On Transportation column, April 25 edition: A few thoughts on the Expo Line

A northbound Expo test train on the Flower Street bridge above the 110 freeway. Photo by Steve Hymon/Metro.

Of the many words spoken and written about the opening of the Expo Line on Saturday, the one I’ve heard the most is “finally.”

Makes sense. It has been nearly 60 years since trains carrying passengers ceased running on the old Expo tracks. The last time it happened Dwight Eisenhower was president, Elvis Presley had just made his first recordings, the Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers were headed toward a rematch of the ’52 Series and the Santa Monica Freeway was 11 years from fully opening.

To put it mildly, a wee bit of water has passed under the bridge since then.

The Expo Line’s debut culminates more than a decade of planning, controversy and construction of the line. As is often the case with rail projects in Los Angeles County, the Expo Line required the usual plus-sized miracle with just enough funding, political support and community activism to overcome a lack of funding, political opposition and community indifference.

Expo’s odyssey from abandoned freight railway to new light rail corridor has been particularly tortuous. The old right-of-way was purchased by the government in 1991 and didn’t break ground until late 2006. In between those two dates, county voters in 1998 approved a ballot measure denying further sales tax funding for subway construction, setting the stage for Expo to become — at the time — the last, best option for rail to reach the Westside. (Until voters approved Measure R and subway funding in 2008). 

An Expo Line test train passes by a high school baseball game at the Rancho Cienega Sports Complex next to Dorsey High School. Photo by Steve Hymon/Metro.

I suspect that’s the major reason for the excitement over Expo’s opening. The new train represents the first time in basically forever that people have an alternative to the Westside’s daily and increasingly unpleasant bouts with traffic constipation. As someone who views the Santa Monica Freeway as one of the most dreaded corners of the known universe, I get it.

I think the secondary cause of excitement over Expo is that it has become a symbol of sorts. The addition of the line adds heft to Los Angeles County’s rail map and sends a distinct message that our region, despite its Car-tropolis reputation, has become rather serious about building a transit network that connects home, work and cultural destinations in a meaningful way.

As for the Expo Line, the benefits are simple. By running in its own dedicated right-of-way, Expo will avoid a lot of the traffic that entraps buses. Expo can carry more people on a more reliable schedule and do so more comfortably. Nor does Expo have a tailpipe. When the Expo Line reaches Santa Monica in 2015 or ’16 and the Regional Connector is completed later in the decade, our rail network will reach deeply into the populated pockets of Los Angeles County — like similar metros do in other of the world’s large cities.

Will Expo or any other Metro Rail line be a panacea for traffic or sprawl? Of course not. As long as cars, gasoline and parking are affordable, there will be traffic. But the beauty of a rail network is that once it is in place, it will serve well those without cars and perhaps give many people with vehicles the option not to drive everywhere because there is a viable, affordable and convenient alternative.

Expo’s big destinations are obvious: downtown Los Angeles, the Convention Center, Staples Center and L.A. Live, USC, the museums in Exposition Park and soon downtown Culver City.

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much around Expo stations at Vermont, Western, Crenshaw, Farmdale, La Brea and La Cienega. But walk 10 minutes in any direction from those stations and what you find are thousands upon thousands of homes and apartments and people who will have an easier commute to points east and west (even more so when Phase 2 of the Expo Line is completed to Santa Monica).

When the first Expo train rolls at 5 a.m. on Saturday, it’s really only a beginning. If history is a precedent, this is a rail line that should serve the masses for many decades to come. The hope here is that when it comes to Expo and Metro’s other aspiring rail lines, we’ll all look back someday and wonder how we ever did without them.

Categories: Policy & Funding, Projects

Tagged as:

22 replies

  1. I’m thrilled to have more trains!

    But, just a thought to the city and people building the subway / lightrail. Imagine how much money could be saved by making subway stations less like art galleries within a vast coliseum, and more like..I don’t know…..a subway station.
    Then, imagine how much money could be collected if fare collectors or turnstiles were implemented over the honor system.

    Been waiting for public transportation forever, but at this rate my grandkids will be dead before there is ever a train from anywhere on the east side to all points west.

  2. Thank you for a thoughtful and thorough piece, Steve. We all look forward to riding it this weekend to La Cienega, and a June/July opening to Robertson. I promise I won’t start complaining about Phase II progress until 2015 😉

  3. Great article and can’t wait to ride the Expo this weekend.

    But the construction of the Expo Line taking so long is something that could be used as a lesson for future rail plans.

