Q&A: 25 years and counting of Metro Rail, part one

BlueLine9June2015 (76 of 86)

Nobody takes transit in L.A., eh? Riders at the busy Blue and Expo Line platform at 7th/Metro Center Station in June. Photo by Steve Hymon/Metro.

It’s time for the big Metro 25th Rail Anniversary Q&A! Here we go…

What’s the significance of July 13, 1990?

On that day, Los Angeles County had roughly 8.6 million people, over six million registered motor vehicles, gads of traffic and not one single inch of rail transit.

What’s the significance of July 14, 1990?

Same as above except 22 miles of the Blue Line opened between Los Angeles and Long Beach, the two larges cities in Los Angeles County.

And, thus, Metro Rail was born and the Los Angeles area joined many other cities around the world that use both buses and trains get people from Point A to Point B. 

Interesting historical factoid: Voters in Los Angeles County rejected four different transportation ballot measures in the 1960s and ’70s — plans heavily disputed across the county because of turf wars and political infighting. The streetcars in our area were basically irrelevant by the mid-1950s (and gone by the early 1960s), meaning that rail transit in our region was largely absent between the end of World War II and the Blue Line’s opening in 1990.

That’s a very tough nut to swallow, given the explosive growth in Southern California following WWII. Other metro areas — in particular San Francisco and Washington D.C. — got going on modern rail systems in the 1960s. The ’60s through the ’80s were also a time when the federal government was more likely to pick up a greater share of the cost of pricey new transit projects, an era largely missed in our area.

Where are we 25 years after the Blue Line opened?

Metro today has six rail lines totaling 87 miles of track. Four rail lines are light rail (Blue, Expo, Gold and Green) and two are subway (Purple and Red).

There have been an estimated 1.5 billion boardings on Metro Rail since 1990, according to Metro. 

And what’s in the works?

An Expo Line train passes the construction site for the Crenshaw/Expo Station for the Crenshaw/LAX Line.

An Expo Line train passes the construction site for the Crenshaw/Expo Station for the Crenshaw/LAX Line.

Another 32 miles of Metro Rail are under construction.

In the nearest term, an 11.5-mile extension of the Gold Line to the Azusa/Glendora border and a six-mile extension of the Expo Line to downtown Santa Monica are both nearing completion.

In addition, the 8.5-mile Crenshaw/LAX Line is being built between the Expo Line and the Green Line. Work is also beginning on the 1.9-mile Regional Connector, an underground rail tunnel that will connect the Blue, Expo and Gold Lines in downtown Los Angeles, reducing the number of transfers for those riding to and through downtown Los Angeles.

The fifth project is the 3.9-mile first section of the Purple Line Extension subway between Wilshire/Western and Wilshire/La Cienega in Beverly Hills. A second section will extend the project to Century City and a third section to Westwood.

Traffic still sucks. What’s the point?

Maybe that’s not the right question. Maybe the question should be….

Traffic still sucks but wouldn’t it suck worse without Metro Rail?

GoldLine23June2015 (82 of 93)

A Gold Line train arrives in Sierra Madre Villa Station in Pasadena just as westbound traffic on the 210 begins its daily back up.

I think so. Without Metro Rail those 1.5 billion boardings would likely have been distributed to buses or private cars, which would have taken up more space on our roads (more on that in a moment).

Bottom line: the idea behind the rail lines is to build some higher-speed, higher-capacity transit corridors in our region. Trains can carry many times the number of people than do buses. 

But I thought building new trains was supposed to fix traffic?

That’s an unfortunate misconception, likely the result of phrases such as “fixing traffic” and “traffic relief” being thrown around. Many cities around the world have big, robust transit systems and still have pretty tough traffic.

Examples: San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., London, Paris, Moscow, Beijing. To name a few. Many of these metro areas are like our region in another regard: they’re big and they’re sprawling. 

I do think it’s entirely fair to say that having a robust transit system helps traffic from getting worse by taking some cars off the road. Rail lines can also influence development patterns and help create denser neighborhoods where it’s easier and nicer to get around by transit, walking and biking.

Will those neighborhoods necessarily have less traffic? In transit-, foot- and bike-friendly downtown Vancouver, traffic has been tailing off in recent years even as development and the population has increased. Should we always expect that outcome? Hard to say. Some areas that are or become popular because of their walkability may still attract a lot of cars.

Consider this: up above, I wrote that there were about six million registered vehicles in Los Angeles County in 1990. Since then, we’ve added more than 1.4 million people and today there are more than 7.7 million registered vehicles in the county. That’s a lot of cars and people.

