Today, August 12, is the 25th anniversary of the C (Green) Line. Let’s pause and let the, uh, enormity of the moment sink in.
If you’re sensing a certain ambivalence, you’re right.
Here’s the conundrum with the C Line. It was built as part of the controversial 105 freeway project and ― let’s be honest ― would likely not be built the same way today. There were a range of racial injustices and environmental issues, including: 1) the bulldozing of low-income, communities of color for the freeway, and 2) making the train hard to reach by sticking the tracks mostly in the middle of a busy, loud, smog-producing freeway.
While we acknowledge its problematic history, we also have to recognize that the C Line is here to stay. The 105 freeway is not going anywhere. Moving the C Line is not a realistic option financially, politically or logistically.
If there’s an upside, it’s that the C Line has still managed to deliver millions of rides over the past 25 years and there are several projects underway or in the planning pipeline that will improve it.
More on that in a bit. First, some history.
Once upon a time in the mid-1900s, the powers-that-be in our region had an extensive master plan for freeways. And most of those roads actually ended up being built between the late 1940s and 1970s.
As the years passed, traffic and smog worsened in our region. The civil rights and environmental movements gained steam and more communities began to question the wisdom of displacing and leveling neighborhoods for more freeways. Perhaps because freeway expansion proposals started aiming at wealthier, whiter communities.
The result: a few big freeway projects were stopped in their tracks.
The 710 infamously has a four-mile hole between Alhambra and Pasadena due in large part to opposition from South Pasadena.
Progress of the 2 freeway was halted in Silver Lake instead of continuing to the 101 and 405 freeways. Opposition from Beverly Hills was particularly strong.
The Marina Freeway never made it east of the 405. Plans for a “Reseda Freeway” that would have scraped across the Santa Monica Mountains from the San Fernando Valley to the beach were scrapped when residents of Pacific Palisades said “no thanks.”
By the time the 1970s rolled around, the next big new freeway project on the docket was the 105. The idea was to ease east-west traffic in the corridor between the 5 freeway and the LAX area and make it easier to reach the airport and nearby aerospace jobs.
Unlike past freeways, the 105 ran headlong into opposition as it proposed to cut a wide swath through South Los Angeles and many other neighborhoods to the east. On the eastern end, Norwalk opposed the 105 and Caltrans lost enthusiasm for connecting the 105 to a 5 freeway already constipated with traffic.
As is often the case in California, the issue landed in the courts. After a decade of litigation, a federal judge made a series of rulings in the late ’70s and early ’80s that allowed the project to go forward on several conditions.
Several thousand homes that would be demolished had to be replaced. The freeway would be built mostly above or below street grade. And a mass transit line would be built in the corridor as a way to help communities impacted by the new freeway.
Thus, the C Line was born. But it was both a mass transit project — and a massive mitigation effort — with a number of compromises from the start. Namely:
- Because the 105 stopped at the border of Norwalk, so would the C Line, denying it a useful connection in Norwalk to the Metrolink and Amtrak line that runs between downtown L.A., Orange County and San Diego.
- Most of the C Line’s 20-mile route is in the 105 median, requiring riders to descend from bridges over the freeway to isolated stations in the middle of a noisy and exhaust-ridden freeway.
- The four westernmost stations were only built for two-car trains. The standard for the rest of the Metro light rail system are three-car platforms.
- Perhaps most notoriously, the C Line has a station just south of LAX but doesn’t actually connect to the airport. There was a confluence of reasons for this epic failure ― failure isn’t a strong enough word, frankly ― including funding issues, ambivalence at LAX and L.A. City Hall and questionable safety concerns by the Federal Aviation Administration, among others.
All that adds up to less than ideal outcome: a light rail line that’s relatively quick but hard-to-reach and disconnected from the neighborhoods it was intended to serve.
But then there’s this: in spite of all that, C Line ridership grew steadily over the years, peaking at more than 41,000 average weekday riders in 2014. With more than 5,100 parking spaces (including 1,759 in the enormous lot at the Norwalk Station), driving to stations was convenient. And thanks to having zero street crossings, the Green Line was fast by local transit standards (The 20-mile ride clocks in at 34 minutes). At peak hours, the train is usually moving faster than traffic on the 105.
In its own weird way, the C Line has offered another unusual legacy: it’s a blueprint for what not to do when building a transit line. In the case of Metro, freeway median stations have long been out of fashion (although a few would still get built). Planning for future projects puts a priority on connecting to neighborhoods.
There are also improvements in the works that will make the C Line a lot more useful.
Most notably, the Crenshaw/LAX Line that is nearing completion (and expected to open in 2021) was built with a connection to the C Line tracks. That will allow trains to move between the two lines and make it much easier for C Line riders to reach LAX, Inglewood and other places along the Crenshaw Corridor.
Even better, a new station will be built in the next three years on the Crenshaw/LAX at Aviation and 96th streets. The station ― known as the Airport Metro Connector ― will allow C Line riders to ride the train directly to the LAX people mover that will serve airport terminals.
That means that C Line riders can bid farewell to the long, traffic-laden, time-munching shuttle bus ride between the C Line’s Aviation Station and the airport horseshoe.
Additionally, two Measure M projects will extend the C Line. The first will add four miles of track from the Redondo Beach Marine Station to the Torrance Transit Center. That will make it easier to reach the South Bay by rail and, conversely, speed up transit trips from the South Bay to both the north and east.
Two other long-term Measure M projects are worth mentioning: a C Line extension to fill the two-mile gap between the C Line’s current terminus at Norwalk Station and the Norwalk Metrolink Station. And a K Line northern extension that ultimately make it easy to ride all the way from the C Line to Hollywood.
There’s no way getting around the C Line’s history and there’s no putting the genie in the bottle when it comes to the 105 freeway. From an L.A. Times article in 2018:
It [the 105] offered a good example of why the ardor [for new freeways] faded. The 105 violated environmental laws, displaced more than 25,000 people and left behind a legacy of noise and pollution in some of Los Angeles County’s poorest neighborhoods. After decades of delays and bitter litigation, its price tag rose to $2.2 billion, making it the most expensive roadway ever built in the United States.
As things turned out, the 105 was the final entirely new freeway built in L.A. County. So, while the freeway network has stalled, L.A. County’s rail transit is continuing to expand. Construction on several projects has continued during the ongoing pandemic.
The C Line is certainly far from perfect, but it will be a part of a transit network that will be much improved, faster and more accessible to more people. Your thoughts, readers and C Line riders?