Gold Line Extension Ready for Service in East Los Angeles

East LA Civic Center Station

» Though originally planned as an extension of the heavy rail Red Line, light rail will be good for East L.A. when it begins operations Sunday.

In most cities, the construction of a $900 million light rail line between downtown and a heavily transit-dependent neighborhood would be seen as a great step forward in the process of expanding the region’s transportation options.

For East Los Angeles, however, the Gold Line East Side Extension’s opening is bittersweet. While it is true that this new six-mile line, an extension of the Gold Line from Pasadena to downtown with eight beautiful stations, will be a boon for people who live in one of the city’s poorest and least-connected neighborhoods, an alternative originally planned more than twenty years ago would have been even more beneficial to the community.

In 1987, Los Angeles transit planners mapped out the city’s future transit system, highlighting a line running east-west from Westwood to East L.A. as the central spine. This heavy rail project, whose first phase opened as the Red Line between MacArthur Park and Union Station in 1994, lost its appeal as costs rose exponentially and after an explosion raised fears about the system’s safety. Los Angeles County Supervisor Zeb Zev Yaroslavsky campaigned to kill more spending on subways in the city, eventually winning a referendum to do just that, despite the fact that the federal government had already committed hundreds of millions of dollars to an East L.A. extension from Union Station. Congressman Henry Waxman put a stake in the project’s heart when he successfully convinced Congress to eliminate future funding for underground trains in the city to please his wealthy Westside constituents who did not want a line under Wilshire Boulevard.

So the plans for an east side subway died, replaced by Metro with a partially federal-sponsored light rail project that runs just 1.7 miles under Boyle Heights, with the rest along the street; construction began in 2004. Now that the city’s citizenry has approved a new funding source and Mr. Waxman has removed his block on subway funding, it looks like the Westside will get its subway after all — but not East L.A.

This comes to the major detriment of transit users in the affected neighborhoods. While the Gold Line light rail trains will require 22 minutes to traverse the six-mile route between Atlantic Boulevard and Union Station (from where it will continue on the existing Gold Line route to Pasadena), Purple Line heavy rail trains can travel from Union Station to Wilshire and Western — about five miles — in just thirteen minutes. It seems reasonable to suggest that heavy rail, operating entirely in a subway, would have saved thousands of commuters ten or more minutes a day over what they’re getting with light rail. This may seem inconsequential, but if the Westside subway and extensions of the East L.A. line to El Monte or Whittier are ever built, those ten minutes could have meant significantly shorter daily work trips for hundreds of thousands of people.

For the moment, planners expect only 13,000 daily users on the line in 2010 — a number that would have been likely higher had the travel time been shorter. Ridership is also limited by the lack of a direct connection between the light rail Blue Line and Union Station, a deficiency that will be solved with the eventual construction of the Regional Connector downtown. That project will also allow through-running from West L.A.’s Expo corridor, all the way to the East L.A. Atlantic Station terminus.

If light rail is not ideal, however, the huge cost savings of running the route principally overground may have been worth it, especially since East L.A., though dense, is certainly no high-rise neighborhood. A heavy rail line through the community may not have ever attracted a sufficient number of users to make it a good idea. On the other hand, experience in cities like Washington, D.C. suggests that heavy rail stations even in less dense areas can attract significant surrounding development and very high ridership. One wonders if it’s fair that the rich Westside gets the best standards of transit, while East L.A. gets something significantly less performing.

The Gold Line will be a successful element of the Los Angeles cityscape, but the project probably could have made a far more serious dent in the region’s car culture had it been designed differently. Yet Los Angeles will be able to build more projects overall because of the savings here. And Metro has a cornucopia of proposals on its plate.

And the Gold Line Eastside Extension, named after America’s first Mexican-American congressman, Edward R. Roybal, is a handsome addition to this neighborhood. Each of the stations was designed by an artist and is distinctive, making each a jewel in a somewhat blighted neighborhood that was partially demolished to make way for the construction of the Pomona and Santa Ana freeways. Those roads remain huge obstacles whose close adjacency to the light rail line’s route may actually reduce ridership, but there’s not much to be done on that account. In addition, current County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who was a major supporter of the project, is upset about the fact that the line is above ground — she fears that trains will run over pedestrians — but her concerns are overstated considering the success of similar projects in other countries and even in Los Angeles itself. There’s nothing to fear from the Gold Line, but it could have been better.

Image above: East LA Civic Center Station, from Flickr user waltarrrrr

37 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Nathanael

    You’re spreading common but false rumors about Waxman.

    Waxman prohibited work on a Wilshire subway — not other subways — after digging in the area brought up natural gas and explosions. This was reasonable on safety grounds at the time.

