Los Angeles' Gold Line Foothill Extension Approved for Funding, Will Begin Construction Later this Year

» The first rail project funded by Measure R will eventually ensure much larger future investment in Los Angeles proper.

Politicians from the San Gabriel Valley have for years made very clear where they want transit investment funds to be spent in their section of the Los Angeles region, on an extension of the light rail Gold Line from Pasadena to Azusa and eventually Ontario Airport. Yesterday, they got what they wanted: a commitment of $690 million from the board of L.A. County’s Metro transportation authority, with the goal of opening the first phase for service by 2014, three years earlier than originally planned.

The 11.3-mile Foothills Extension project will be the first rail line funded by L.A.’s Measure R, a multi-billion dollar plan for transit improvements that voters approved in November 2008. Construction will begin this June.

The board’s unanimous decision to move this project to the front of the line is a political compromise reached to guarantee future support for the much more expensive subways and light rail lines planned in the western parts of the region, principally in the City of Los Angeles itself. It will settle feelings of resentment from politicians whose constituents live in places east of the city. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents the northeast section of the county, suggested that the vote in favor of the Gold Line extension is a good step in broadening transit investments. “Los Angeles has cannibalized the funds,” the Los Angeles Times quotes him as saying. “This is the first time we have been able to bring ‘regional’ to the front of the plate instead of the back of the bus.”

Politicians in the San Gabriel Valley have shown strong support for the project and it has encountered very little local controversy, unlike, say, the Expo Line currently under construction, which has been met with protests.

By agreeing to move forward with the Foothills program — at the periphery of the metropolitan area — the City of Los Angeles has assembled support for its priorities, including the $4 billion Westside Subway, which is the primary goal of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Mr. Villaraigosa is currently campaigning for a federal loan to advance the projects funded by Measure R within ten years, versus the thirty years originally protected. Failing to support a project in the east side of the county could have spelled major future difficulties for the city’s hopes to spend billions of county dollars on its own lines.

With six new stations reaching the towns of Arcadia, Monrovia, Duarte, Irwindale, and Azusa, the Gold Line extension will lengthen the existing line by about 50% and provide access to a section of the region currently far from either light rail or commuter rail service. A second phase, whose $600 to $700 million cost, would link Azusa to Montclair, with a possible later extension to Ontario Airport.

Despite the apparent excitement of the San Gabriel Valley to see more transit service, the project is likely to be the least cost-effective of all of L.A.’s planned rail transit lines. The original 13.7-mile section of the Gold Line, which connected Pasadena and Union Station in 2003, has suffered from relatively low ridership, hitting about 22,000 daily before the Gold Line Eastside Extension opened with service to areas along the other side of downtown.

Original projections for ridership along the Pasadena corridor assumed 64,000 daily users, then were downgraded to 38,000 a few years later, and finally to 26,000 in final studies. Compared to L.A.’s other rail corridors, the Gold Line is the least used.

There are a few explanations for these difficulties: the line does not directly connect to the core of the downtown business district; much of the route includes stations in the median of the I-210 Freeway, making walking to and from stops less than pleasant; and the route between Pasadena and Union Station takes almost half an hour to complete. Most importantly, perhaps, the areas served just aren’t all that dense.

Downtown connections will improve once the downtown Regional Connector opens (in either 2017 or 2019, depending on financing), which will allow through-running from Long Beach to the Foothills. This is likely to expand the number of riders simply by making it easier for them to get to their jobs without having to transfer lines.

Most of the Foothill Extension will also be constructed outside of the highway right-of-way, increasing the potential for redevelopment around station stops and making the riding experience more comfortable. Nonetheless, the alignment chosen is not ideal: it’s on the wrong side of the freeway from downtown Duarte, and it travels through areas that lack residential or commercial concentration. There are plans for transit-oriented development in many of the affected cities, but whether those projects will pan out is not yet clear.

The commute times from the end of the line will be a serious problem: once the second phase is built to Montclair, downtown will be a full 75 minutes away, making daily commutes difficult to envision for many people. Even in traffic, that trip takes a total of 70 minutes by car.

Nevertheless, getting people from the San Gabriel Valley into downtown may not be the major goal of the project. Metrolink Commuter Rail can cover the distance between Montclair and Los Angeles in an hour along the San Bernardino Line, though that link is near carrying capacity. The Gold Line’s longer route may be most useful in providing for increased connections between the major cities of the Foothills, a pretty good idea considering that many of these towns already have walkable downtowns acclimatized to transit. But relatively few people are making those commutes, so it’s unlikely the Foothills line will be renowned for its ridership.

Whether Los Angeles should be pushing this project ahead, then, is openly up for question. It may have, however, simply been a matter of political necessity.

