LA-area light rail now reaches from distant suburbs to sea

AP News
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Posted: May 20, 2016 4:10 PM
LA-area light rail now reaches from distant suburbs to sea

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Commuter light rail extended across metropolitan Los Angeles to the Pacific on Friday for the first time since the 1950s.

The opening of the 6.6-mile final leg of the Expo Line connected seaside Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles and Metro lines stretching as far inland as suburban Azusa, some 40 miles from the coast.

The milestone fulfills a decades-long dream of public officials and transit fans, and its symbolic value is undeniable. Its true test, however, will be whether it can shake up the commuting status quo in sprawling and automotive LA.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority says the ride from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica will take 48 minutes. That may hardly sound speedy for a 15-mile trip, but the nearly constant congestion of Interstate 10, the usual car route for the trip, can often take just as long or longer.

An Expo Line train burst through a banner before the route opened to crowds of riders at noon.

"From the skyline of downtown to the shoreline of the Pacific, this Expo line connects this city for the first time in 63 years," said Los Angles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Frequent Metro rail passenger Anwar Marcus said his last job was in Santa Monica, and to get there from the east side of Los Angeles he would take the Expo Line to its previous terminus in Culver City then ride his bike four miles to work.

Even traveling that way, he said that "during rush hour I would get home the same time on the train as if I drove."

Marcus said the newly extend line would be "super convenient" for people in his circumstances, and that it's likely to make some inroads in getting drivers out of their cars, but it's also likely that it won't be enough.

"It's a driver's city," Marcus said as he sat riding a Metro Gold Line train into downtown's Union Station on Tuesday. "I feel like it will always be that until they get the public transit system to where it's more extensive, which is going to take some years."

In some ways, the region is getting there. The Gold Line just opened an 11.5-mile eastward extension to Azusa in March that means the line runs more than 30 miles into the northeastern suburbs.

If all the approved projects are completed by 2020 the Los Angeles County light-rail-and-subway system will be longer than Washington, D.C.'s Metro system.

But the city will still fall far short of Paris, London and New York for navigating without a car, and that remains an insurmountable problem for riders.

Samuel Steinberg, who has tried taking the existing leg of the Expo Line to his job as a professor at the University of Southern California, said he gave up in frustration, and reverted to driving and ride-hailing.

"I waited last Friday for 45 minutes for an Expo line train near USC. I ended up having to go down the street to find a Lyft car," Steinberg said. "I won't use the LA Metro service until it approaches the standards of normal metro systems around the world."

There is some evidence the existing train line has brought some changed habits that could grow as the system does. Expo Line trains, for example, are routinely packed with fans heading to and from USC football games at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

A study of the first leg of the Expo Line by professors at USC and the University of California, Irvine, showed that it brought a significant drop in driving and bump in physical activity, but only for those who live within a half-mile of a station. While that's plenty of people in heavily populated LA, it's still a very small segment of the area the trains are intended to serve.

One of the study's authors, USC Professor Marlon Boarnet, said the new extension won't immediately reduce congestion between downtown and Santa Monica — but it wouldn't be fair to judge the extension in isolation. The new track is part of a rail renaissance in LA, which soon will boast 100 stations, and that ongoing expansion has made a big difference to how people get around the region.

"Every line that opens begins to transform the nature of the city," Boarnet said. "It makes a difference bit by bit."

The new tracks to the sea are the first of their kind since the Pacific Electric Red Cars stopped going there in 1953, and if nothing else will immediately provide a novel and nostalgic experience for those who seek it.