    After being presented with evidence that the problems of tunnelling in an area with natural gas bubbles had been solved, *Waxman himself* removed the prohibition from the federal law. It’s gone now.

    You’re approximately right about Yaroslavsky and his local laws, however — he really didn’t like subways.

  • Fallopia Simms

    Why didn’t Molina counter Zev’s referendum in 1998 by getting her constiuents to vote down such a measure? That particular election was scant in participation and she and her jurisdiction alone could have easily squashed this.

  • The problem is not just the longer travel times, but also the transfer at Union Station. Transfers reduce ridership, especially when they’re not cross-platform and timed, which the LAUS transfer is neither.

  • Another great post Yonah, Keep it up!

  • tom veil

    BIzarre photo. Are those giant metal sunflowers?

  • AndyDuncan

    I’m getting really tired of the “rich vs poor” canard. For one, lots of poor people work on the westside but can’t afford to live there, that’s part of the reason that traffic is so bad.

    Second, why does it matter how much money the person riding the subway has in their wallet? What matters is ridership, I don’t give a rats ass if the person riding the subway is an investment banker or his nanny. Put the lines where people will ride them. If that means putting them in the rich, DENSE, westside, then that’s where they should go. Putting them anywhere else is unfair to the people paying for the lines, which is everyone.

  • Andy, I’m kind of confused as to your point: you’re saying that a great deal of the traffic in the Westside is from workers from the Eastside, but somehow there aren’t enough of those traffic-inducing riders to justify a higher level of transit? You may be getting tired of class consciousness, but you haven’t made a coherent argument against it, or against subarea equity in areas that you’ve tacitly admitted are transit-starved to begin with.

    This wasn’t what I was actually going to comment on, tho, which was the new livery of LACMTA’s light-rail trains. I think it’s interesting that they’re trying to make them at least aesthetically similar to heavy-rail trains, which lends to a greater sense of integration within the network. I’d like to see something like that with the Purple Line in suburban Maryland, tho I don’t know how likely that’s going to be at this point.

  • Adam

    I’d sooner like to see heavy rail trains be more aesthetically like light rail ones. They do that in Europe already; why can’t they do it here on things that aren’t the PATH?

  • I’ve just followed the route on Google Streetview. While 1st Street has commercial development, 3rd is mostly residential, with a few liquor stores and drive-thrus with setbacks. The central throughfare of East LA is not 3rd, where the Gold Line will run, but Whittier, which is much more commercial and, anecdotally from Streetview, has more people walking on it.

  • Yes, Whittier Blvd is the spine, while the LRT corridor on East 3rd Street is more a series of redevelopment opportunities. These two arteries are never more than 2/3 mile apart, so there will be quite a bit of overlap in their markets.

    That’s interesting because if you’re heading for the westside, or really anywhere west of downtown, the Metro Rapid bus line on Whittler Blvd. is already far more useful than the Gold Line will be. This Rapid goes right through downtown and all the way out Wilshire Blvd. whereas the Gold Line requires a transfer at Union Station just to get downtown and another to reach many points west.

    This is probably why the ridership estimate is low. It will be interesting to see how people use this service.

  • Frank

    Everyone is (unintentionally) spreading misinformation on this and it seems to have caught on. The original Eastside Subway would have been half as long and probably taken 10 more years to build, maybe 30 years to build to Atlantic/Pomona:

    Details on the original Red Line Subway extension: “The Eastside Extension is 3.7 miles in length with four stations, originally designed as subway. It would extend MOS-1 from Union Station into neighborhoods east of downtown. The estimated cost was $1.05 billion (escalated dollars). Ridership for this extension was estimated at 12,000 daily boardings by 2010. Work on this extension was indefinitely suspended in 1998 pending completion of the Regional Transit Alternatives Analysis.”

    Would you rather have a 6 mile LRT route with 8 stations in 2009 or a 3.7 mile Subway route with 4 stations in 2020? Nobody ever seems to bring this important point. I would think this site of all places wouldn’t gloss over this important point.

  • But would this route have followed 3rd, or Whittier?

  • Winston

    Alon,

    According to the map I have which shows station locations but isn’t super detailed, it appears that the red line would have followed Cesar Chavez and then cut across Evergreen cemetery to First Street (about 3-4 blocks to the northeast of the Gold Line’s alignment).

  • Winston

    DOH… I should clarify my previous comment. Along the route that would have been served by the red line extension, the Gold runs on First street and the red line would have started out running on Cesar Chavez and then run on first street as well. The red line would have stopped at first and Lorena, before the gold line switches over to third street. The first 4 miles of the Gold line follow nearly the same route as the red line would have.

  • First Street is reasonably busy, but Cesar Chavez is even busier. In fact, looking at Google Maps, I see more activity on Cesar Chavez than on any other east-west street west of Evergreen. Whittier only becomes the primary commercial street east of the 710.