And yet — even though traffic can be brutal at times — we can still get around. The countywide average commute of 29.3 minutes is pretty typical of other metro areas in the U.S. (the national average is 25.5 minute) and faster than denser, transit-heavy New York City, where the average is 31.6 minutes.

I would suggest that a lot of the changes taking place here have allowed us to better absorb and manage the growth that has happened and is likely to keep happening. 

I also think it’s also worth noting that the number of miles driven by those living in the city of Los Angeles has been steadily dropping since the beginning of this century. That’s almost certainly due in part to our growing transit system. Since 2002, Metro has opened the Pasadena Gold Line, Orange Line, Eastside Gold Line, Orange Line Extension and Expo Line 1 and added some bus rapid transit lines. Sure, there’s still traffic. And there are undoubtedly other factors involved. But there’s also more alternatives to driving than in the past. 

How many cars does Metro Rail take off the road?

Cars in the sprawling parking lot with 1,792 spaces at the Green Line's Norwalk Station earlier this year. The lot fills up most weekdays.

Cars in the sprawling parking lot with 1,792 spaces at the Green Line’s Norwalk Station earlier this year. The lot fills up most weekdays.

It’s hard to pinpoint an exact number. But there are stats available that provide the basis for a good guesstimate.

We know there are 15,774 parking spaces at Metro Rail stations. Most of those spaces are taken on the average weekday.

Of course, not everyone drives to a rail station — many stations, in fact, lack parking. But we do know that about 42 percent of Metro Rail riders say they have a car available to them for their commutes, according to the latest agency survey.

So let’s do the math. There are currently about 325,000 weekday boardings on Metro Rail and that there is one actual rider for every three boardings, according to Metro. If there are 107,250 riders, then there are about 45,000 cars not being used. 

Again, that’s a guesstimate and the number could be lower or possibly higher. Either way, where would you rather those cars be? On the road or parked at a rail station and/or driveway? 🙂 

Where is the money coming from to pay for all this?

You.

The greatest source of funding for the new transit projects is the Measure R half-cent sales tax approved by 68 percent of Los Angeles County voters in 2008.

Those tax revenues, in turn, have been used by Metro to attract billions of dollars in federal grants and loans to help pay for some of the projects.

Previous rail projects were also paid for in part by Prop A and Prop C, half-cent sales tax increases approved by county voters in 1980 and ’90, respectively. 

Will there be more rail projects funded by Measure R?

Probably.

Measure R funds are being distributed to 11 transit projects, five of which are under construction. The final decision hasn’t been made yet exactly what form the remaining projects will take, but several could ultimately be rail projects.

Among those: an extension of the Green Line deeper into the South Bay, an extension of the Eastside Gold Line to South El Monte or Whittier, a transit project spanning the Sepulveda Pass between the San Fernando Valley and the Westside, a project to improve transit on Van Nuys Boulevard north of the Orange Line and a project to improve transit between downtown L.A. and Santa Ana in Orange County using an abandoned streetcar corridor.

These projects are still in the early planning stages and aren’t scheduled to be complete until the late 2020s or 2030s under Metro’s current long range plan. If more funding is found, there’s a chance they could be accelerated but that remains an ‘if.’

Will there be another ballot measure?

Metro is currently working on an update of the long-range plan and a potential ballot measure in Nov. 2016 to pay for projects in that plan. As part of that effort, local cities have been asked to prioritize projects that they would like funded — and those lists are currently being refined.

The final decision on a long-range plan update will be made by the Metro Board of Directors. Please see this Source post that includes information about a survey done by Metro and the LRTP update process.

Continue reading Q&A: 25 years and counting of Metro Rail, part two.

4 replies

  1. I’ve been taking Metro Rail to concerts ever since the Blue Line began running late enough to get me home from even the latest-running concerts (e.g., John Williams Night with four encores) at the Bowl. For less than half the combined cost of gas and parking (were I to drive direct), I get a relaxing, safe ride to the Bowl, to Disney Hall, or (once the Expo Line opened) the Museums of Exposition Park. I also took Metro Rail to the Landing of Endeavour, and to witness its “long crawl” through the streets of Inglewood and Los Angeles.

  2. We always take the red line to Kings games, it’s just too bad you have to connect or walk from 7th/Metro to Staples Center. That said, it’s really easy to take the train to events downtown.

    One suggestion though is for Metro to realize when there are events downtown and run trains more often on game nights. I think waiting 20+ minutes after a game to catch the train discourages many people from using Metro.