Report: Converting Metro's Orange Line to rail could cost $1.7 billion

Replacing the Orange Line with light rail could cost $1.2 billion to $1.7 billion, report says

Converting the San Fernando Valley's dedicated busway to light rail would cost well over $1 billion, but may become necessary if ridership along the route continues to grow, according to a new analysis.

Building a light-rail line along the 18-mile Orange Line busway between Chatsworth and North Hollywood, including laying track and buying trains, would cost $1.2 billion to $1.7 billion and would take two to three years to complete, according to a report prepared for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and reviewed by The Times. 

Metro's board of directors will review the analysis this month.

The Orange Line is the busiest bus route in the Valley, and it will soon be at capacity during morning and evening peak periods if demand continues to increase and the area's population grows, the report said. The route handles about 30,000 boardings per weekday.

The rough cost estimate is the latest step in a decades-long attempt to bring rail to the Valley. The effort gathered steam last year after Gov. Jerry Brown reversed a law that banned above-ground rail through North Hollywood and Van Nuys. 

Some elected officials and advocates have said Los Angeles County's rail building boom has been unfair to the Valley, which is home to nearly 20% of county residents but has just two of Metro's 80 rail stations. None of the 37 miles of rail that Metro is building in the next decade will be north of the 101 Freeway. 

A generation ago, officials envisioned a light-rail line along Chandler Avenue, using the right-of-way from a defunct Pacific Electric streetcar route. But after years of delays, protests from the Orthodox Jewish community and the passing of the so-called Robbins bill, Metro settled on a busway instead.

When the Orange Line was built, its bridges were built to someday accommodate trains. Having some of the infrastructure in place, as well as existing parking lots, drainage and bikeways, shaved about 25% off the cost of the project, the report said. 

Instead of building a rail line, Metro could buy more buses, or larger buses, and build grade separations at the busiest intersections along the route, the report said. Buses operate in their own lanes, but still sometimes stop for traffic lights. That option would cost between $230 million and $350 million. 

The report also examines the cost of extending the Orange Line from North Hollywood to Pasadena, which could include building bus ramps onto the 134 Freeway's carpool lanes and building new busway stations in Burbank and Glendale. That route could bring in 20,000 to 30,000 daily boardings, the report said. 

How any of the construction would be funded is not clear: Funds for converting the Orange Line to rail were not included in Measure R, the half-cent sales tax for transportation projects passed by Los Angeles County voters in 2008 that has paid for the bulk of the county's recent rail construction. 

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