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.
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.
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.