Blue Line turns 25; laid tracks for era of rail expansion in L.A.

As Southern California prepared to welcome the region's first light-rail line since the demise of the red Pacific Electric streetcars a generation before, reviews on rail were decidedly mixed.

"There is just no reason for optimism," one academic told The Times in 1985, adding that the line linking Los Angeles and Long Beach would be "a ghost train." Five years later, an MIT researcher warned that "the blind cult of the train could be as dangerous and destructive as the unthinking worship of the freeway."

Instead, the Blue Line, which turns 25 this week, eclipsed ridership benchmarks to become one of the most heavily traveled light-rail lines in the United States. Its debut also marked the dawn of an ambitious era of rail expansion in Los Angeles County: Since 1990, officials have built five more rail lines and 65 more miles of tracks, with 37 more planned during the next two decades.

The last 25 years of Metro Rail have been a "tremendous accomplishment," Metro board of directors vice-chairman John Fasana said during a downtown press conference Monday to celebrate the Blue Line's anniversary.

But the rail line has faced problems. With most of its track running along or crossing busy streets, it is one of the deadliest light-rail routes in the United States, with 129 driver or pedestrian deaths in 25 years. Many of its 22 stations have little or no dense commercial development nearby, a frustration for residents who hoped trains would bring economic revival. Officials have grappled with delays and breakdowns stemming from maintenance backlogs, and travel on the 22-mile route is often slow, particularly as trains mix with heavy traffic in downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach.

"The Blue Line was a real learning experience," said Lisa Schweitzer, a USC associate professor in transportation and urban planning. What was then the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission "figured it out as they went along."

Decisions made as the route was planned set Metro on its course for a generation to come, experts say. After voters approved a half-cent sales tax in 1980 to fund the Blue Line, officials went back to the ballot in 1990 and in 2008 to receive two more half-cent hikes — an effective way, they found, to pay for pricey rail projects. The agency's fare strategy, which does not charge more based on distance, and its so-called open system that does not always use turnstiles were both designed then, as was the street-level layout that has been used on other lines since.

More than 80,000 riders take the line from Long Beach to Los Angeles on an average weekday — the most of any of the system's light-rail lines.

"In terms of ridership, it's clearly a success story," said Ethan N. Elkind, the author of Railtown, a book on Metro Rail history. But in terms of speed, he said, it's clear that officials "wanted to build it as quickly and cheaply as possible." Officials chose an existing rail right-of-way where streetcars once ran.

"The unfortunate part is that it's not serving areas that are already densely populated," Elkind said, which makes dense commercial investments nearby more difficult and doesn't provide a built-in source of ridership at all stops along the line.

Officials originally hoped that two-thirds of the Blue Line's operating expenses could be covered through fares. Today, that ratio is closer to 25%, and falling, as more rail lines begin operating and salary costs rise.

The route cuts through Watts, Compton and unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County, where low-slung strip malls and single-family homes dot the land surrounding stations. The lack of a dense footprint at some of those stations has disappointed some residents, who hoped that rail could bring more commercial activity to their neighborhoods.

The trip from Long Beach to L.A. takes nearly an hour, with trains sometimes stopping for traffic lights and vehicles. With the exception of the Green Line, which runs along the 105 Freeway, Metro's other light-rail lines all run primarily at street level.

Of the 129 people killed by passing trains, 30 were classified as suicides, a Metro spokesman said. In the last five years, the agency has invested tens of millions of dollars on safety upgrades along the line, including more secure gates, loops that detect cars on the tracks and signs to tell pedestrians that a train is coming.

The hope, experts say, is that Metro has learned from its past experiences as it helps build five rail construction projects, from Santa Monica to Azusa. The Blue Line's closest modern comparison, the 8.5-mile Crenshaw Line, will connect the Mid-City Expo Line to the South Bay Green Line when it opens in 2019.

Despite justified criticisms, though, the Blue Line doesn't always get the respect it deserves, Schweitzer said. Its reputation and route through some higher-crime areas can make potential riders leery, she said, but the line is a workhorse that carries "so many people who are just trying to get to their jobs."

"You may encounter a type of person you don't normally see" while riding transit, she said, "but that isn't a bad thing. In fact, it's good experience for everyone."

Times staff writers Laura J. Nelson and Dan Weikel write California Commute and are looking for leads. Send them along.

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