Eastside Gold Line Extension dedicated and ready for its public debut

The Metro Gold Line Eastside Extension arrives at the East L.A. Civic Center on Saturday

The Metro Gold Line Eastside Extension arrives at the East L.A. Civic Center on Saturday

Metro dedicated the opening of its first rail line since 2003 on Saturday morning, as a long list of elected officials and invited guests celebrated the opening of the Eastside Gold Line Extension between Los Angeles Union Station and East Los Angeles.

The Eastside hadn’t seen rail service since the days of the streetcar. A variety of transit projects have been talked about for decades for the Eastside and for a time in the 1990s a subway was planned to reach the area. Lack of funding, divisive local politics and other issues intervened until finally the Gold Line was recast as light rail.

“It has taken generations to build the Eastside Gold Line,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who also is a member of the Metro Board of Directors. “It took so long that a lot of the people involved in the struggle, including the Congressman, have passed on.”

Molina was referring to Rep. Edward R. Roybal, who grew up in Boyle Heights and later served on both the Los Angeles City Council and became a mainstay in Congress. He was widely acknowledged as a driving force behind the line and, as a result, the Eastside Gold Line was named after him. Roybal died in 2005; his daughter Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard now represents the area in Congress and attended Saturday’s ceremony.

“My most heartfelt thanks goes to you,” Roybal-Allard said, referring to Eastside community members who fought for the line and served as liaisons between the Eastside and Metro before and during construction. “Reaching today’s milestone of restoring rail service is largely because of you.”

The dedication ceremony was closed to the public; the public debut is scheduled for Sunday with the first train leaving Union Station for the Eastside at 3:40 a.m. All rides on the Gold Line are free on Sunday. Large crowds are expected, particularly because of some the festivities scheduled on the Eastside, including concerts at Mariachi Plaza and the East L.A. Civic Center, along with a food fair at the Little Tokyo/Arts District stop. Regular service — requiring passengers to pay fares — begins early Monday.

Upon arrival at the East L.A. Civic Center, the Gold Line was also showered in confetti

Upon arrival at the East L.A. Civic Center, the Gold Line was also showered in confetti

The ceremony on Saturday went off without a hitch. Elected officials boarded a train at Union Station at 9 a.m. and rode to the East L.A. Civic Center, where the train — to the relief of Metro officials — successfully broke through a banner stretched across the tracks. Air cannons shot confetti in the air as the train arrived.

During the ride, Molina — who has expressed safety concerns about the Gold Line — pointed out potential safety issues to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Rep. Grace Napolitano as they rode together in the cab of the train. About four of the six miles of the line run either along streets or in the middle of the street, with a curb separating the tracks from the roadway. The California Public Utilities Commission has said it has no serious safety concerns about the line and an independent review panel convened by Metro earlier this year came to a similar conclusion.

Still, the Metro Board voted in October to spend $4.5 million for some safety upgrades, including fencing along parts of the line to thwart jaywalkers. Those improvements are expected to be made in coming months.

The Eastside Extension will be operated as part of the existing Gold Line, which in 2003 opened from Union Station to Pasadena. Trains will run straight through from the end of the line in East Pasadena to the other terminus in East Los Angeles, with trains running every seven to eight minutes during rush hour. The trip between East L.A. and Union Station takes 24 or 25 minutes, slower than the 17 minutes that Metro had originally promoted.

The new Gold Line cost $898 million, with a significant slice of the cost paid for by the federal government’s New Starts program, which funds large rail projects. Construction began in 2004 and was largely finished by the middle of this year, when testing of the line began. There are eight new stations, including two that are underground along the 1.7 mile stretch of the Gold Line built as a subway under Boyle Heights.

If all goes as planned, the Gold Line could — key word there is ‘could’ — represent the beginning of a transit project building boom in Los Angeles County. An extension of the Orange Line busway and the Expo Line light rail between downtown Los Angeles and Culver City are both currently under construction.

Beyond that, officials are hoping to break ground next year on the Foothill Extension of the Gold Line between Pasadena and Azusa. And the long-range plan that was recently adopted by the Metro Board calls for the second phase of the Expo Line between Culver City and Santa Monica to be open by 2015, the Crenshaw corridor transit project (either a busway or light rail line, with light rail more likely at this point) to debut by 2018 and the downtown regional connector light rail line and a Westside extension of the subway to Fairfax to be open by 2019.

The regional connector, in particular, would greatly embellish the new Gold Line because it would allow passengers from East Los Angeles to continue straight into the heart of downtown Los Angeles without having to transfer to buses or trains at either the Little Tokyo or Union Station stops.

“This isn’t the last opening,” Villaraigosa told the crowd. “We’re going to build 12 transit projects over the next 30 years. Our hope is working together united we can do it in the next 10 years.” The mayor said last month that he will try to build a coalition to secure federal money to accelerate the building of the projects.

There are also eventual plans to push the Gold Line from East Los Angeles to Whittier or South El Monte to provide an alternative to traffic along the 60 freeway. That project is in its early study phases and under the Measure R sales tax approved by voters last year is not due to be completed until the 2030s. It could be done earlier, but will need an injection of money — likely from the federal government or state — for that to happen.

Those plans, however, are contingent on receiving significant federal funds. And while the Metro Board of Directors has recently united behind both a federal funding plan and a long-range plan — which dictates what-gets-built-when — some members of both Congress and the Legislature have complained that Metro should seek federal funds for more projects.

Reaction to the line among those in attendance was positive. “It’s such a beautiful line,” said Roger Snoble, who retired as Metro’s CEO earlier this year and who was taking his first ride on the line on Saturday. “Every station is different. It’s going to be a community landmark — I think it will help reduce crime and it’s going to encourage community revitilization.”

Los Angeles Councilman Jose Huizar echoed those thoughts. Returning from the East L.A. Civic Center, Huizar said that he is hoping the new rail line combined with new schools and a new police station in Boyle Heights will contribute to the cleanup of the area. In particular, he envisions the area on 1st Street between Mariachi Plaza and Soto as becoming a new arts district. He plans to use some Metro funds for streetscape improvements to the area.

Not discussed much in the lead-up to the opening was the issue of engineering. The Gold Line includes twin 1.7-mile-long tunnels under Boyle Heights. The tunnels cost $248 million and were built quickly; mining began on Feb. 23, 2006, and concluded on Dec. 8, 2006 — a span of 289 calendar days.

That’s an average of 31 feet a day, a figure that will likely be oft-cited as planning of both the Westside Extension of the subway and the regional connector continues.