» 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