Metro’s New Ad Campaign Keeps Focus in the Wrong Place

If you have used the Metro smartphone app recently, you have probably seen this ad for the soon-to-open Foothill Extension of the Gold Line:FullSizeRender

Presumably, with a ballot measure follow-up to 2008’s Measure R currently being focus grouped and prepared for its big day in November, Metro feels some need to reassure drivers that they too will benefit by agreeing to bless the local Transportation Authority with yet another long term half-cent sales tax. And here we have it: the essentially Los Angeles scene of a transit agency heralding the opening of its newest rail corridor as a boon to the region’s non-transit users.

Due to the Foothill Extension’s suburban and quasi-commuter rail routing (which adds 6 stations over 11 miles), there is an argument to be made that the intent of the campaign is to cast rail as a favorable alternative for drivers fed up with the 210 through the western San Gabriel Valley. But in terms of the new ad, it’s a weak argument. After all, assuming we accept the premise to begin with, for whom is traffic actually being eased? The drivers, of course. And that’s what’s being broadcast here. If anything, Metro is telling drivers that it’s OK to stay on the 210 because someone else will ride the Gold Line. I find it tough to look at the other “Metro Eases Traffic” images and think that the agency is even considering drivers as potential transit users.

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Personally, I believe that the Gold Line extension will beat the relatively paltry 10,100 weekday riders that the FEIR predicted back in 2007 before long. But this ad campaign really speaks to the heart of a deeper issue for bus and rail riders in Los Angeles. The quality of the transit projects and the quality of transit service that can be achieved through this driver-first mindset is always going to be second rate. The projects suffer because there is an overemphasis on the potential for rail to alleviate the pressure that exists at some specific location in the road network. This emphasis, which Metro has played no small part in crafting, leads to a widespread ignorance of the fact that, as UCLA Professor Brian Taylor points out, freeways and rail lines are different technologies with disparate needs and effects. Service, which is at least as important as the infrastructure you build, suffers because the mandate to extend transit is of a secondary importance to the mobility of personal automobiles. As a result, even the heavy rail backbone of the Metrorail system sinks to abysmal frequencies of 1 train every 20+ minutes on weekday evenings immediately after rush hour ends. Metro’s buses, which we’ll discuss more in a future post, have suffered even more acutely from this mindset.

Once the expectation has been set that “traffic easing” is an acceptable basis which to judge the success of transit, it is an inevitability that headlines like this will pop up. There is an inherent risk to continuing to court voter support along these lines. Public confidence is not a function of what an agency promises, but of what it shows itself capable of delivering. It is a difficult capital to rebuild. So is Metro really serving itself by suggesting that the mere presence of a rail line running parallel to the 210 is going to cause a world of difference for car commuters in the west SGV? I tend to doubt it. In reality, the only way to achieve the goal of an easier commute is not by pandering to the whims of drivers, but by creating an efficient and well-served transit network focused on creating and empowering riders.

 

Underground Connector Proposed for Eastside Gold Line

Washington BlvdOn Wednesday, Metro’s Planning and Programming Committee will receive refined options for the proposed Washington Blvd. alignment of the Eastside Gold Line extension. Original plans in the Draft Environmental Impact Report called for the light rail line to follow an aerial tracking along Garfield between Washington and the 60, but the route met with community opposition in Montebello, where dozens of businesses and 9 homes could have been taken out by construction. After initially labeling the community impact “adverse but not significant,” Metro agreed to seek out a more palatable connection to Washington as part of a larger technical study which, when completed later this year, will also report on the feasibility of building both LRT build alternatives from the DEIR: to South El Monte via the 60 ROW and to Whittier via Washington Boulevard. (Edit: The timeframe for delivery on the full technical study has been extended to the second quarter of 2017 to allow for increased time to discuss with stakeholders).

Of the four new proposed routes, the most eye-catching is Alternative 3, which would replace the above-grade section of the route through Montebello with an underground tunnel spanning approximately 1.3 miles to Whittier Boulevard where there would be a new station. From there, it would rejoin the original DEIR path just beyond the Montebello city limits in an aerial alignment down to Washington. The straight shot below-grade option would likely represent a time savings compared to the DEIR path, which skirted the edge of the Montebello Municipal Golf Course along a particularly circuitous portion of Garfield. A major and still unknown consideration would be the additional cost of such a tunnel and the accompanying station, but the impact could be significant for a project already expected to cost up to $3.2888 billion dollars in Year-of-Expenditure dollars. One obvious flaw is the total lack of connectivity between the Montebello/Commerce Metrolink station and the new LRT line, which otherwise could help boost the former’s sagging ridership. Metro should make efforts to consider extending this below grade option between the Whittier/Garfield and Washington/Greenwood stations, with an intermediary below-grade stop underneath the Metrolink Montebello station. This extra 1.5 miles of tunnel would replace another slow section of curvy track with a straightened alignment, and provide vast improvements in terms of regional connectivity. But regardless, this alternative seems to be the one to beat.

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A refinement to Alternative 3 that would vastly improve regional mobility.

The remaining three alternatives haven’t been fleshed out much, but in their half-finished state there are some glaring issues that would be difficult to overcome. The Atlantic Blvd. alignment would require the existing at-grade Atlantic station to be moved from Pomona Blvd. to Beverly, either significantly complicating or eliminating completely the potential to run LRT along both the 60 and Washington routes. Because the South El Monte route runs primarily through the San Gabriel Valley COG and the Whittier line runs through the Gateway Cities COG, any alternative that doesn’t permit the construction of both is probably dead on arrival. There can be no doubt that Metro, deep in the middle of its campaign to sell a follow-up sales tax to build upon Measure R, does not want to be put in the position of picking between the two options. In order to meet an onerous 66.7% voter approval threshold to raise tax dollars, local transit officials would do nearly anything to avoid discord between the various regions of the county. But we’ll get back to that later.

The Arizona Ave. alignments prominently feature an impossible route geometry, whose hairpin turn from 3rd to Mednik would be dubious even if the East LA Civic Center station were not 300 feet east of Mednik. Indeed, alternatives 1A and 1B would seem more plausible from a geometry standpoint as a southeasterly extension of the designed-to-fail 710 North LRT option than as a branch of the Gold Line.

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To have any credibility as a Gold Line option, Alternatives 1A and B would likely have to ditch Arizona altogether, maybe in favor of a .9 mile below-grade section from 3rd to Alt. 2’s Whittier/Atlantic station.

To be frank, none of the alternatives considered are likely to make transit advocates forget about the Whittier Boulevard Red Line extension that might have been, but it is good at least to see Metro considering mitigation measures that might increase ridership rather than hampering it. The Eastside Gold Line suffers from poor stop spacing(Maravilla, East LA Civic Center and Atlantic are all within one .75 mile stretch) and questionable neighborhood connectivity, both of which have hopefully yielded important lessons for phase 2 moving forward.

In the near future, we’ll be discussing the potential for branch service in southeast LA county to help regional mobility and possible light rail connectors between the Gold Line and the West Santa Ana Branch, as we await the full release of the technical study.