Question of Ridership : Light Rails: Visionary or a Step Back?

Times Staff Writer

Political leaders will break ground later this month on a $685-million, Los Angeles-to-Long Beach commuter rail line--a massive project that has left transit experts and local officials sharply divided over its design and potential benefits.

When completed about 1990, the 21-mile, trolley-like line is expected to be the first operational link in a modern reincarnation of the old Pacific Electric Red Cars, once the backbone of the regional transportation system. Plans are to couple a large web of so-called light-rail lines with the proposed Metro Rail subway, forming a 150-mile commuter system.

The Oct. 31 ground-breaking on a dusty, gravel-covered strip of land next to cars streaming along the Long Beach Freeway will be subtly ironic.

Last Trip of a Red Car

In a gloomier ceremony 24 years ago, the last train of the once-extensive commuter network wailed its horn on a final, late-night journey past the same spot--the last Red Car to succumb to the competition created by the marriage of affordable automobiles and hundreds of miles of new Southland freeways, like the Long Beach.

Resurrecting the Long Beach line remains highly controversial, with proponents and opponents continuing to debate whether the investment represents a visionary leap forward or a costly turn backward for regional transit.

Armed with voter approval in 1980 of a proposed regional commuter rail plan and a half-cent transit sales tax that now is generating $300 million a year, members of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, the regional agency of county and cities' representatives that will build the line, say they are carrying out a mandate.

Citing government projections that Southern California will add 3 million additional residents in the next 15 years and peak-hour freeway speeds will fall sharply, the commission and a broad-based coalition of business and community leaders argue that a rail network--the 18.6-mile Metro Rail subway and a much larger web of light-rail lines--offers the only hope for keeping the area moving.

'Have the Obligation'

"We have the vote of the people, we have the resources and we have the obligation" to add rail to the transportation system, said Jacki Bacharach, chairwoman of the commission.

Indeed, many backers of the project see the Long Beach and other rail lines as an essential, missing ingredient in making Los Angeles a first-class city.

"If you're going to have a great city, you have to have rapid rail transit," County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn says.

But critics contend that the benefits of the light-rail system in general and the Long Beach line in particular are not worth the projected costs, which on the first line have more than tripled since the project was proposed.

Peter Gordon, a USC associate professor of urban planning who has studied the area's public transit, said commuter patterns along the Long Beach route indicate that the line could be a "disaster" in terms of ridership.

"There is just no reason for optimism," he said. "It's going to be a ghost train."

Predicted Savings Doubted

Critics also contend that potential savings from operation of the train are being exaggerated and accompanying cutbacks in the surrounding bus system could mean overall transit service along the route may be worse after the project.

As the start of construction nears, some things do appear clear, based on the planning and technical documents that have piled up.

The Long Beach line, which is forecast to carry about 35,000 passengers in 1989, when it is scheduled to begin service, and about 54,000 passengers in the year 2000, will do little to relieve traffic congestion.

Ridership projections indicate that in the year 2000, several years after the Long Beach line is fully operational, it will reduce commuter auto trips along the route by less than one-half of 1%. And that assumes that riders will be able to transfer to either an approved light-rail line on the Century Freeway, which is under construction, or the still-uncertain Metro Rail subway.

"From a county-level or even a corridor-level, the (light-rail) project has only a very minor positive impact on traffic," concluded a report by analysts at the Southern California Assn. of Governments, which the commission hired to prepare the ridership forecasts.

Because more than 9 out of 10 of the anticipated riders would be users of public transit with or without the project, the rail line also is not expected to make a significant difference in energy consumption or smog--potential benefits that, like reduced traffic congestion, were used to promote the rail plan to voters.

Expectations Called Unfair

Supporters of the project say it is unfair to expect those kinds of payoffs from the Long Beach line alone. "The Long Beach line by itself is not something to write home to mother about," Bacharach said.

The project is a start, they say, and as more lines of a promised 150-mile system are built and traffic congestion increases, the trains will become an increasingly attractive alternative to the automobile.

Wendell Cox, a transportation consultant and formerly one of Mayor Tom Bradley's appointees to the commission, said, "One has to look not so much at patronage figures on opening day as what it does to prepare the Los Angeles region for growth."

John Dyer, general manager of the Southern California Rapid Transit District, which will operate the rail system, noted that patronage on RTD buses--now about 1.6 million boarders a day--has grown dramatically in recent years.

Overcrowding is becoming a major problem in many lines, including the South Los Angeles area to be served by the Long Beach line, he said. "We can't even meet today's demand," he said. "We don't have any way to expand capacity without rail."

Growth Argument

One of the key arguments for the rail line is that it and others to follow will permit continued growth in downtown Los Angeles, where millions of square feet of new office space are under construction or being planned. By reducing the need for additional buses on congested streets, the arguments go, the commuter rail lines will both increase the capacity to get workers and shoppers in and out of Central City and create a circulation system within downtown.

Among downtown business interests, "support is strong for Metro Rail and strong for the 150-mile system," said Pamela Williams, director of government relations for the Central City Assn., an organization of many downtown firms. "If the Los Angeles-Long Beach line is what it takes to get started, so be it."