    Was there any reason why Metro couldn’t have opened up the stations and start revenue service as they are built instead of waiting so long for the other stations to be built?

    I think it’d been better if we had opened up Expo Line in smaller sections first and started revenue service as they were built. Wouldn’t that be a better way to bring in revenue than waiting so long for other parts of Phase 1 to be completed?

  4. Great piece, Steve. I’m excited about expo (despite some design/operational issues I think it has) because of what it means for LA and because of the points it connects. Once it reaches west LA, I think it could become as popular as the Red Line. I won’t personally have much reason to use the line often since I don’t live near the line (although that can change with the sepulveda pass rail line connection XD) but it will be useful when going to places like USC/expo park for events, museums, and such. Also, I’d rather park, say, at sepulveda or westwood station and ride expo to downtown Santa Monica then park directly there, which can be a real pain. Again that is an interim method before a Valley to Westside rail line is actually built.

  5. Re: not spending money on public art on the light rail stations.

    1. The % of the money going to public art at the stations is a miniscule portion of the cost.

    2. Go to any BART station in the Bay Area and tell me that a dreary 30 year-old station with no public art is better than any of the Metro stations throughout LA that have public art.

    Public art in the stations will become a landmark contribution to the culture of the city in the decades and centuries to come…

  6. @David Raether

    Art brings in no revenue and it has long term costs associated with their maintenance and upkeep. It also costs Metro millions every year to clean up those art from vandalism like graffiti, all of which comes from tax dollars. Taxpayers have to foot the bill for those long term costs, all for the sake of what, zero revenue? Does that make any sense to you?

    Now, in contrast, go to any station in Asia and they get by better financially, their stations are cleaner and safer without art. Instead of wasting on art, their agencies renting out spaces to businesses and retailers which actually bring in much needed revenue into their systems.

    Art:
    Cost money to put into stations, no matter how “little” it is, it still costs taxpayer some money.
    They bring in absolutely zero revenue into the system. No one “pays” to see art at a train station. You see it one time, that’s it. Ho-hum, yawn.
    Has the risk of graffiti vandalism. So do we hire officers to prevent them from happening? Yes, let’s put more tax dollars into becoming a police state.
    Cost more tax dollars to maintain their upkeep. Vandalism cost taxpayers money. Money that could be used elsewhere.

    Businesses and retailers in the stations:
    Brings much needed revenue to the system in form of rental income.
    Creates a more safer area with people working at those businesses being more additional “eyes” into the area without resorting to adding more officers. No one will try to do fishy things when businesses are thriving inside the stations where the owners and employees are there all the time.
    It revitalizes the local economy.

    THINK!!

  7. The Expo Line is a very exciting development!
    However, I’m still concerned that we built ourselves into a bit of a capacity hole by keeping the at-grade crossings at Western and Vermont.

  8. Amazing piece Steve! It is a great articulation of why this line opening is so important. I was able to ride the Gold Line Extension on Opening Day and I can’t wait to ride Expo this Saturday.

  9. @Frank: There is much more to life than economics and profit. I appreciate that Metro values station art, because it adds to quality of life. Instead of transit passengers being pressured to consume by in-station businesses to consume while waiting for a train, we can instead take a moment to breath and reflect in a generally hectic commute/journey. (granted, there is a balance to everything & there is merit to increasing station retail).

    On another note, this is a great article. “we’ll all look back someday and wonder how we ever did without them” … very true indeed!

  10. I’d rather have stations to be fitted with retail spaces and restrooms than art. Art just sits there and does nothing, earns nothing, and cost money to maintain. You seen them once, you seen them all. A newspaper stand or a Coca-Cola vending machine however, brings in much needed revenue to Metro. The more it helps Metro to start earning their own revenue and reduce my tax burden, the better!

  11. Art is fine, but is hardly a priority. It can be added later.

    Metro should get their priorities straight first. Get retail and businesses into the stations first so that they can establish a steady revenue stream. Once they have that extra revenue stream, then they can do modifications to stations to add in art galleries, not the other way around.

  12. @Ryan King
    “There is much more to life than economics and profit.”

    Of course, you wouldn’t mind so long as its “tax everyone else except me” right?