  • Spokker

    Would four-quadrant gates allow the line to operated at a faster speed? If so, seems like a no-brainer to me.

    Also, the flyover above the 101 is mind-numbingly slow. Are trains physically unable to traverse that flyover at a higher speed or is Metro just playing it safe?

    And thanks to Frank for clearing up some of the politics surrounding the line. East LA didn’t get as shafted as Molina would like you to believe.

  • I am a little confused by the statement “One wonders if it’s fair that the rich Westside gets the best standards of transit, while East L.A. gets something significantly less performing.”

    The “rich Westside” is the area to which Henry Waxman and Zev Yaroslavsky (not Zeb) prevented subway construction. The furthest west that line goes is to Western Avenue in Koreatown, not too far past downtown Los Angeles.

    In fact, East LA gets rail transit at least a decade before the West Side will.

  • Waxman prevented subway construction based on trumped up fears of methane gas. Later on, when those fears were proven groundless, he sponsored a bill to overturn his previous bill banning subway construction.

  • AlexB

    Once they build the regional connector, and this new line continues through downtown to the expo line, and eventually to Santa Monica, many of these issues will be resolved.

    Sorry, but 13,000 riders does not deserve subway construction, and I don’t think the concerns regarding social justice are justified in this situation. The LA subway moves 150,000 people a day. That kind of ridership does deserve subway construction. If the east side/expo lines eventually move more people, I am sure elements of grade separation can be built as appropriate. This seems like a good project that I am sure will eventually spark greater ridership and development. I think the main goal at this stage needs to be getting the basic “spokes” of the budding LA rail system into place so it can begin to work as the real network it is starting to become.

    The LA rail system + metrolink + metro rapid could really provide very effective service someday if the existing metrolink service becomes more frequent, the local services are extended where possible to metrolink stations and the airports, and the subway is extended to Santa Monica as planned.

  • Don’t judge any of LA’s light rail line on ridership or routing until the Downtown connector is completed, which will unite all the lines into one working system. The network effect will probably boost ridership significantly.

    One issue facing the Gold line now is number of transfers vs. 720 bus. Instead of riding one bus ($1.25) to get from East LA to Westside, the Gold line rider will pay $1.25 to get to Downtown LA, and then another $1.25 on the Purple line, and then another $1.25 from Wilshire/Western to catch that same 720 bus to his or her final destination. I don’t know if this is any faster than just taking the 720 directly from East LA all the way to Beverly Hills or Westwood. And yes… I know if you have a Metro pass, it doesn’t matter how many fares you have to pay… but this discourages optional or casual riders.

    Metro can do a few things to really get people using Gold line. For example, allow people who buy paper pass (one time ticket) a free transfer to a bus. Or figure out how one can transfer at Union Station (and 7th/Fig Metro Center) from one rail line to another for free now that we have gates…

    But ultimately, Gold line’s success is really tied to Downtown Connector and Expo Phase II. If the ride from Atlantic station to Downtown Santa Monica is less than the time it takes to drive (1.5 hours on a good day), then it will get plenty of riders.

  • Spokker

    To see a preview of the Westside Subway Ridership all one has to do is look at who is riding the 720 on Wilshire Blvd, a bus I frequent occasionally. Myself and my fellow riders aren’t exactly donning top hats and monocles. These are people cramming themselves into a bus to get to work on the Westside, and few are Rockefellers.

    They are not just coming from the Eastside, but all directions. That’s what makes the Westside Subway Extension so important. It’s *NOT* in any way, shape or form a higher level of transit designed for the rich, though they are certainly invited to ride. It’s for working people of all colors who are seemingly coming from everywhere.

  • The expected number of new riders from the full subway to the sea is 17,000. So the 13,000 of the Gold Line-through-Third-Street looks pretty good. Presumably, routing the Gold Line through Whittier instead would make the numbers even better.

    Spokker, yes, the 720 is loaded. That would suggest having the subway follow the same route as the 720, which is Wilshire-Whittier. There’s no reason to split it in two and then put the eastern half on Third, unless you think drive-thru McD’s are TOD.

  • Jerard

    Alon,

    You live in New York. If you lived in Los Angeles you would notice on the ground that the ridership drops consdierably on the Whittier Portion of the 720 Rapid bus past Downtown LA.

    Here’s the schedule for the 720 shows this drop.
    http://www.metro.net/riding_metro/bus_overview/images/720.pdf

    When they first operated the longer (60 Foot) buses, about 3-4 years ago they had all the buses run through all the way to Whittier/Atlantic. But on the street you’d notice the platoons of 60′ buses running empty every 2 minutes. So they adjusted the schedule for that demand. Also notice where the service is at its most frequent, between Westwood and Downtown LA, because that is where demand is heaviest.

