to their research. Burt Reed of the Transit Coalition says that the Valley should demand 1 million bus service hours just in their subregion and take precautions to make sure that that money doesn’t drift away into other areas.

Harrison’s other priorities would help to reinforce CSUN as a central regional trip generator. She recommends moving the existing Metrolink Northridge station to Reseda Blvd, adjacent to her proposal for a real Bus Rapid Transit line running from Ventura Boulevard up to the CSUN transit center. The Metrolink station is just about a mile from campus but suffers from poor connectivity with local buses. Harrison’s solution would certainly help, and Metrolink service improvements would make it more useful for students as well. CSUN is further recommending the establishment of Bus Rapid Transit between campus and the future Van Nuys Light Rail line, which might one day provide service under the Sepulveda Pass to Westwood and LAX, and a Metro Rapid route between the Warner Center and campus. The Nordhoff Bus Rapid Transit line is an excellent way to emphasize the demand and need for intra-Valley transit options. The 744 runs down Van Nuys and Reseda, but is clearly useless for those attempting to take transit between activity centers on either. A Nordhoff BRT project would break the 744 down into its 3 component travel patterns, and better serve the populace because of it.

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U-shaped 744 route. From Metro

All in all, the school is making a laudable effort to redefine its role in the Valley transportation network. Past Metro studies have focused on north-south movement in the SFV, as the agency has been building out the beginnings of its regional system. This has had the effect of giving too little weight to travel patterns that begin and end inside the Valley, and of denying it a hub-spoke mini-network of its own. But now, the conversation has clearly progressed to that point. Tomorrow at 6 pm, CSUN will have its priorities on display at the 2nd Valley Transportation Summit. Underscoring the need for action by Metro, CSUN will offer Uber scholarships for students to attend.


Will Slauson Light Rail Make the Cut?

Last year, a proposal to improve a Metro-owned right-of-way running through South Los Angeles made a major jump forward when Metro received $15 million in federal grants to begin converting the blighted corridor into an active transportation path stretching from the Crenshaw Line out to the Los Angeles River. The news was welcomed by the Chair of Metro’s Board of Directors, Mark Ridley-Thomas, in whose County Supervisorial district the new active transportation path will be located. However, it was received somewhat more roughly by transit activists, some of whom felt that even a temporary improvement to the  corridor would jeopardize its future use for rail transit. I, for one, am excited that South L.A., so often neglected, misunderstood and ignored, is set to receive the rail-to-river pathway that residents have identified as a genuine need.

If one wants a glimpse into the extent that South Los Angeles is generally ignored by its electeds, one need only look at the Measure R2 priorities recommended by the “Central Cities” Council of Governments (which is, after all, just Eric Garcetti’s City Hall). Despite the studies that have been completed on the Harbor Subdivision, and despite that a subway down Vermont appears in Metro’s Long Range Transportation Plan, Garcetti has prioritized extending the Crenshaw line north up to Hollywood/Highland station, and funding the Downtown streetcar project. Of the remaining priorities, most are citywide initiatives that appear to amount to a siphoning of funds away from Central and South Los Angeles by the San Fernando Valley and Westside. South L.A. in particular appears to get very little, not even a recommendation to fund the shortfall in the rail-to-river path project.central cities

There is no reason that this community should be forced to be patient with an unmaintained rail corridor for decades until Metro gets around to establishing service on Slauson, but, to be sure, there is also no reason that Metro actually should wait decades to do so. This is a corridor primed for rail service, that would serve existing local need, improve regional mobility, and that could be had for relatively cheap. By all indications, though, it has been shunted down into the lowest ring of priorities, and likely on the strength of some more outdated SCAG analyses.

The Harbor Subdivision ROW snakes from Union Station to LAX and back again, ending deep in the South Bay. A section of the ROW is already being used by the Green Line and the portion of the Crenshaw Line from Hyde Park south to the Green Line will utilize the ROW as well. In 2009, SCAG studied the entirety of the corridor, focusing on its potential as a means of connecting DTLA and the airport by regional or express rail. The South L.A. community rejected the non-local options, as well they should have. The regional and express options, if they had gone forward, would have turned their back on a transit-dependent population in order to privilege use of the system by South Bay Commuters and tourists. 200,000 people live within a mile of the Slauson corridor of the Harbor Subdivision, extending from the Florence/West station of the Crenshaw Line to the Slauson station of the Blue Line. Many of those residents, as SCAG and Metro noted, are already users of public transportation, and the 5.2 mile corridor runs through some of the densest neighborhoods in the county.