There is considerable debate, however, as to what voters really intended when the complex transit tax, Proposition A, was approved. A series of simpler commuter rail system proposals had been rejected at the polls before the 1980 vote. One heavily emphasized feature in Proposition A, authored by Hahn, was a guarantee that then-rising bus fares would be reduced to 50 cents for three years.

After three years, one-third of the half-cent sales tax income was to be shifted to development of rail systems. Now the reduced fare program has ended, bus fares have risen to 85 cents and the funds have been redirected to rail development.

'They Were Cheated'

Critics of the rail program contend that voters really wanted lower bus fares. "If you read our mail, those people now think they were cheated," said Mike Lewis, former president of the RTD board of directors and an aide to County Supervisor Pete Schabarum.

Many officials and the Transportation Commission staff had recommended that the language of the measure permits some of the rapid transit development funds to be used for projects other than rail.

Ray Remy, president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and a former commission member, said, "I felt we ought to have the flexibility and make that decision as facts emerged--whether busways or railways were the most appropriate in the expenditure of these funds."

But to get the measure on the ballot, Hahn compromised to win the support of former County Supervisor Baxter Ward, a strong proponent of rail development. Hahn said many voters wanted rail because there were predictions of new gas shortages, but he agreed that without lower bus fares the tax would not have passed.

Supervisor Ed Edelman is considering placing some provisions of Proposition A, including the rail-only mass transit restriction and the amount going to cities for local transit projects, on the ballot for a new vote.

Options Pushed

Some transportation specialists say that, for less money, officials can do more to relieve congestion through improvements in bus service and better management of the freeways and downtown traffic. What is needed, they say, is an aggressive emphasis on a variety of relatively low-cost, limited-impact programs--transit malls, more carpool/bus lanes, van pools, private contracting of express bus services and more use of freeway on-ramp meters.

"Instead, we're looking at low-impact, high-budget," said Gordon of USC.

As for congestion forcing motorists to use the commuter rail lines, Jose A. Gomez-Ibanez, a Harvard University professor of urban planning who has studied light-rail systems, said it is not clear, particularly in Los Angeles, whether that will occur. Auto-dependent commuters may relocate or change jobs to keep their commutes tolerable. "They have a lot of other choices before they ride this. . . . This is a gamble," he said.

Critics also note that the Long Beach Freeway, which parallels much of the route of the first line, is one of the least congested freeways in the county. Indeed, in one ridership analysis prepared for the commission, a consultant said, "Because the Los Angeles-Long Beach Corridor is not projected to experience significant highway congestion in the near future, the proposed . . . line would have less potential for auto trip diversion than in other corridors of the region."

But supporters of the light-rail program say the Long Beach and other rail lines are the only viable mass transit alternative.

Busways Called Limited

Opportunities for developing inexpensive busways, like the successful El Monte transitway, are limited, they contend. And many existing freeways and downtown streets cannot handle more buses, they say.

The supporters also point out that the Long Beach line will connect the two largest business districts in the county and cut through one of the region's poorest and most transit-dependent areas--one not conveniently served by the Long Beach Freeway.

And, they say, when the line links up with the Century Freeway light rail, which will run from Norwalk to Los Angeles International Airport, it will improve access to major job centers for people who live in the South Los Angeles-Watts-Compton area, where unemployment is high.

Many community leaders along the route strongly endorse that view. "The light rail is going to enhance our area and give people a better opportunity to get in and out of the community," said E. Grace Payne, executive director of the Westminster Neighborhood Assn., a major community organization in the Watts area. "The good outweighs any negatives we can think of."

Despite some commission economic studies that have found the Long Beach rail line, unlike the much higher volume Metro Rail subway, will not stimulate significant development, many community leaders and commission officials continue to predict otherwise.

'Urban Development Project'

"This is not a transportation project exclusively," said Dan Caufield, the commission's program director on the project. "This is an urban development project as well."

One of the arguments made most often for the rail line is that it will be cheaper to operate because a single driver on a train can carry up to five times as many passengers as on a bus. However, a recently published study of light-rail lines in three cities by Gomez-Ibanez found the systems appear to increase transit operating and capital costs significantly in exchange for only a small gain in ridership.

"They forget all about the track, the signal, the stations" and a less efficient surrounding bus system that has lost many riders to the train, he said. "They don't want to talk about that stuff."

Dyer of the RTD maintains that even given those considerations, light rail can operate "relatively inexpensively" compared to buses.

Operating costs, ridership and transit needs were not the only considerations when the Long Beach route was chosen to be the first light-rail project. Expediency and political considerations played a major--some argue overriding--role in the selection.

Crosses Hahn's District

When the transit tax measure was approved, Hahn said, he was determined to have the Long Beach route, which runs through his district, the first built. Also pushing for the line were then-Democratic Assemblyman Bruce Young of Cerritos, who chaired the Assembly Transportation Committee, then-Department of Transportation Director Adriana Gianturco, a rail enthusiast who served under Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., and Long Beach officials.

