Los Angeles Regional Connector Stirs Controversy in Little Tokyo

Downtown Los Angeles Regional Connector Map

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.

19 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • jon

    good to hear support for the underground option, it makes no sense to have surface trackage downtown in los angeles and in the middle of a long distance route (pasadena-long beach). as someone from portland, i know all about slow downtown surface trackage in the middle of 40 mile long regional LRT lines (hillsboro-gresham)

  • jon

    oh one minor thing the bunker hill station name looks misplaced. i’m not from LA but i know for sure that bunker hill is on the other side of red/purple lines

  • Jon –
    Thanks, good point. Corrected.

  • Jake

    Just a question… Where is the Transport Connection link on the side of the Transport Politic Page??

  • Jake –
    I actually replaced it with the Feeds button you’ll note at the top of the website. It’s easier for me to keep track of what’s going on when everything’s on the same server, which it wasn’t before.

  • James Fujita

    I hope that the underground connector gets built because I think that it will help Little Tokyo.

    I would certainly also insist upon there being an underground station at 2nd/Los Angeles, because that would also serve the Little Tokyo community (especially if some trains bypass the station at 1st/Alameda).

    I would consider that second stop as a reward for putting up with the construction mess at the 1st/Alameda wye…

  • I hope the underground option doesn’t get derailed by short term concern of some merchants in Little Tokyo. I sympathize with their concern about construction but this rail connection is going to serve LA for a long time and we need to get it right. The economic benefit of one-seat train ride on Expo line from West side to Little Tokyo in the long run probably far out weights the short term pains. I rarely go to Little Tokyo anymore because traffic on the I-10 freeway and the lack of parking… but clearly it will be an option for me again if it is an one-train ride. The current forced-transfer at 7th St Metro Center is really a major detractor for casual transit users in LA because of LA Metro’s crazy ticket system (no free transfers, and you must purchase another ticket for the Red line). It is really more trouble than it is worth right now for people to take the train to Little Tokyo from the Blue (and future Expo) line.

  • This is one of those issues where we need a little discipline in thinking about network structure first and detailed capital projects second. It looks like the two issues are tangled up and that you risk ending up with fundamentals of LA’s network structure determined by the politics of Little Tokyo. You may also want to pause and ask if you really want Little Tokyo to be the hub of LA’s light rail network.

    First, network structure. In the long run, which LRT segments make sense to run through? Generally speaking, the straighter a line is, the more useful it is. So if you’re going to have four radiating lines (Gold north, Gold east, Blue and Expo) it makes sense to arrange them as an X, not a pair of C’s. C-shaped lines, like Gold in its current form, are not useful for travel from one end to the other and thus force more transfers and have lower overall utility, though sometimes they’re the least-bad option.

    (Sydney is currently having the same issue in planning its Metro, where the proposed starter line is a C-shape and they can’t describe how they’d later take the C apart to form a proper X.)

    So the straight line principle argues for connecting them this way: Gold North to Blue, Expo to Gold East. (Pasadena to Long Beach, Santa Monica to East LA.)

    Do we also keep a Gold Line pattern, Pasadena to East LA? If you created the A and kept the Gold Line, then in Pasadena you’d see an alternation of Long Beach trains and East LA trains. These patterns would branch before you got to the city, thus offering their lowest frequencies right where you need the highest ones. That means that in practice you’ve divided the market and given everyone a longer wait, because few people will find both branches equally useful.

    So the rigorous solution is to run all the services in the X pattern, even though this forces a bunch of new transfers (e.g. for travel East LA to Union Station.)

    But now, with the X, how DO you get from East LA to Union Station? Without a Gold Line overlay, and with the East LA-Expo trains bypassing Little Tokyo, it looks like you have to change at Los Angeles St. Very awkward.

    That’s why the Temple/Main segment is sketched in. It’s the only way to get both lines stopping at Little Tokyo, while getting the X effect.

    Really important and really difficult project, even without the Little Tokyo politics.

    I’m far away from this, but is everyone really sure that this couldn’t have been done in a way that puts the junction at Union Station? Normally, to make an X pattern work well, the junction of the X needs to be a regionally important place where lots of people want to go at all hours, like, say, the main train station. Little Tokyo doesn’t want to be that, and I’m not sure I’d blame them.

  • jon

    I’m far away from this, but is everyone really sure that this couldn’t have been done in a way that puts the junction at Union Station? Normally, to make an X pattern work well, the junction of the X needs to be a regionally important place where lots of people want to go at all hours, like, say, the main train station. Little Tokyo doesn’t want to be that, and I’m not sure I’d blame them.

    Couldnt agree more. Though I dont know how you could route the line to put Union Station on this underground trunk line.

  • Jarrett I’m trying to follow this but it really needs pictures. If I understand this correctly, it seems to be the same issue that Oakland has with its turn off to Freemont. Really all of the trains should have gone through Oakland 12th street then turned off instead of turning off earlier to go to Lake Merritt. That way you would have had the same amount of trains going through Oakland that go through downtown San Francisco instead of half the amount.

