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The Expo Line is finally coming to the Westside, but limited parking raises concerns

After more than six decades without a rail line to call their own, traffic-choked neighborhoods on the Westside are awaiting the Expo Line's arrival with mounting excitement.

But beneath the anticipation of the May 20 launch is a lingering concern: Parking. Four of the seven new Expo Line stations will not have dedicated spaces for transit riders. The other three have a combined 544 spots, which are expected to fill up early.

The lack of parking could pose a challenge for some commuters hoping to use the first Los Angeles rail system to reach Santa Monica in more than 60 years, particularly those who don't live along major commercial and residential corridors.

The Expo Line runs several miles south of dense commercial districts along Wilshire Boulevard, which will eventually be served by the Purple Line subway.

In planning documents for the Expo Line, officials said they expected that commuters will drive into surrounding neighborhoods to find street parking at almost every station.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority hopes residents will walk, bike, take the bus or even call an Uber or Lyft to get to the stations. But the lack of parking has been met with confusion and apprehension by some residents, particularly those who are used to driving.

"So how do I get to the station?" Liesel Friedreich, 64, of Pacific Palisades, asked when she learned the downtown Santa Monica station wouldn't include dedicated parking for transit riders. "Isn't the point to get more people with more money to ride the train?"

That complaint reflects an ongoing debate in Metro's efforts to draw so-called choice riders out of their cars and onto public transit.

Plentiful parking might make new transit riders more comfortable with the system, but hulking garages and expansive lots can be unsightly, expensive and ultimately not a tool for encouraging people to stop driving, officials say. Yet the absence of parking could discourage some people from riding transit in the first place, or less frequently than they otherwise would.

Nearly three-quarters of Angelenos drive to work alone, according to census data, and that percentage is higher in some areas, including neighborhoods along the Westside segment of the Expo Line.

"It's a very auto-oriented population," said Marlon Boarnet, chairman of USC's urban planning department. "It's totally expected that people who want to take the Expo Line will drive there and look for a place to park."

They may look for a while. The Bundy station has 217 spaces on the street, the Sepulveda station has a 260-space garage, and the station near Santa Monica College has a 67-space parking lot. The other stations have none.

"It's going to fill up in a second and a half," said Mike Bonin, a Los Angeles city councilman whose district includes the Bundy station. Where to park, he said, has become one of the most frequent questions his constituents ask.

Buying more land to add parking would have added millions to the extension's $1.5-billion cost, said Frank Chin, Metro's director of parking management. Garages often remain in place for decades, he added — not the best use of valuable land along corridors that will almost certainly see denser development in the future.

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Officials say making parking scarce will encourage people to get to the stations in other ways. They also point out that downtown Santa Monica has more than 7,000 parking spaces available in paid garages.

The goal, urbanists say, is to change land-use patterns near the stations over time, adding apartment buildings and office complexes along rapid transit corridors that would make it easier for people to get to work, run errands and go out to dinner without a car.

"The goal is to shift away from a traditional park-and-ride system," Boarnet said. But, he added, that could lead to "some present-day friction."

Metro is grappling with similar friction along the 11.5-mile extension of the Gold Line in the San Gabriel Valley. A 200-space garage at the end of the line in Azusa fills as early as 6 a.m. On a recent weekday, a Target store next to the Downtown Azusa stop towed 17 cars from its private garage.

To manage the expected demand for parking, Metro will charge a $2 daily parking fee for transit riders, and a $20 daily fee for non-transit riders, at the three Westside stations with dedicated parking, Chin said. Permit spaces are reserved until 9 a.m. daily and then released for general use.

Monthly parking permits for 221 of the 544 spaces will go on sale Sunday for $59 per month. Pass holders will be automatically billed and re-enrolled, provided they ride Metro 10 times per month, Chin said. That policy is meant to dissuade non-transit riders from using Metro's parking spaces.

By this fall, commuters will be able to check the Metro website or receive emails updating them on how many spaces are available in the lots. That program will eventually be rolled out to all of Metro's parking facilities, Chin said.

Angelenos who typically drive can experience "a mix of reluctance and confusion" about trying the bus and rail network, Boarnet said. That's easy enough to fix through advertising, training and customer service, he said, and with reliable and frequent bus service on major corridors.

"You want to get to a frequency where people don't have to think, 'What time is the bus going to get there?'" Boarnet said. "That takes a lot of the anxiety out of the situation."

Santa Monica, hoping to make it as easy as possible for commuters to get to the three stations in the city, has rerouted its Big Blue Bus network so each line connects at least once with the Expo Line. New maps posted at the stations call out key locations along each route, including schools, landmarks and hospitals.

"Part of the excitement of rail is figuring it out and having some uncertainty," said Suja Lowenthal, the planning and engagement manager for Big Blue Bus. "But what I hope people will feel right away is how easy it will be to use the Expo Line and connect to transit."

One example is the 17th Street/Santa Monica College station. Despite the name, the station is more than a half-mile north of the center of campus. But vivid green bike lanes stretch across the connecting streets, and bike-share stations positioned nearby provide another option for people who don't want to walk.

For people going farther, or those who are less familiar with transit, Lowenthal said, the hope is that they'll give the bus a shot — or, if nothing else, take a ride-hailing service.

The city hopes to contract with an Uber- or Lyft-like service to carry passengers home from Expo Line stations at a flat $5 rate on nights when the Big Blue Bus service stops running at 8 p.m., Lowenthal said.

Although Rush Miller, 80, won't be a daily Expo Line rider, she hopes to take the train from time to time to go downtown to the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Her Cheviot Hills home is a mile from the Westwood/Rancho Park station, where there is no dedicated parking. Instead, she said, she'll drive to the Culver City station and park there.

"Although I don't look it, or act it, I'm 80," Miller said, and walking a mile each way might be a bit much. After decades of driving, she said, taking the bus or riding a bicycle are foreign concepts.

But she's still planning to give transit a try. She and a half-dozen friends in their 70s and 80s have decided to take a guided tour of the Expo Line, just to see how it all works.

laura.nelson@latimes.com

Twitter: @laura_nelson

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Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on May 14, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Exponential excitement - and some concerns - When Metro line reaches Westside, parking will be tight" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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