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.

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Author: Red Line Reader

Red Line Reader covers issues of transit and transportation affecting the city and county of Los Angeles. This site is dedicated to the fight for good and equitable transit, and to preserving for future generations a quality of life that we would be proud to enjoy today.

17 thoughts on “Metro Needs to Reconsider the Eastside Subway”

  1. Arts District then cross the river to Whittier Blvd. Even if the initial segment only gets to Soto it would get the ball rolling.

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  2. With respect to the purple line crossing the river, it’s a shame the replacement 6th Street bridge wasn’t engineered/designed to discreetly accommodate tracks below the road bed. Here was a once in a generation opportunity to make double use of an infrastructure investment, what with the Metro tracks already above grade through the Arts District and the plan to build out new stations at 3rd and 6th streets. Upon reaching the other side of the river the trains could have then dropped below grade to proceed southeast on Whittier Blvd. This kind of mixed grade separation is seen in New York, Seoul, and other cities with proper rail networks.

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  3. I’m not convinced that East LA, Montebello, Pico Rivera and Whittier really have the existing or planned population density to support a subway. I agree that Whittier Boulevard would be a better area to serve with transit than Washington or the 60 but I don’t see a way to do rail on it without narrowing the roadway to a level that most people wouldn’t accept. Plus, what’s the point of taking rail to Whittier if it doesn’t go into Uptown Whittier? I’m pulling for a modified version of the Washington Blvd. Gold Line route, which makes it across Whittier Blvd. into Uptown. Money doesn’t grow on trees. Places that get subway service need to look more like Koreatown and less like Pico Rivera.

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    1. I believe, and you may well disagree, that there is inherent benefit, even as we rightly focus the majority of our efforts on a light rail buildout, in establishing main high capacity and high speed transit corridors both east-west and north-south. Whatever you might feel about the population density, the ridership is there to support this corridor. It would also rationalize a great many commutes originating outside the service area. The best way to ensure that the public will use transit is to treat them like their time is important to you. And while the existing service on the red and purple lines suffer from poor management by Metro, management strategies are easy to change compared to infrastructure alignments. I agree regarding Uptown, of course, but my map was not meant to be refined enough that I felt it necessary to show all the different options to terminate. There are many.
      As for money, you’re right. We’re being asked to put up a lot of local money to see the Gold Line through to completion. Opening up the discussion for tunneling down to Washington does make that route somewhat easier to stomach, but we also don’t know how much that will increase our costs in that area. My post, really, was predicated on the notion that if we had constructed both in 2010 when the DEIR was completed, it would have been at a cost of $2.9 billion. That cost is higher now, before the costs from tunneling are factored in. With 36,000 estimated daily riders (most of whom are riders already), That’s $80,000/rider to move thousands people from existing bus service, but not attract many new riders. As a result, we will end up paying most if not all of the total ourselves. Politicians like this solution because it is a bullet point on a list of achievements. Riders, I think, will ultimately not be served very well by it.

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      1. you have yet to provide any factual, objective data to support building a subway under Whittier Blvd – even if you want to argue that it should become the major east-west transit “backbone” of LA County, why does it justify the $500 million per mile cost of heavy rail subway? Especially when compared to other county corridors that are much denser and don’t even get to have BRT service, let alone a rail line. A corridor has to be incredibly dense and constrained to justify putting a rail line in a subway, especially at a time when the federal and state governments are less willing to pitch in a substantial amount towards the costs. You can’t justify building underground just because you simply want *this* corridor to be the main east-west transit line in the county (again, without backing up your argument with factual data, like number of jobs or residents within walking distance of the corridor). Again, we ALL would love to have subways under our major corridors, reaching all of our neighborhoods and serving all of our major employment centers. But the reality is subways are rarely justified (based on their costs) outside of a few major corridors on the West Coast – Wilshire Blvd is one of them (even a casual observer will know this, just by looking at a simple aerial map of the corridor). There is no reason not to save BILLIONS of dollars by at least advocating for a much more plausible light rail line that combines surface and aerial segments where justified.

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      2. @Transit Rider, sure I can put together some figures for you once I get home, but I frankly don’t agree that Koreatown densities are necessary to sustain a successful rail line. Your concern appears to be that I gave Whittier some form of preference in saying it should be part of the major east-west transitway, when in reality the route I selected is modeled off of what is already serving as the major east-west transitway: the 720 bus. Because it serves more destinations more directly (including those on Whittier Boulevard, like it or not) than the Gold Line, it is and likely will remain a superior option for many crosstown commuters. But I do believe that there are other corridors deserving of this treatment. Vermont is one. And if you have a more preferred eastside corridor, by all means, please make your case.
        But because we are considering spending $2.4 billion on these Gold Line Extensions, I don’t know that we are really looking at saving billions, as you say. It’s possible, but I don’t know why we should assume so if there is the potential that a more cost-effective subway could earn proportionately more in state and federal funding. It’s true that Federal dollars are scarce, but they are not unattainable and, as far as I’m aware, a GOP presidency is not an imminent certainty. Metro is very concerned with tailoring projects (710-north, Sepulveda, I’m sure more to come) so that they are attractive to private investors, but those qualities won’t necessarily make for good transit projects. I would like to see them pay more attention to the major contribution (yes we’re talking billions) they’re asking of local taxpayers and craft projects like the Gold Line so as to be competitive for federal funding. That’s all. The Purple Line westside extension did come out to around $500 million/mile but land to the east is cheaper and tunneling less difficult without the tar pits to contend with.

