Don't convert Orange Line to light rail, build new transit instead

There are more important transit projects in the San Fernando Valley than converting the Orange Line to rail.

Just 10 years after the Orange Line opened in the San Fernando Valley, Metro officials are beginning to consider whether to convert the busway into a light-rail line — at a cost of $1.2 billion to $1.7 billion.

Never mind that other parts of the region are still awaiting any sizable public transportation investment or that the Valley still lacks a north-south transit line. Or that Measure R — the half-cent sales tax passed in 2008 — included seed funding to start work on a transit connection through the Sepulveda Pass, but will need much more money to get the project done.

Despite the long list of new projects that could be funded with scarce transportation dollars and bring rapid transit to underserved communities, Metro’s political leaders are pondering spending more than a billion dollars to upgrade one of its newest lines. Huh?

It’s true that the busway is nearing capacity during rush hour. The 18-mile line, which runs across the Valley from North Hollywood to Woodland Hills and north to Chatsworth, has been much more successful than officials anticipated. It’s also slower than light rail, even though the buses operate on their own dedicated route. 

But there are cheaper fixes than ripping up the busway and laying down track. Metro’s board of directors recently received a report analyzing two options to speed up service and increase capacity, Laura Nelson reported.

One option is to run more buses and buy longer buses, and build grade separations at intersections so buses don’t have to stop at traffic lights. That would cost up to $450 million and shave about 12 minutes off the hourlong cross-Valley ride. The other option is to convert the system to light rail, which would cut about 15 minutes in travel time but add significantly more capacity for riders. It would also cost well over a billion dollars.

Yet, there is strong political pressure for the light-rail conversion. The rationale goes something like this: The San Fernando Valley never gets its fair share of public resources and a region with 20% of the county’s population only has two measly rail stations.

But that rationale ignores history and practicality. The Orange Line was proposed as a light-rail line, but residents and political leaders vehemently opposed that idea – so much so that the state Legislature passed a law banning light rail on the Orange Line corridor. That’s why Metro built a busway. The Orange Line became a huge success and Valley leaders got on the public transit bandwagon, and last year Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill repealing the light-rail ban.

Now there is an effort to get the Orange Line conversion on a list of projects that would be funded if voters approved another half-cent sales tax ballot measure, possibly for November 2016.

One argument for the project is that it could be completed in a few years, compared to new projects that will take a decade or more. The Valley has two other proposed transit lines that are, by far, more complicated and expensive. But they deserve greater consideration and should be at the top of the funding list. Metro has begun studying the possibility of building a light-rail or heavy rail line through the Sepulveda Pass, and building a public transit line along Van Nuys Boulevard connecting the Orange Line to the Sylmar Metrolink station.

If Los Angeles County had overflowing buckets of money, then, yes, the Orange Line should most certainly be converted to light rail. But there is a limited amount of transportation funding and only so many projects get built. Choose wisely.

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