    That is not to say that an extension down Whittier wouldn’t do well, I believe it will do very well once the Purple Line is completed to Westwood, much like other projects under planning or in the constrained unfunded portion of Metro’s LRTP that will be dependent on other core portions of the line for their ridership to be productive.

  • Jerard

    Zev “stopped” subway construction because it was bankrupting the agency, but that bill could have easily been voted down by the voters of LA County all Zev did was write the language.

    It didn’t help that the Hollywood sinkhole fiasco of a year or two prior that really had Angelenos on edge about subway construction and practically anything LACMTA did.

    Some of those angelenos are right along a organically and culturally rich commercial corridor named Whitter Blvd, right when the Hollywood sinkholes occured it confirmed (in a passive manner) their fears that the subway construction would disrupt and destroy their businesses and voiced strongly not to want a subway under their street.

    Molina who serves that district couldn’t just vocally champion for the subway in a loud manner because she was up for re-election that same year fearing a false move there would screw her chances for a re-election bid. All of these factors coming into play, With the 1998 Prop A ban.

  • Jerard, the point isn’t just that they split the route (though, while we’re at it, the MTA could equally well put a subway under Whittier and terminate some trains at Union). It’s that they put it on Third.

  • Spokker

    Think of the Purple Line extension as a penis shooting its load (passengers) all over the Westside. Right now the line is flacid and its sperm count low. However, once the westside extension is complete it will be able to make ropes.

    And that is my philosophy toward transportation planning.

  • kellyp

    shoulda coulda woulda, how about just celebrate the openning and continued momentum of transit in the LA basin. yeah we get it, rich people live in west, poor in the east. There have been many mistakes made that have left us with the current transit situation. Now let’s focus on what we need to do to continue the growth instead of talking about what could have been.

  • Jerard

    Alon,

    How can they build a subway under Whittier at that time, when the merchants under Whittier don’t want it?

    I agree Kelly, lets celebrate what we have right now

  • Fallopia Simms

    Jerard @ #24 breaks down the truth and totally neuters the entire argument of race/class bias suggested by Molina in the specific Whittier subway case. Ironically Molina could have been a game changer in ’98 had she grown some balls and fought back against Zev’s law while convincing her constituency of the long term effects of a subway in their area.

    Spokker @ #26 is a genius!

  • Jerard, at this point I’m not even asking for a subway. Given that they chose light rail, why did they route it on First and Third and not Cesar Chavez and Whittier, or even just First?

  • Spokker

    “Spokker @ #26 is a genius!”

    Thank you. I’ve been working on my transportation model for several years now. I hope to publish my study soon.

  • Jerard

    Chavez is difficult to connect to via LRT at Union Station. Whittier Blvd, because fo the 2 lanes of traffic in each direction PLUS parking and given that it is a commercial corridor, that would have been an uphill battle to get anything on there, given the decision on the Phase 2 route section that went away from Whittier Blvd.

    First Street is a good choice due to its proximity to Chavez connecting the same destinations (White Memorial Hospital, Mariachi Plaza, Chavez/Soto shopping district). Third Street was a choice because it was the path of leaat resistence to try and reach Whittier Blvd.

    However I do wish during the Phase 2 studies that they had an option of making a new small branch down Arizona Avenue until Whittier Blvd, then it stub ends on the Northside of Whittier Blvd. There the line would have the access yet the businesses will miss the disruption.

  • The problem with Third is that as soon as you hit the 710, you want to reach Whittier. The point isn’t to serve Whittier Blvd in Whittier, California; it’s to serve Whittier Blvd in East LA, and maybe also Montebello and Whittier, California.

    Unfortunately, instead of running on the 710 and then going on Whittier, they decided to stick to 3rd.

  • Jerard

    Running on the 710? Forgive me if I’m missing something here?

  • Well, the 710, or its frontage roads. The main point there isn’t the 710. It’s that as far as I can tell from Google Streetview, Whittier only gets really busy east of the 710, so you’d want light rail to get there as soon as possible, rather than have it not run on that street.

  • Jerard

    Which is why I mentioned, that they should have thought of as a quick extension idea to have a branch go down Arizona Avenue which is wide enough for LRT off of 3rd Street and head down to Whittier/Arizona which is at the heart of their commercial district. It would have eliminated problems with merchants and easy to construct.

  • Anon256

    In these discussions, people often talk about “social justice” and the importance of bringing improvements to poor areas as well as rich ones. They seem to miss the fact that, if you succeed in improving a poor neighbourhood, it stops being a poor neighbourhood. Land values and rents rise, and poor people can’t afford to live there anymore. This sort of redevelopment is often desirable, but we shouldn’t argue that encouraging it is helping the poor. The way to help poor people is to help them stop being poor.

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