Image above: Gold Line Foothills Extension, from The Source

27 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Daniel

    Just some random musing…

    I’m glad the Gold Line is moving right along, but it’s developments like this that show why they should have stuck with the original plan, and extended the Red Line (heavy rail) to the eastside instead.

    How well is light rail going to scale up to any increase in demand? (witness the Blue Line, built to light rail standards, which is at operational capacity now…the station design makes it impossible to run anything longer than 3-car trains, and the stations themselves can’t be enlarged).

    To me (admittedly an outsider who’s been to L.A. exactly once) the L.A. subway/light rail system looks like a jumble of routes that have little strategy to where they go (the famous example of the Green Line being the line from “nowhere to nowhere”) and poor integration. To get from LAX to Union Station (or any place in downtown L.A.), I’d have to take the shuttle from the terminal to the Green Line, transfer to the Blue Line, and then transfer to the Red Line (I know the regional connector should solve part of this problem when it’s built, whenever that happens). My hypothetical commute to the San Gabriel valley would be even longer, necessitating one more transfer yet!

    L.A.’s topography and development patterns make a hub-and-spoke system less than ideal, in my opinion, a crisscross pattern like Mexico City would suit the city better.

    • Wad

      The sole reason the Green Line exists was to get the 105 Freeway built. It was part of a consent decree Caltrans signed with the communities in the freeway’s path. One of the terms was to incorporate a rapid transit project into the freeway’s design.

      Also, if you want to go from LAX to Union Station, stick to the FlyAway bus. It’s nonstop, gets you directly to the airport terminals, the highway coaches are nice and the buses can accommodate luggage. Problem solved, unless you only rode the three trains to make some kind of point.

      • Winston

        Wad,

        You’re right about the reason for the construction of the Green Line. However, it hasn’t turned out to be such a bad investment. Were it an independent system it would be the 12th light rail system in the U.S. (just behind Salt Lake City) and have the 12th most boardings per mile. Not to bad for a system that cost $35 million/mile which is pretty cheap by light rail standards.

  • OceanRailroader

    I wounder would this Gold line be running along any old streetcar lines that might have ran in the same path before it was built? It’s ridership might jump up if gas prices start rising like they did in 2007 and 2008. When the gas prices jumped up and went out of control that was the game changer for many small and large transit systems.

  • Gabriel Ratener

    This lightrail line can be built quickly at a low price due to the fact that the extension will use an existing railroad corridor, partly a corridor used by Metrolink. If the line will follow Metrolink it may be best to consider replacing Metrolink and the part of the Gold Line that uses the same corridor as Metrolink with a high capacity, double track, electrified commuter rail line. Is it really necessary to build light rail past San Dimas where commuter rail already exists?

    Maybe the Metrolink should be replaced with a high capacity commuter rail line, and light rail should terminate and connect to this proposed improved commuter line in San Dimas. This would require a connetor station being built in San Dimas.

  • Dan Berez

    There are so many problems with this project, I cannot even begin. But I do want to clarify one thing, the San Bernardino line is no where near capacity. I ride the line regularly, during rush hour, and have never not been able to get a seat. There are almost always empty seats and it is not uncommon to be one of just a handful of people on the train, even during rush hour.

    • Gabriel Ratener

      Part of the reason ridership might be low is because Metrolink is slower and less frequent than alternative modes of transportation. If a better, more frequent, and faster service where implemented in such a way that would make it fastest to ride commuter rail throughout the corridor, people might actually do it. In addition, if the gold line where to connect to Metrolink, the commuter rail line would most certainly see a substantial increase in ridership.

      Don’t simply judge the viability of commuter rail in the region based on the slow and infrequent Metrolink service.

  • Chris

    I would of thought a five minute penalty for using transit was quite good as long as you can get a seat, or was the suggestion that people don’t commute that far, I might have misunderstood.

    Addressing the issue of stations built within the medians of free-ways, this is a really serious problem in a lot of cities. I think governments need to look at building developments on top of the free-ways. I’m sure this would be ridiculously expensive but as I understand it Stockholm did this sought of work in the 50’s and 60’s, and is no doubt reaping huge rewards.

    • Gabriel Ratener

      First, this project is not being built in a highway median, nor is it using Highway corridors for right of way. This line is primarily being built in a railroad corridor.

      As for above freeway building development; it may not work in the LA basin due to high seismic activity.

    • FG

      I think you are thinking of Vällingby or Farsta which are subway suburbs from the late 50’s – they decked over vehicular service for the local shopping centers/downtowns with subway access at that level as well. A lot of expressways in Stockholms City (what they call downtown) are built over or in (or being put into) fairly deep tunnels.

  • Loren Petrich

    I did a lot of searching, and it’s hard to find anything on possible plans to electrify parts of Metrolink. A problem with doing so is coexistence with doublestack freights – the catenary wire will have to be rather high.

