» 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