Orange Line Bridges: Are they strong enough for light rail?

Rendering of Lassen Street Orange Line bridge leading to the Chatsworth Amtrak/Metrolink Station.

A couple of Source readers commented on our blog post last week about new busway bridges now being built on Metro’s Orange Line Extension Project. Readers wanted to know whether the new bridges over the L.A. River, the Santa Susana Wash and Lassen Street were being built strong enough to carry future light rail cars.

It’s a fair question. Due to the line’s very strong ridership — which exceeded ridership estimates from Day One in late October 2005 — there’s been talk of some day converting the busway to light rail. (By the way, the Orange Line’s sixth anniversary is just around the corner on Oct. 29).

Ridership on the line has hovered in the low- to mid-20,000 range on average weekdays this year. However, in September boardings reached 26,883, near the record of 27,596 set in September of 2008. The cause is most likely the return of the school year.  The 14-mile busway between North Hollywood and Canoga Park serves several local schools and community colleges.

I posed this question to Hitesh Patel, head of construction for Metro’s Orange Line Extension Project. He reports that the new Orange Line Extension bridges have been designed and constructed to be capable of handling the weight of a light rail vehicle for any potential conversion of the line to light rail in the future. The existing Orange Line bridges, including the bridge in the Sepulveda Recreation Area were also engineered to handle the weight of light rail cars.

Call it good engineering.

But before anyone gets too excited about the prospect, it’s important to note that Metro does not have any imminent plans to convert the Valley’s busway to a light rail line. There is no money in Measure R for a project of this kind, although money is identified for other key Valley transportation improvements, including the Sepulveda Pass Transit Corridor project. See the full list here.

So, for the foreseeable future, the Orange line and four-mile extension to Chatsworth will be on rubber tires, not steel wheels. The bridges won’t be an issue.