    Art at stations may cost a fraction of Metro’s budget but it still costs money. And then long term costs are substantial to maintain them from graffiti vandalism. That costs us taxpayers more money. How much does Metro spend annually to maintain those artwork? How much of tax dollars could’ve been put to better use elsewhere like better signage or grade separating the problem areas on the Blue Line?

    Spending $10,000 for an artwork that earns nothing and cost taxpayers thousands of dollars annually to maintain, it’s no wonder why Metro has financial troubles. It’s spending money to lose even more money, with no revenue stream to make up for it!

    For that $10,000 spent in artwork instead, they could’ve just as easily spent the same amount to put in retail space to earn rental income and profit sharing from businesses. Only then it’d make sense to add in $10,000 art and use the revenue stream to help pay for the maintenance cost.

  13. I’m with the sentiment with others.

    Metro has financial troubles and they’re desperate for extensions of Measure R and receiving federal funds. And on the other end, they use the funds, no matter how “small” to install art at their stations and it cost us even more to preserve their appearance for years and years to come, with no revenue other than relying on more taxes to do so.

    If this is how my tax dollars are being spent, I’m voting no to Measure R extension.

    Metro need to get their priorities in order. Increase revenue first before putting in art. I think it’s only common sense. People don’t buy art for their homes if they can’t afford the cost to preserve them.

  14. The MTA should have made sure the Culver City station at Venice & National was open and ready when the Expo line opened. People from the Westside will not drive to the La Cienega & Jefferson station to board Metrorail. Also is the Expo Line going to be called the Expo Line or will it be give a color name like the other lines? So far, other than MTA, no one knows.

  15. A bit more information; I just contacted MTA Customer Service and I was informed the Expo Line will not be give a color name like other Metrorail lines. It will just be known as the Expo Line.

  16. There appears to be a misperception about the cost of maintaining artwork for the Metro system that I’d like to clarify. Metro does not spend millions of dollars a year maintaining artwork. All of the artwork materials for the Expo Line were selected for their long-term durability and minimal maintenance requirements. The artworks are fabricated from materials such as mosaic, the very same artwork materials that have held up for thousands of years in various public locations throughout the world with minimal upkeep.

  17. The money used for art = $10,000 or so in taxpayer money that could’ve been used elsewhere like fixing the Blue Line
    A can of spray paint = 99 cents plus tax at the 99 cent store
    The cost to remove graffiti = PRICELESS (heck, it’s taxpayers’ dollars! Who cares, right?)

    This is what happens when Metro is given free pass to spend our tax dollars on useless things that earn nothing but chains us to taxes for years.

  18. By the way, the art installation stuff is part of the planning process, which is public. The controversies usually focus on route decisions, not art installations. So far, the public has not opposed the art installations.

  19. I’m a public, don’t I get input?

    I side with the other public that supports the comments that art isn’t a high priority. Money spent on art and the tax dollars that it costs to maintain them from vandalism could be better spent like hiring janitors for some of our stations.

  20. Among the biggest proponents of the “art” or what I would consider unique decoration, are those who LIVE and will USE the station nearly everyday, and they feel they deserve a station that is an ENHANCEMENT to their neighborhood/community rather that a rail station that lacks any connection to the fabric of the community.

    For all you newbies to LA who have been here since only the last 2 decades: one of the very big concerns and arguments AGAINST rail going back to the 1970’s was the STATIONS themselves being the ugly and even disgusting sort on New York City Subway or other cities where the stations are just completely unpleasant. The beauty of the Metro stations has been a MAJOR factor in attracting commuters and making them feel safe and have a commute that is ENHANCED rather than dreading time between trains.

    Also, just about everyone I talked to during the coming 1 phase subway had said something like, “Well, this is LA. We can’t just do ordinary, plain, ugly stations. They’ll have to come up to par with LA countless famous and infamous architecture and structures.” The current Expo Line stations are a SAD and UGLY uniformity. I hope we have learned from this mistake and NEVER do that again.

    My brother, among others I know, do comment on how beautiful the stations are and how it makes the whole experience far more pleasant than it otherwise would be. We need More stations Soto street Gold Line.

  21. “I’m a public, don’t I get input?”

    Either participate in the public comment periods of various projects or take your concerns to the board of directors. But what becomes big controversies are route decisions (tunneling under schools, for example), not art at stations. That’s a fact.