Should the Orange Line be a rail line?

One of the more interesting staff reports sent to the Metro Board of Directors this month involves the potential of speeding up and improving the Orange Line, the Metro bus rapid transit line that runs between North Hollywood, Warner Center and the Chatsworth Metrolink station.

The key findings of the study were:

•Up to eight minutes could be shaved off the Chatsworth-NoHo run time with the ability to run buses at greater speeds across street crossings (buses are currently limited to 10 mph but often sit at red lights before crossing). With input from Metro’s risk management department — the folks who try to keep Metro out of court — Metro is studying which street crossings are best suited for faster crossings and what the appropriate speed could be due to visibility and other safety issues.

As for getting more green lights, Metro is working on providing the city of Los Angeles (which controls the traffic signals) fresh data on bus frequencies and speeds. That data is also used to help time traffic signals across the San Fernando Valley. The current data is now a decade old and dates back to the Orange Line’s opening in 2005. Fresh data, according to Metro staff, could increase the number of green lights for Orange Line buses. See this earlier post for pics that show how many red lights can stymy the Orange Line’s trip across the SFV.

Another idea batted around: putting more buses and/or longer buses on the Orange Line, perhaps between the busiest part of the busway between NoHo and Reseda.

•Converting the Orange Line to light rail would have an estimated cost of $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion and would also require finding space for and building a rail vehicle maintenance yard since the line wouldn’t be connected to other Metro light rail lines. A conversion would require a detailed environmental study and perhaps two to three years of construction, thus requiring that at least some Orange Line service be moved temporarily to surrounding streets.

This chart lays it out:



The chart also neatly sums up the public policy question involving the Orange Line: this study indicates that a rail conversion doesn’t save that much travel time although it does greatly expand capacity. On the other hand, less expensive upgrades could expand capacity and improve speeds while better serving the part of the line with the most riders (NoHo to Reseda).

I think this is a really interesting and ongoing conversation for a lot of reasons. The Orange Line was built on an old rail right-of-way as a less expensive alternative to light rail. After opening in 2005, it was immediately controversial (there were several accidents at busway-street crossings) and also successful. Ridership in recent years has consistently ranged from 25,000 to 30,000 average boardings on weekdays and in some months has even surpassed 30K.

The Orange Line sitting at a red light last summer at Hazeltine at mid-day when the street is not particularly busy. Photo by Steve Hymon/Metro.

The Orange Line sitting at a red light last summer at Hazeltine at mid-day when the street is not particularly busy. Photo by Steve Hymon/Metro.

At this time, the Orange Line is the closest thing the Valley has to light rail since the busway has mostly its own right-of-way and the Orange Line has other rail-like attributes. Yes, the Valley has Metrolink but there’s a big difference: the Orange Line runs 20 to 22 hours a day at intervals as frequent as four minutes at some stations. It’s also far cheaper to ride the Orange Line — a $1.75 regular fare includes two hours of free transfers. If you time it right, you can ride from Chatsworth to Long Beach via the Orange, Red/Purple Line and Blue Line for $1.75.

The idea of converting the Orange Line to rail has certainly gained some traction among stakeholders in the past couple of years, especially with ridership being strong. The fact that the bus is hitting a lot of red lights at cross streets has tended to support the idea that a train with crossing gates or grade-separated crossings would be faster. Even some elected officials have said a conversion is an inevitability even though such a project is not in Metro’s long-range plan, which was last updated in 2009.

The other issue looming over this discussion is a potential ballot measure that Metro is exploring for the November 2016 elections. The big question is how much actual dollars may be available for San Fernando Valley projects.

Metro recently asked local cities to submit a wish list of desired projects. The San Fernando Valley Council of Governments ranked several transit projects as “high benefit:” the Orange Line conversion to rail, the Sepulveda Pass Transit Corridor (a project already with $1 billion of Measure R money), a NoHo to Pasadena bus rapid transit line (which Metro is studying), extending the Red Line to Sylmar and a light rail line from Union Station to Bob Hope Airport in Burbank via Glendale.

That is a long list of projects with considerable expense. What’s unknown at this time is whether a potential ballot measure would extend Measure R or possibly ask voters to raise the county sales tax to fund new projects on top of the existing Measure R. Even a new tax would presumably have its limits, given that other parts of Los Angeles County will be vying to get money for their projects. Metro staff is scheduled later this year to deliver a spending plan for a potential ballot measure.

One last note: whatever happens with the rail conversion, I’m guessing Orange Line riders are pleased to see efforts finally underway to speed the bus up and put more capacity on the line; it was hardly a secret that buses were spending too much time waiting at red lights in recent years. Even a few minutes saved each way can mean a lot to riders (that’s my own experience) and make transit a more attractive option for discretionary riders.

If you would like to listen to a discussion about this item in the Metro Board’s Operations Committee, please click here. The Orange Line discussion begins at 27:39 of the audio recording.

Outside coverage: the L.A. Times wrote about this issue last week.