    I checked Metrolink’s schedules, and I found that its busiest lines are

    LA – Burbank
    LA – San Bernardino
    LA – Orange County
    SB – Orange County

    So those would be the most logical candidates for electrification.

    • In China and India, double-stacked freight coexists with electrification. In fact Indian Railways routinely stacks two containers on top of flatcars, under catenary; it does not need well cars because the broad gauge gives the trains more stability, making accidents less likely.

      I still think that with CAHSR and Antelope Valley service, Metrolink might as well electrify from LA to Sylmar. The cost would be approximately zero: most of the cost of electrifying is the substations, which CAHSR would provide no matter what.

  • Good news. This project has a lot of redevelopment potential, and the most expensive part of it has been built. And there are a lot of jobs in the corridor already, especially in Pasadena.

    I riffed on the travel time comparison here:

    http://www.humantransit.org/2010/03/illusions-of-travel-time-in-transit-promotion.html

    Note also that the travel time by car, Montclair to Los Angeles, may be 70 minutes in traffic, but it’s hugely variable. When I lived in Claremont 30 years ago, worst-case solo-driver commutes on I-10 were already longer than that, and I doubt it’s gotten better.

  • Ted King

    This is only Phase 2A – there is a Phase 2B to Montclair on the drawing board and an airport extension (Phase 3 ?) to Ontario Int’l is being considered.

    That commuter line is something of a dog. It supposedly has one or more sections that are single tracked (per Jarrett at HumanTransit.org). And this is on a line that I would call a mainline due to regular freight service plus commuter and Amtrak passenger service.

  • calwatch

    It is impossible to double track Metrolink through the Covina and Charter Oak area without acquisition of right of way. The same goes for the bottleneck through the I-10 corridor from El Monte to Alhambra. There are passing sidings, but the only continuous section of double track is from Pomona to Upland, which is where there are four stations within roughly 8 miles. Amtrak no longer serves that section, and the BNSF has trackage rights through the area to serve the Miller Brewery in Irwindale, but the number of trains on the BNSF is negligible (maybe a couple a day if you are lucky – I used to work adjacent to the tracks and would always look up when I saw a freight train pass by).

  • Dan Berez

    I think the question that has not been answered is: Is it really responsible for LACMTA to spend $690 million dollars extending a light rail line that has performed miserably (compared to expectations), while simultaneously planning a massive fare hike for the bus system and service cuts?

  • Yuri

    @Daniel: The Blue Line was designed for 2-car trains because of low ridership estimates. They then had to redesign the stations for 3-car trains. Supposedly they can’t fit 4-car trains but I wonder if they could if they really made an effort to redesign the stations and streetscape. At 80k riders per day, it’s perhaps at less than 50% capacity, I don’t know what the actual number is.

  • Spokker

    “Is it really responsible for LACMTA to spend $690 million dollars extending a light rail line that has performed miserably (compared to expectations), while simultaneously planning a massive fare hike for the bus system and service cuts?”

    No, but the San Gabriel Valley was attempting to hold the rest of the county hostage if they did not get their rail line. The Westside subway, for example, is sorely needed, and will benefit bus riders when it is completed, i.e. it will allow 720 riders some relief from crowded buses. The 720 is sometimes pure Hell in my humble opinion.

    However, the massive fare hike isn’t so massive. Metro already has some of the lowest fares in the nation. Also, don’t be disingenuous and say that they are planning a massive fare hike for the bus system. Rail fares are the same as bus fares and will see the same hike.

  • Joseph

    “However, the massive fare hike isn’t so massive. Metro already has some of the lowest fares in the nation. Also, don’t be disingenuous and say that they are planning a massive fare hike for the bus system. Rail fares are the same as bus fares and will see the same hike.”

    Isn’t so massive? Says who? You? For the majority of of bus riders, who are predominantly working class women of color, the fare hikes and decrease in service hours will greatly impact their lives. If these families have multiple bus rider, the costs are even higher. MTA has been constructing new rail while balancing the budget on the backs of working class bus riders.

    • Jerard

      For the majority of of bus riders, who are predominantly working class women of color, the fare hikes and decrease in service hours will greatly impact their lives. If these families have multiple bus rider, the costs are even higher. MTA has been constructing new rail while balancing the budget on the backs of working class bus riders.

      MTA has also ran service on empty corridors that don’t need the service because of bureaucratic consent decree that has cost the agency. Lower fares also due to a consent decree made it cost more to operate the service. Some unproductive lines need to be trimmed or reduces in order to save the bulk of the system from further dismantling or downright elimination.

      Also MTA is also building said rail lines in most of those communities of Working Class and of women of color or to those destinations where those working class patrons AND women of color can get to work.

      That is the effort of building a Multimodal transit Network.

    • These are just discredited BRU talking points.

  • Spokker

    “Isn’t so massive? Says who? You?”