Here’s a close-up. The Crenshaw Line appears in pink and the Alameda option of the WSAB is shown in light green. The dashed line is the path that a Slauson LRT through South L.A. would follow. It would share tracks with the Crenshaw Line from Aviation/Century to Florence/West, at which point the Slauson Line would follow the Harbor Subdivision northeast to Slauson Avenue.From there it could travel east, primarily at-grade with targeted grade separations, before joining up with the Blue and WSAB lines at Long Beach Avenue, and following the WSAB tracks through DTLA to Union Station.

Even as local light rail service, the benefits would be pronounced. With 5 miles of track along existing ROW, we would serve a corridor of high need, provide connections between 3 rail lines (and the Silver Line) and vastly improve the connection between downtown and the airport. Once the regional connector is completed, travel from the Union Station hub to LAX will involve taking the Blue Line to the Green Line and then transferring to the People Mover. Cut-throughs using the WSAB, or the current Expo and Crenshaw Lines may ultimately prove to be faster, but they would also bring the trip up to four transfers. Taking the Slauson Line from Union Station to LAX, by contrast would be a two seat ride, with only a transfer to the LAX People Mover at 96th/Century station.

It is worth noting that in the Harbor Sub alternatives analysis, SCAG recommended fully eliminating an option that would involve interlining with the Blue Line and then running up Alameda to Union Station. This was due to a number of factors, primarily the lack of capacity at both Little Tokyo station and the Gold Line crossing of the 101 freeway. Little Tokyo station is now in the process of being relocated underground as part of the Regional Connector project, and just last year Metro’s WSAB Technical Refinement study proposed a nearly identical alignment for that line as the one that SCAG eliminated for the Harbor Subdivision. While the route hasn’t been fully refined yet, it would involve a separate crossing of the 101 and an aerial station above the new Little Tokyo station. SCAG’s analysis should be taken back into consideration. The Union Station connection that they dismissed outright is about to be considered for a Measure R funded line, and the potential for interlining the two exists.

One consideration would be that the existing Blue Line Slauson station (which is south of Slauson Ave) would need to be moved to the north side of the intersection. This may be necessary even if the WSAB alone is constructed. If the Slauson Line were constructed, the station at Slauson/Long Beach would become an important focal point of travel in and through South Los Angeles. Reconstruction of the station would offer the opportunity to improve the functionality of junction and to provide extra amenities for the high transfer volume that would occur there. In the picture below, the Blue Line Slauson station is elevated on the south side of the street. The rail running from the foreground is the Harbor Subdivision ROW track, and the at-grade crossing parallel to the Blue Line is being studied for use by the West Santa Ana Branch project.slauson station.PNG

The rail-to-river corridor is a good project that will provide safe active transit space in an area where that is an asset in short supply. Metro’s own design criteria for alternate uses on its ROWs mandate that they preserve the capacity for future transit usage. This could amount to putting in place temporary materials, with the underlying assumption that a Slauson Light Rail project would result in tearing them out. But again, this would be unfair to the community, which would be made to choose between two vital assets. While the feasibility of building the Slauson Line is not endangered by the rail-to-river project, nor by its exclusion from Measure R2, we are missing out on a perfect opportunity to concert our efforts. Rail-to-river funding could be apportioned out of funding for the Slauson line, and designed in such a way that they could coexist. We will know in the coming weeks whether or not the Slauson Line remains on Metro’s radar.

Metro Needs to Reconsider the Eastside Subway

Things are changing rapidly in the world of Metrorail these days. Specific project alternatives, such as the Green Line South Bay Extension, that have long held an air of presumed inevitability are being challenged by new, upstart proposals, like the potential “Florence to Torrance” LRT. Laws, like the one from the hysterical days of the early ’90s that prevented rail on the Chandler Right-of-Way, are being written out of existence. There are SCAG-funded studies, like those for the Harbor Subdivision and West Santa Ana Branch Rights-of-Way, that are being recognized as no longer reflective of the highest potential for Los Angeles’ rail system. So why are we still making decisions based on similarly obsolete data in other parts of the county? I’m talking here about the Purple Line, and the terrible mistake Metro will be subjecting Los Angeles to if it moves forward with its 2-branch Gold Line extension.

