Project would link the city’s light rail lines, bypassing need for Red or Purple lines transfer.
Despite decades of plans to connect light rail lines through the city center, Los Angeles’ Blue and Gold lines remain about a mile and a half apart, forcing riders who want to get from South Los Angeles to Pasadena to transfer, using the heavy rail Red and Purple Lines. This double connection adds more than an hour to transit users’ weekly commutes and constitutes a serious disincentive to using public transportation on trips not bound for downtown. With the completion of the East L.A. Gold Line Extension later this year and the West L.A. Expo Line in 2010, the problem becomes even more pressing. As a result, Metro, the local transit agency, is planning to build a new Regional Connector by 2017, but those in its path aren’t quiet about the potentially negative effect of the new line on their neighborhoods.
The link will extend north from the 7th Street/Metro Center Station on Flower Street, then continue east to the Little Tokyo/Arts District station on the Gold Line Extension. Two options are being considered for the corridor: a mostly at-grade option and an underground line. The latter, despite its higher cost, would attract more daily riders and is the stated preference of planners at Metro. As shown in the map above, the underground option would follow 2nd Street to Alameda, where it would connect with existing light rail lines in a wye formation south of the Little Tokyo station. The at-grade line would travel mostly in a tunnel under Flower Street, then rise to the surface on 2nd, take Main (northbound) and Los Angeles (southbound) Streets to Temple Street, and then connect to the Gold Line in a wye north of the Little Tokyo stop. Each alignment would include three new intermediate stations.
Travel time between Union Station and Staples Center on the underground route would be 12 minutes versus the 14 minutes required for the at-grade route. In the latter plan, Expo Line trains but not Blue Line ones would stop at Little Tokyo; the inverse is true in the underground plan. A decision on the preferred alignment is expected later this year.
One primary asset of this connector is that it will end the isolation of the Blue and Gold Lines — the connection will allow Blue and (future) Expo trains to continue onto the Gold Line tracks. The current plan, which is similar to historic plans for Los Angeles, would allow Blue Line trains from Long Beach to continue north to Pasadena. Expo Line trains from Culver City would continue to East L.A. It is unclear whether Metro intends to continue running Gold Line trains from Pasadena to East L.A. once the connection is built; that choice likely depends on ridership. The light rail lines, which currently terminate slightly outside of the central business district, will benefit from stations directly in the downtown core.
The connection is expected to increase ridership on the Blue, Gold, and Expo Lines by 7-10%.
While no one disputes the advantages of the new connection, the specific alignment choice is concerning home and business owners in the Little Tokyo district. The four year construction timeline would probably drive down business and tourism. Similarly, the project — whether at-grade or underground — will require the tunneling of a portion of Alameda Street for the construction of the wye intersection, a disruptive project considering that the line will run directly adjacent to the Japanese American National Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Residents of the neighborhood made their preference for the at-grade option clear at recent community meetings — a preference that has changed markedly since last year’s strong endorsement of a seemingly less intrusive underground option. But the fact that the latter alignment will require the destruction of a building across from the Museum to allow trains to surface aroused controversy.
These objections, however, are unreasonable, and the underground option is the better one. The only building to be removed is a one-story Office Depot, surrounded by surface parking. The newly vacant land surrounding the emerging light rail line would be ideal for dense, transit-oriented development. Concerns that this space would become grounds for national chains rather than local Japanese-American outlets could be mediated if the city agreed to ensure that any new development would reinforce the identity of the neighborhood. The slower, lower ridership at-grade option would ultimately hurt Little Tokyo simply because it would provide relatively less mobility for the area’s population and attract fewer visitors. That should be a primary concern.