» New Silver Line will stretch between El Monte and Artesia Transit Center in just 56 minutes, providing relief for drivers attempting to avoid pricing in HOT lanes.
The implementation of widespread tolling in the United States would cause significant problems as a consequence of increased inequities resulting from the decreased mobility of lower-income car-dependent individuals, who would have trouble paying road charges. There are several ways to combat this issue, starting with providing better transit before new tolls are implemented on roads upon which commuters have come to rely.
Los Angeles is planning to do just that with its new Silver Line bus rapid transit service, which it will open to the public this Sunday. Running 26 miles between El Monte and Artesia Transit Center, the service was created as an integral element of a congestion pricing demonstration program and sponsored by a $210 million grant from the federal government. The new line integrates bus services that formerly operated exclusively along either the El Monte or Harbor Transitway, in coordination with the implementation of tolls along the parallel I-10 and I-110, though those fees won’t be charged until December 2010.
The decision by L.A. Metro to improve transit a full year before pricing the equivalent roadways will allow commuters enough time to prepare a transition to transit and serves as a model for other cities hoping to raise funds and decrease congestion through the insertion of tolls.
Though Los Angeles is plotting a massive expansion of its rail system over the next few decades, its first foray into rapid transit in the modern era came with the opening of the El Monte Busway between Union Station and El Monte in 1974. This corridor allowed buses to speed from the city’s eastern outskirts into the center city and was one of the first examples of bus rapid transit service in the world. Today, the corridor also serves high-occupancy vehicles and carries 100 buses of various stripes during the peak hour and a total of 18,000 mass transit users a day. In 1996, Los Angeles paid for the construction of the Harbor Transitway running 11 miles south from downtown on I-110 — that line also carries a number of bus services, though it has fewer overall passengers than its El Monte equivalent.
As the map below demonstrates, current services along the two busways are not integrated. While both serve downtown, they do so in separate corridors and there are no through buses from El Monte to Artesia Transit Center. Downtown, stations for the El Monte lines are distributed on virtually every block and those for the Harbor Transitway hardly make it into the heart of the business district. More importantly, perhaps, the services along the lines are not branded in unity but instead as a panoply of MetroExpress lines. At the end of each corridor, buses continue on to destinations like Cal Poly Pomona and Palos Verdes Estates.
This makes the service difficult to understand for irregular and new riders. Even though both transitways are included on the primary Metro map along with the rail lines, the non-transitway alignments of their routes are not shown, making it effectively impossible to understand where the buses go once they’ve existed the busways on either end.
Planners at Metro saw a great opportunity in integrating services between the two busways, but had hesitated to do so for years because of limited funds for new transit investments. The original plan was to connect the two corridors with a limited access busway through downtown; the Harbor Transitway was designed with ramps to make such a line possible, but it has never been a priority for the region’s decision makers.
With the federal congestion grant, Metro finally found adequate motivation to put together a new service that uses both of the transitways. The Silver Line will be able to make the 26-mile commute between El Monte and Artesia in 56 minutes. If Metro brands the service appropriately, it could act as an interim version of the planned rail-based Regional Connector, moving people from south L.A. to El Monte without a transfer.
The line could be far easier to understand than existing transit services by dramatically improving the legibility of the two busways by demonstrating their connectivity to downtown destinations and by showing the interconnectivity between the two lines. In addition, instead of the dual corridors and large number of stops currently used by Harbor and El Monte services, the Silver Line will have a limited number of well-marked stations every few blocks.
Instead of continuing on to further destinations at the end of each transitway, buses will simply stop there, requiring customers to transfer to local buses that replace the former express lines along the routes for the final segment of the journey. To some degree, this will inconvenience users, since they will be forced to transfer at El Monte or Artesia to other buses; but the sacrifice is worth it, since the Silver Line means better connections and faster speeds.
Metro has effectively created a rapid transit route out of a series of disjointed express bus services — a feat that probably should have occurred a decade ago considering when the Harbor Transitway opened. Nonetheless, the Silver Line’s opening is good news and expands the perception of Los Angeles’ transit offerings at a minimal cost. By marketing the corridor as a highly intelligible rapid line, Metro will likely increase ridership and expand the number of people using the service as an integral connection in the overall transit network.
In the short term, the Silver Line will be handicapped by the fact that it must run along the street downtown between the two transitways. But by December of 2010, the relevant streets will benefit from transit signal priority, potentially speeding the already pretty quick service. Unlike many bus rapid transit lines, this one actually deserves the “rapid” designation. The service will open using existing 40-foot buses, but by next year it will benefit from new, specially labeled 45-foot buses meant to imitate the design of the successful Orange Line busway in San Fernando Valley. Those new acquisitions, paid for with the federal grant money, will allow higher frequencies, though customers will already get roughly 10-minute headways throughout the day along the line.
The ExpressLanes project, Metro’s congestion relief program, will convert HOV lanes along both transitways to HOT lanes, allowing single-occupancy cars to move along reserved lanes as long as drivers pay the toll. Metro will adjust pricing dynamically to ensure that lanes do not overflow — a situation that occurred the last time (in 2000) that Metro was asked to open the El Monte busway to more drivers, slowing down bus service dramatically.
The Silver Line may be confused with Foothill Transit’s Silver Streak, which operates between downtown and Montclair along the El Monte transitway. One hopes that Metro does a good enough job in differentiating its vehicles that commuters don’t confuse the two similar services.