Closing 2.8-mile transit gap in Norwalk could smooth regional commute

The distance separating the Metrolink train station and the Metro Green Line stop in Norwalk is only 2.8 miles. Yet it has been one of the biggest gaps in the region's public transit system for more than 20 years.

Now, however, some local leaders think it's time to fill in the missing link. They want to resurrect a proposal from the early 1990s to extend the Green Line light rail tracks east to Metrolink's Norwalk-Santa Fe Springs station.

If the extension is built, transportation officials say, it would be a major step toward connecting the area's rail lines and would make it much easier for transit riders to reach destinations in Orange County, the Inland Empire and western Los Angeles County, including Los Angeles International Airport.

"This is a project Southern California needs," said Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson, board chairman of Metrolink, the passenger railroad that serves six counties in the region. "It's been a long time, but we are finally focused on getting this done and we have the right people talking about it."

During the last several months, renewed interest in the proposal has come from L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti; the city of Norwalk; the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority; the Gateway Cities Council of Governments, with 27 member cities; and the Southern California Assn. of Governments, a regional planning agency.

All are at least willing to study the extension, which could be at grade, a subway or elevated. Possible routes and costs have yet to be determined, although the price tag is likely to be higher than the estimates of up to $241 million from two decades ago.

The project also might qualify for inclusion in a planned ballot proposition this year to renew Measure R, the half-cent per dollar sales tax that has raised billions in funding for transportation projects countywide. The ballot measure would include a list of transit and highway proposals eligible to receive revenue from a renewed Measure R.

The Green Line extension is "getting enough traction that we are willing to spend a couple of million dollars for a study that might put some alternatives on the table," said Hasan Ihkrata, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Governments. "This project could be a benefit for the whole region."

The Green Line, which opened in 1994, runs 20 miles from Redondo Beach to Aviation Boulevard near LAX before it turns east and uses the median of the 105 Freeway to reach Norwalk. Along the way, it crosses the Blue Line, Metro's light-rail route that connects Long Beach and downtown Los Angeles.

But the tracks end at the 605 Freeway, about 2.8 miles short of the Metrolink station at 12650 Imperial Highway, which is served by Amtrak and Metrolink's Orange County Line and 91 Line to Riverside County.

The gap has created a major inconvenience for anyone wanting to take rail transit from Orange County or the Inland Empire to destinations in western Los Angeles County. The same is true for people headed in the opposite direction.

"To go from Fullerton to the South Bay or LAX, you just can't do it quickly, and I cannot get to the Blue Line to save the life of me," said Jane Reifer, a frequent transit user and transportation activist in Orange County. "If you get off at the Metrolink station and try to get to the Green Line station, it can take an hour."

There is no dedicated shuttle, although Norwalk Transit buses stop at the stations. According to the schedule, the trip takes about 15 to 25 minutes, but travel times can be considerably longer because of waiting times or if buses are missed.

Reifer called the Green Line extension "a brilliant idea," one that "would open up the entire system" and encourage more transit ridership. She estimated that the trip between stations would take about four minutes by light rail.

Several years before the Green Line went into service, transportation officials and the city of Norwalk explored ways to connect the stations.

They considered an elevated train and a subway from the Green Line terminus to the Metrolink stop, which was then slated to become the Norwalk Transportation Center. The aerial and underground routes were estimated at the time to cost $215 million and $241 million respectively.

Neither project was built because of funding difficulties, potential construction complications and opposition from Norwalk neighborhoods that would be adversely affected by the extension.

The proposal surfaced again in July 2012 when L.A. County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, then Metro board chairman, offered a motion calling for the Green Line extension and other rail projects that would connect to the region's airports. The board passed the motion unanimously, but construction did not proceed.

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Today, the situation has changed, making the project more attractive, officials say. Developing a fully integrated rail system to encourage transit ridership has become a higher priority. A Green Line link to LAX is planned, and there's the potential for bullet trains from the California high-speed rail project to use the Norwalk-Santa Fe Springs station.

"You could not get a bigger regional transportation fix than this," said Nelson, who helped to spark reconsideration of the extension. "My hope is that we can concoct a cocktail of local and federal money so we can get this done."

Renee Berlin, Metro's managing executive for countywide planning and development, noted, however, that much needs to be done before the extension becomes a viable project. Although it is always good to close gaps in the transit system, she said, there is not much to the proposal yet and its inclusion in Measure R "is only hypothetical currently."

Meanwhile, Norwalk officials say they are interested in the extension but are taking a careful approach, partly based on the city's experience with major highway projects, such as construction of the 105 Freeway that disrupted neighborhoods. Now underway is a widening of the 5 Freeway, which cuts diagonally across town.

"The community still has concerns," Norwalk City Manager Mike Egan said. "We are communicating with everyone involved and proceeding cautiously. We will look at whatever options result to see which ones are favorable. No one is ready at this time to say 'Yeah' and go forward."

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 10, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION - Transit gap - Officials are looking at closing a 2.8-mile split in rail service between Metro and Metrolink" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe