» Los Angeles submitted an application for U.S. TIGER funds with the intention of building a downtown streetcar line. But the alignments proposed are very similar to those offered by existing rail and bus services — and each would operate in a one-way loop, a failed transit concept.
Los Angeles has big hopes for its downtown, and, like most of the country’s major cities, it has seen significant population growth in the inner core over the past ten years. Now, to extend this renaissance, the city — also like many others — is planning a streetcar line that would traverse the district from north to south. Last month, it applied for $37.5 million in U.S. Department of Transportation TIGER grant dollars, which it hopes to supplement with local and private funds to complete an initial route of between 3 and 5 one-way track miles at a cost of between $106 and $138 million.
Despite the fact that planning for the L.A. streetcar goes back for more than a decade thanks to the work of a public-private local advocacy group, the city will have plenty of competition in its effort to win federal funds. Requests for the third round of TIGER funding outnumbered actual funding available by 27 to 1. With so many projects up for consideration, anything funded by Washington ought to be valuable. But L.A.’s project could benefit from significant improvement.
The fundamental problem with the proposed streetcar is that its service pattern would overlap that of other transit lines either funded or in service today. Though there are several corridors under consideration (a final route alignment will be selected in February 2012), each would run within the general north-south corridor between Broadway to the east and Figueroa to the west and Pico to the south and Union Station to the north.
This broad corridor, it turns out, will be mostly duplicated by light rail once the Regional Connector — a more than $1 billion project — links the Blue and Expo lines south of downtown with the Gold Line north of it by 2020. The Silver Line, a bus rapid transit route that connects El Monte to South L.A., runs a very similar alignment. And literally dozens of local and rapid bus lines running with headways of 15 minutes or less throughout the day (shown in yellow on the map below) run similar routes. All of these lines are within half a mile or less of all of the proposed streetcar routes.
(Click on the above map to expand – the top-rated streetcar route based on a study of alternatives is shown in bold pink; other potential alignments are in dotted pink)
Just how many similar transit lines does Los Angeles need running through its center city? Is a route that replicates existing transit necessary? And in a city with so many major transit projects waiting to be funded, is this a priority?
Business groups representing the Broadway corridor see the streetcar plan as a potential avenue to economic growth; they argue that the line would attract more customers to their stores and contribute to a more vibrant environment. The majority of costs for the line ($50 to $60 million) are expected to be covered by property owners, who are enthusiastic about the regeneration of the area. The Bringing Back Broadway group, which has led the effort, has a promising streetscaping plan that would work well with either the streetcar or improved bus service.
Even so, it is dispiriting to see yet another city make decisions on streetcar planning that imitate previous mistakes seen elsewhere.
The first is the one-way loop travel pattern of all of the proposed alignments. Rather than running in two directions on Broadway, which would appease those who feel that the east side of downtown is underserved by rail transit, all of the routes would run south on Broadway, only to turn around and run north on another street west of there. The result? People on Broadway would have to go south, then west, then north — just to get to the center of downtown. And people at L.A. Live, where a new football station is planned near Pico station, would have to go north, then east, then south — just to get to Broadway.
That is out-of-the-way thinking that does not address the travel needs of most people. Unsurprisingly, similar one-way transit loops in other cities have had difficulty attracting ridership. Though the transit agency predicts 7,000 to 11,000 daily riders on the line, one wonders what percentage of this group would simply be switching out of existing transit modes on parallel routes, to little benefit of anyone.
There are no transportation capacity concerns here: Not only would streetcars run in alignments shared with cars (with the predictable consequences: limiting capacity, slowing trains, and disrupting services), but Broadway has a total of five lanes reserved for automobile circulation. So why not just run the trains up and down that street, perhaps with a connection at the southern terminus to Pico station? Or why not simply focus on taking advantage of the frequent bus routes that already run in the area by directing streetscape projects to their needs?
L.A.’s transit priorities are generally in the right place — focusing most funds on extending rapid transit, both in the form of rail and BRT, to areas of the city suffering from lots of traffic congestion and too few transit options. Downtown is not one of those places.
Image at top: Conceptual rendering of Los Angeles streetcar on Broadway, from Bringing Back Broadway