20 years ago, there was a plan to extend the incipient Red Line subway system out east toward Whittier along Whittier Boulevard. Anyone who wants a full blow-by-blow account of the sordid saga pick up Ethan Elkind’s phenomenal Railtown. Let it simply be said that, after years of political mischief and conflicts regarding everything from displacement to contract awards, the work on the Red Line Eastside Extension ended for good and all when, in 1998, Zev Yaroslavsky threw his political weight behind a successful ballot measure that halted the usage of Proposition A and C tax dollars on new subway construction. In so doing, the county lost a fully-cleared subway, half of which was to be funded by the Federal Government, when it was determined that local authorities could not piece together their portion of the funding. The New Subway prohibition remains in effect today, even though the overriding narrative of the rail system has become a fight to attract, rather than repel, Metrorail. The Gold Line eventually made it out east along a roughly similar route to the original path that the subway would have taken, but in a combination of grade alignments that changed the conversation regarding future eastward extensions of the line. In looking back, there is an identifiable pattern that the specific compromises made at each stage of this process have resulted in an overall diminishment of the utility of the end result at significantly increased cost.

Eastside phase 2
Image from Oct/09 Alternatives Analysis, Metro

The decision in the first phase of the Eastside Extension to locate the Atlantic station at Pomona/Atlantic rather than Beverly/Atlantic complicated the ability of the line to move in a southerly direction toward Whittier in the future. As a result, all 4 of the routes considered in the phase 2 alternatives analysis follow Pomona out to Garfield, at which point 3 of those take a geometrically hideous right turn in a zig-zagging attempt to follow ridership at the expense of travel time. The routes following Beverly and Whittier Blvds, which would have better served the city of Whittier, were bafflingly proposed to travel primarily at street level. This move, which further tanked the ridership and travel time numbers of those alternatives, also crafted the bulk of the community opposition to the routes. Despite the fact that the community feedback could have been mitigated by changes in grade (and that additional funding could have been found before the scheduled 2035 opening of the route), Metro instead opted to eliminate them entirely. With two routes remaining by the time of the DEIR for the Eastside Phase 2 extension, the conversation had evolved into a competition between the SR-60 coalition and the Washington Boulevard coalition of cities.

Measure R is slated to fund $1.3 billion (2008 dollars) for the Eastside Transit Corridor, which, on the current timeframe of a 2035 delivery, is not enough to fund either the SR-60 or the Washington alignments ($2.5 billion and $3.3 billion YOE respectively). By building it sooner, there is the potential to save a lot of money, but in the environment Metro has fostered, both coalitions look at this project as a zero-sum game. If one of them gets light rail, the other might not. Hence, the new plan which seeks to preserve both alternatives and run the Eastside gold line in a branch pattern along both routes. While this will please politicians at the outset, it will ultimately make riders miserable. And riders only stay miserable for so long before they stop riding altogether.

When you mire yourself in the step-by-step compromises like this, it’s easy to forget where you came from and where you intended to go. Indeed, just last week we discussed Metro’s desperate efforts to fix the broken Washington Blvd alignment by initiating studies into tunneling from Pomona Boulevard down to Washington or by moving the branch-off point further west and actually relocating the Atlantic station to Beverly. If these options are on the table, we should be walking our conception of this project back to the beginning. What was once going to be the heavy rail spine of the county’s transit system, capable of zipping large numbers of commuters from Whittier as far out as Santa Monica in about 60 minutes (based on projected Purple Line westside travel times), will now take about 100 minutes to travel to the same endpoint, missing most of the ridership generators along the way. That 100 minutes (I calculated by adding up end to end times for the Expo, Regional Connector, Eastside Phases 1 and 2), by the way, is a good, but not exactly jaw-dropping, improvement over the existing service offered by Metro’s current Rapid 720 bus, which travels from Commerce to Downtown Santa Monica in 115 minutes. When you factor in that frequencies to Whittier will be halved under the current branch plan, the service suffers even more.

