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).
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.