  • Jarrett –
    The northern routing, via Temple, wouldn’t allow Blue Line trains to stop at Little Tokyo — they’d go north to Union Station without stopping, whereas Expo line trains would continue south to Little Tokyo. So that’s not an advantage of the at-grade route.

    I think it makes sense to see the Gold Line keep running for the reasons you pointed out — that people need to be able to transfer. L.A.’s existing frequencies on the Gold Line are relatively low, so this isn’t technically impossible — you could have 2 Expo or Blue and then 1 Gold every ten minutes (18 trains/hour). But the real question is whether ridership will stand up. L.A.’s transit system probably needs to mature and expand before it makes sense to keep the Gold Line running at high frequencies — and that might happen by the time this thing opens in 2017.

    I do wonder, though, if this problem could be solved simply by adding a stop south of Little Tokyo for Expo Line trains if the X formation is used and the Gold Line is canceled. Riders would simply have to walk around the corner to the Blue Line stop, and voila, transfer between the lines.

  • Yonah. Yes, for an example of exactly the situation you describe, see Rose Quarter station in Portland. Not ideal with luggage, but the best they could do with the money at the time.

  • Overhead Wire. Yes, exactly the same issue. Branching disspates frequency, but too often it looks like the good solution on the map, especially to politicians who don’t understand frequency but do understand that people don’t like to transfer.

  • AlexB

    LA’s downtown is mainly the Civic Center and Pershing Square areas. Union Station is a bit peripheral to the buisiness center (from what I remember of the little time I’ve spent there.) If you are going for an “X” routing, all three routes would pass through these areas. Only one route, Expo-East LA would require a transfer to get to Union Station. Is it really that big of a deal? It’s not like everyone from Culver City going downtown is transferring to/from Metrolink. The red and purple lines as well as the Pasadena-Long Beach line would still hit Union Station.

  • Jarrett: I think the answer to your question is this – and this is from the perspective of a local LA transit user… not a transit planning guru ;) – There is basically very little demand for transit ridership from East LA to Union station so if Expo line runs from East LA to Culver City (or Whittier to Santa Monica one day) and bypassed Union Station, it is not a big deal.

    And the reason it is not a big deal is because Expo line will intersect with the Red/Purple line subway at 7th St Metro Center… LA’s de facto “Penn Station” if you consider Union Station to be our “Grand Central”. At 7th St Metro Center, the very few East LA riders that want to go to Union Station can change train and go “backwards”. The majority will either stay on Expo to Santa Monica, or they will transfer to the subway to either North Hollywood or Century City.

    Why isn’t there demand for people from East LA to Union Station? Well, the fastest way to get to Pasadena from East LA is not through Downtown… This is the reason why Metro itself is projecting very low ridership for people raking the Gold line from East LA to Pasadena under the current configuration. Most people will board the trains from Pasadena or East LA and end their trip in Downtown. Granted in the future when CA-HSR is up and running, there may be more significant demand for East LA to Union Station but it is still going to be vastly out numbered by the East LA to West LA movements.

  • Jerard

    bzcat,
    That is a wonderful response to Jarrett because the one thing he’s overlooking in the planning world is the ability to follow and connect to destinations that have the greatest use and potential for ridership.

    In Downtown LA the current and future rail lines follow a “C shaped” pattern. From the Civic Center to the South Park area down to either Figueroa or Broadway corridors. But look closely when the connector is built an X is formed at one central point, 7th Street/Metro Center. Thankfully that is where the X makes the most sense.

    It would have been nice if the original Red Line subway had four tracks in it’s Downtown portion to allow these trains to go through, but alas that wasn’t the case. But this will still do the job quite well when it’s all built.

  • Jerard:

    Yes, exactly what I was trying to say but in a much long winded way…

    After completion of Downtown connector, at 7th St Metro Center, the Pasadena-Long Beach and East LA-Culver City train will indeed form an X pattern as Jarrett suggests. But for some reason, he thinks the “X” needs to be at Union Station. That’s ok in theory… but in practice (and in planning for the future), the local transit movements converge in 7th St Metro Center. It’s going to be much more important transfer node than Union Station.

  • Jerard

    To further this conversation thinking of Jarrett’s previous response, the question we should be asking oursevles in planning these things is which lines REQUIRE a stop at Union Station in order to ensure high ridership? Instead of everyline going thorough Union Station when the demand really isn’t there for it.

    Personally, my bet is on running service like this;
    A)Expo-Pasadena and
    B) Long Beach-East LA.

    Because the Pasadena and Expo lines will need a transfer at Union Station to connect Metrolink riders to destinations along each route (Pasadena, USC, West LA and Santa Monica; when Expo is completed). The Long Beach-Eastside alignment I feel is more dependant on a connection at 7th Street Metro Center for the most ridership and may not see a lot of ridership towards Union Station.

  • That’s good observation… the Santa Monica-Sierra Madre (Azusa?) alignment probably will see more transfers to CA-HSR too so perhaps that should be the preferred routing vs. Santa Monica-East LA (Whittier?) which will bypass Union Station and force Westside riders to transfer at 7th St Metrocenter.

    I think this is a valid question to ask Metro to clarify… I think the preliminary documents seems to suggest their preferred routing is the one I described rather than the one Jerard mentioned.

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