Let’s talk Purple Line, people. Why have we convinced ourselves that the Eastside subway extension is dead and not merely dormant? After all, this project is officially known as the Eastside Transit Corridor, and heavy rail fits the bill as well as light rail. We’ve lost the funding from Propositions A and C, but we’ve gained it in Measure R and we’re in the process of seeking out more. The San Gabriel Valley and the Gateway Cities subregions have signaled a willingness to contribute $1.1 billion out of a Measure R2 to fund the Gold Line Eastside extension. And, to be clear, this project as proposed is not going to meet the federal standards for cost-effectiveness that have allowed the Purple Line’s Westside extension, for example, to begin its 1st phase with $2 billion in federal funding out of a total $2.8 billion cost. Are we willing to spend $2.5 billion out of pocket to receive a branched rail line that is optimistically projected to receive 36,000 total daily riders? Better question: How far could we get on the Purple Line Eastside extension with that money instead? Metro is putting up just $800 million dollars for the first 4-mile segment of the Purple Line extending from Wilshire/Western to Wilshire/La Cienega. It is being considered for further federal funding that makes it possible that Metro will begin construction on all three phases of the Westside extension simultaneously, expediting delivery and saving taxpayer dollars. All this because it follows the sensible route, the route with ridership, and it focuses on efficiency rather than short-term financial expediency. All this because it has what Eastside residents were robbed of in the 90s: a dedicated source of local matching funds.

Purple Line Complete

Above is one possibility (and that’s all it is, so don’t read too much into the specific length or terminus) for a full-length Purple Line route extending from 4th/Wilshire to Whittier/Painter. Other than the central curve from the DTLA financial district to the network’s regional hub at Union Station, it maintains a generally straight alignment along highly-trafficked corridors for its entirety. It would have the highest ridership of any line in the network. It would revolutionize how Angelenos envision mobility across their city. None of which can be said of the Gold Line Extensions currently plodding their way toward the finish line. This is not a rhetorical exercise. We should ask ourselves how many of the 12 miles from downtown to Whittier could be financed with leverage equivalent to the $2.5 billion that we are considering spending on two bad projects.

I’m not going to say that this would be easy. It would represent a major upheaval, which, in the staid world of local bureaucracy is often enough to reject it out of hand. It is not the opinion of this blog that heavy rail fully below-grade is an expense that must be sprung for everywhere, but where it makes sense to put high capacity rapid transit, we are doing ourselves a disservice by not making the most of the opportunity. And we have things working in our favor. We have entered a new funding reality. We don’t need to be beholden to decisions of the recent past made by a more transit-averse electorate. We know that Metro is considering extending subway service into the Arts District along track that trains already travel every single day. From the potential station at 4th or 6th, trains would continue underground along Whittier Boulevard into the heart of Whittier. Now that Metro is doubling back and considering refinements to the Washington Boulevard Alternative, some of which fall outside the original scope of the Eastside Transit Corridor, they should also be willing to reconsider the best alternative. The cities of the SR-60 coalition have been built up to feel like if they don’t get the Gold Line, then they don’t get anything. Though the Gold Line would offer them nominal access to the rail network, it would never be heavily-used because it would always be hamstrung both by its location and its headways (and if Metro opts for weighted headways, the SR-60 is sure to receive the less frequent service). Rather than fighting over a low ridership quasi-commuter route so that they can tell their constituents that they got something, they should put their money into funding a more rider-friendly line, like the proposed (but generally not spoken of) Silver Line LRT further north. As one commenter on this site pointed out, such a line, along Garvey or Valley,  would offer more meaningful service to each of the coalition’s cities without the sacrifice in service that would come with the Gold Line option.

Can we make this happen? I don’t know, but we have nothing to lose in trying. With a proposed revenue start date of 2035, there is plenty of time before construction begins to redo environmental documents and find the funding to do the thing right. Hell, there’s even plenty of time to repeal the measure preventing Propositions A and C from being used to fund below-grade rail transit. Once construction on this flawed project starts, the opportunity to give the Eastside the transit it deserves may be lost forever.

The ghosts of the Pacific Electric Railway, most of whose routes have been abandoned for 80 years or more, continue to haunt Los Angeles, shaping its growth and subliminally steering its future. How can we act now, cognizant as we are of the decrepitude of the proposed alternatives for Los Angeles’ Eastside, as though we are unaware that we too will steer the future? When we adopt these inferior works, we thereby eliminate from future consideration better, more sensible options. We are sowing the inequities of the future and asking the Eastside to continue to abide. These are matters of potential, of looking forward and determining which option will join itself to the fabric of the community and become progressively more integral as time passes. We should know by now that when it comes to capital investments, there is more than dollars and cents at stake.