    Yes, says me. I live under the poverty line and have a net worth less than that of the average black woman (which is $5 according to a recent study).

    I actually have negative net worth, though I’d like to think of it as an investment that might pay off someday, but that isn’t 100% ;)

    Of course, poor people like myself are able to consume a basket of goods that is worth more than their actual income through cash transfers to the poor.

    For example, I made $X amount last year, but I consumed $Y amount where $Y > $X. Why? My bus ride is heavily subsidized. My education is heavily subsidized. I was able to take the Earned Income Tax Credit as well. I wonder is poor is really poor today, especially when I see Blue Line riders rocking it with PSPs, Nintendo DS’, Razor phones, iPhones and all that shit. God forbid we ask them to value transit slightly more than they do.

    It would be disingenuous for me to always say, “No, you can’t raise those goddamn fares! I’m brown! I’m poor! Never raise the fares!!!” Actually, this is the time for MTA to raise base fares a measly quarter and the day passes and monthly passes by a proportional amount. Why? I still want to get to work and school even if I have to pay a little more.

    RAIL IS RACIST.

  • Spokker

    “that you have only discredited by saying that they have been discredited, just pointing that out.”

    Well, the BRU has been talked about aplenty, so decide for yourself. Here’s the other side of the story.

    http://thetransitcoalition.us/BRUtruth.htm

    http://transittalk.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=idiots

    Of course, if you disagree with the BRU too much they might kick you out of their club. Identity politics can be a bitch sometimes.

  • Rancho Cucamonga West

    The Metro Gold Line’s best route was not chosen. The light rail system WAS going to travel along the historic pacific electric rail ROW through:

    Alta Loma (World class equestrian, walking, biking trails that link the entire horse overlay to the Pacific Electric tRAILway) then to…

    Historic Etiwanda Pacific Electric Station (Historic and still existing; Ordered built by President Lincoln himself) then turn south along…

    Milliken Ave into downtown Rancho Cucamonga’s shopping district: The Victoria Gardens Mall Upscale Regional (20 million annual visitors), then on to…

    Ontario Mills Mall (26 million annual visitors, more than Disneyland and California Adventure combined, and finally…

    LA/ONT Airport (The Airport Master Plan expands the parking lots to multi level structured parking and builds out 3 more terminals. A people mover will be added to convey persons through the airport to the convention center and the new high speed rail station.
    LAX II).

    The link was left open in the north to continue the light rail system east along the historic pacific electric route to San Bernardino in the future. But this route was deliberately not chosen due to issues with transients from poorer cities coming into precious Rancho. The automobile and highway love story also has a lot to do with the demise of this vital transportation link.

    Rancho property owners were tricked into thinking that their land values would go down when really the amenities gained through a nearby light rail station linked to downtown Los Angeles are endless and property values around transit stations would have skyrocketed in value. The house becomes both a big city cottage and a bedroom community suburban home, your choice. So instead of biking around town you could take a clean comfortable gold train into the city for lunch, entertainment, or whatever. Instead we have a bike lane so you can ride your bike to Rialto or to Montclair? Because nothing says higher land values like Rialto or Montclair…HA! Much better than a golden train linking downtown Rancho to cities like Claremont, Pasadena, Downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood, and Long Beach. The only city missing is Emerald freaking city.

    Rancho built a cheesy bike lane along the historic pacific electric route that creates gridlock pedestrian traffic at every crossing with a longer wait than a light rail system and more frequent traffic interruptions too. So imagine just one out of ten major street crossings. The ped xing light turns red and you watch one women jog by. You wait and idle and wait and idle. Soon about 40 cars are waiting…idling, then it’s 50 and even 60 cars like on Haven and Day Creek waiting…idling.

    By this amount of time, I would have happily waited for a GOLD train to go by with a couple hundred upscale shoppers going to Rancho’s downtown station to spend money creating a huge influx to our local economy.

    I think I’ll have a nap instead as I wait FOREVER for a single jogger.

  • Joel C

    Went to Monrovia for an interview on Friday, and had a chance to visit its charming old-town district on Myrtle. Then I checked out the sites for the Arcadia, Monrovia and Irwindale stations.

    I want to be excited for the northern San Gabriel Valley (the foothill communities) getting a new rail line. But it just seems to me this line is in the wrong location. Where is the residential/commercial density in the SGV? Well there is no real “density” at all in the SGV north of the 10, but if it is anywhere it is directly along Huntington Drive. Not several blocks away from Huntington, and certainly not in the midst of a dusty industrial corridor (where some of the station sites are located).

    So it just seems to me this line will make SGV residents feel good, and will deliver a beautiful ride, but will not really move that many people to and from their destinations.

    I hope I’m wrong on this. But I sure could think of lines that would’ve been more cost-effective in getting people out of their cars. Like the Regional Connector and the Wilshire Subway.

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