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  4. I was hoping to take this blog seriously until this. Advocating a subway (below grade) alignment under Whittier Blvd goes against all the principle rules of successful transit and attracting high ridership. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but this corridor, while it may seem dense relative to other corridors on the Eastside, does NOT have anywhere near the density needed to support a subway. This is the number 1 objective rule of fixed guideway (especially rail) transit: it needs high densities to be successful. And if you’re advocating building this in subway, the densities need to be much higher. Take a tour along Whittier Blvd and you will rarely ever see a building that even rises to 3 stories, let alone 2 stories. And behind them you have…single family homes! Probably one of the worst predictors of rail transit success. And yet this blog is advocating spending BILLIONS of scarce transit funds so that, God forbid, we don’t take any precious space away from autos on the surface? Why a subway under Whittier Blvd, when surface or even aerial rail barely pencils out? Sure, we all would love to have subway lines under every major corridor in the region, but last I checked, money for transit is scarce and becoming even more so (and will undoubtedly drop even more under a GOP presidency with a GOP Congress). Not to mention the duplication of service arguments and the fact that the Eastside LRT line has already been built (at considerable cost) out to Atlantic.

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  5. There is plenty of population to support a Whittier Blvd. subway. The combined population of Boyle Heights, East L.A., Pico Rivera and Whittier is around 433,000. The entire Westside is about 529,000. Two and three story density supports heavy rail in many parts of the world.

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    1. So then where are all these 2 and 3 story buildings you mention? A simple ride along Whittier proves that over 90% of the corridor is 1 story tall, with single family homes behind these strips. Sure, you can point to AGGREGATE numbers of residents and jobs, but the key to success for a fixed guideway transit line is density that is concentrated along the corridor and within 1/4 to 1/2 mile of the stations. Where are these major, dense centers along Whittier Blvd? Especially as you venture further east, the continuous urban street front gives way to large surface parking lots along the street and lower and lower concentrations of people or jobs. Saying that other metropolitan areas support UNDERGROUND heavy rail with 2-3 stories ignores the fact that a lot of LA is 2-3 stories yet would never lead to the ridership necessary to justify putting the rail underground. If you’re advocating spending over 20+ times the amount of surface rail for an underground subway in LA, then why Whittier Blvd and not a number of our other major boulevards/corridors that have much higher densities? Vermont Ave (south of Wilshire) is a perfect example, or even Ventura Blvd – why should we only serve the corridors with bus, while the less-dense Whittier Blvd not only gets rail, but one that’s underground?

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  6. @Transit Rider: NOONE is advocating giving a new Whittier Blvd subway priority over rail investment on Wilshire, Vermont, Ventura, etc etc. If anything this should be motivating us to advocate relentlessly FOR rail on those major thoroughfares, as well as on Whittier.

    This idea that they are advocating AT LEAST $120 Billion in new Measure R2 investments, yet there isn’t enough in the pot to facilitate subway construction on ALL of the above blvds is a pile of nonsensical crap. Enough of these delusional freeway widening and Bus Rapid Transit money pits. All the BRU and various other groups crying for bus investments and road improvements have done thus far is waste taxpayer’s valuable time and dollars promoting projects that quickly go over design capacity during rush hour. Case in point: the Orange Line BRT. Already Metro is talking about converting the line to rail, so that’s well over $500 Million wasted on a project that went overcapacity in only 10 years, an EXTREMELY short time. It would’ve been better spending some of those 10 years and half-billion dollars kickstarting Light-Rail on that corridor, something that could’ve been completed by now.

    And depending on construction methods (tunnel-bored, trench, cut-and-cover, etc.) as well as soil conditions, below-grade rail is NOT always “20 times more expensive than at-grade”. Furthermore, you can shave off 20% of the cost of tunneling by choosing to transition to elevated aerial viaducts(similar to what should be done on Vermont, south of Gage Ave.) wherever below-grade just isn’t worth the effort.

    GOP congress and GOP white house? Excuses excuses. Everyone talking about infrastructure spending should know by know that these morons are never going to budge from their cluelessness, so local governments and the state should start thinking of a long-term future of investing in rail without the assistance from Washington.

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  7. Low rise cities outside the United States (like most of London) have much higher transit mode splits than Los Angeles. So until that shifts dramatically, you need more density in Los Angeles to justify the cost of underground rail than in, say, Oslo.

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    1. Network connectivity, major points of interest/nodes (i.e. a community college), demographics, and ridership/development potential are also important factors.

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  8. Terrific post and blog in general. It’s rather hilarious how Metro is asking the public for their input on how to increase ridership, yet planned projects like these are totally counterproductive to that end.

    To make this project feasible, I’d split the alignment into two phases at Garfield; each would cost roughly $2.5 billion (by my estimation). If you figure that the Boyle Heights/East LA segment would generate enough ridership to land a New Starts Full Funding Grant Agreement from the FTA, then you could “get the ball rolling” (as someone put it) fairly quickly. Perhaps Metro is waiting to see if the November ballot measure passes or not before deciding to proceed with any alternative(s).

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  9. I actually would have extended the RED from NoHo down Whittier to Whittier.
    I would take the Purple from Santa Monica to LAUS then take it over to USC/county general hospital, on to Cal State LA and then maybe Valley Blvd a bit to Alhambra.
    Valley, like Whittier, could be considered the Wilshire blvd of the SGV.
    This creates a subway system in the shape of an “X” and gives you more directional options.

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