When the successful San Diego-to-Tijuana trolley, built for a cost of about $100 million, became operational in 1981, the pressure increased to get something similar running quickly in Los Angeles.

The combination of formidable political support and the availability of much of the old Long Beach Red Car right of way made the Long Beach route the top candidate.

Supervisor Edelman recalled that the Long Beach line "was sold to us (as) the quickest and least costly. . . . It was not necessarily the best ridership."

Other lines were studied, but there never was much question that the Long Beach line would be first, said one transit expert familiar with the selection. "No one wanted to rock the boat," said the source, who asked not to be identified. "The purpose of the line was to show the community they could build something."

Cost Projection Increase

Predictions that the Long Beach line could be built quickly for about $200 million faded soon after the line was selected. Transportation Commission officials said they found that a workable and politically acceptable system required double tracks, a downtown subway, street improvements in downtown Long Beach and other costly additions not initially anticipated.

The current design still will cost about the same per mile as light-rail lines in other cities and carry four times the passengers first anticipated, said Rich Richmond, executive director of the commission. And despite the higher costs, commission officials have pledged that 75 miles of the system, including Metro Rail, the Long Beach line, the Century Freeway light rail and perhaps another line, will be completed "or under construction" in the year 2000.

But with the Long Beach project consuming far more transit dollars than first envisioned, there is a growing uneasiness among officials in other areas about when and whether other lines will be built.

"What concerns me is if they are willing to spend that kind of money on what is a fairly low ridership route . . . there isn't going to be any left for the others," said Lewis, the aide to Schabarum. "No one has stepped back and said does it make any sense now. I'm not sure it does."

The costs of the Long Beach line still may not have reached their limit. The current estimate does not include a $40-million freight train diversion around downtown Compton--an addition officials in that city demanded in return for their approval.

Bridges Sought

And there is growing pressure on the commission from road engineers, Hahn and others to add a series of costly bridges over several major east-west streets, such as El Segundo Boulevard, Imperial Highway, Firestone Boulevard and Florence Avenue. Traffic planners are concerned because the trains will travel at street level and during peak hours could be passing through major intersections every three minutes.

In a fight reminiscent of the years when the old Red Cars were increasingly coming into conflict with automobiles, the commission has encountered stiff resistence to plans to have signals at major intersections stop cars as the trains come through. "(Our) position is that would cause disastrous traffic problems," said Roslyn Robson, a spokeswoman for the county Public Works Department.

The commission says the impact would be minimal and is resisting paying for the overpasses, saying they could drive up the project costs by as much $117 million. At this point, the commission plan is to synchronize train movements out of stations so they will cross intersections on green lights, a scheme that adds to the travel time but reduces disruption of cross traffic.

Traffic planners and RTD officials do not think it will work.

Termed Unfeasible

"You can do it on paper, but as a practical matter it can't be done," Dyer said. It will be a "tragedy" if hundreds of millions of dollars are invested in a transit system that is not given priority over automobiles, he said. "Nobody in the country does it that way, and we shouldn't expect L.A. to do it."

The still-unresolved design issues are important because they will help shape acceptance of the train by both riders and motorists.

"We are really concerned about the impact this project is going to have on the major (streets)," said David Grayson, an executive with the Automobile Club of Southern California. "If the project is going to be built, it should be grade separated. Period."

Bus riders interviewed along the route said the train, if it is faster and more convenient, will be an improvement. "Whatever gets you there the quickest," said Angel Antron, who was riding a freeway express bus from downtown Long Beach to a downtown Los Angeles law firm.

If the train makes the Long Beach to Los Angeles trip in 56 minutes, as planners predict, Antron could save seven minutes.

Commission officials say the train would trim more time off downtown commutes for Watts and Compton residents who use buses that travel on surface streets.

One of those who might benefit is Joyce Coleman, who said she rides a "slow" and "crowded" bus everyday from Watts to downtown Los Angeles. Coleman said it is a 45-minute trip--nearly 15 minutes longer than the commission estimates for the train.

Agreement on Needs

Most transportation experts agree public transit improvements are needed in the South Los Angeles-Watts-Compton area. The question is how best to address those needs.

Census data specially prepared for The Times shows that less than 2% of the workers from the Long Beach area go downtown and virtually no residents of downtown Los Angeles work in downtown Long Beach.

The greatest use of the Long Beach line is expected to be by the low-income residents along the middle of the route, where public transit is used at a rate twice as high as the county average.

Less than 10% of the workers living in the so-called "mid-corridor" between the two downtowns work in downtown Los Angeles, though many of those who do take public transit. By far, most residents in the mid-corridor either work within that area or travel to widely dispersed locations such the Westside, South Bay and San Gabriel Valley.

Current bus usage in the middle of the corridor is primarily for local trips, Dyer said, adding that is the chief reason RTD does not offer downtown express service from the area.

One of the Transportation Commission's consultants, in a 1982 report, said the train would probably be more attractive to riders of freeway express buses than local buses, which stop more often. "In the case of local trips, convenience in gaining access to service plays a more important role than travel time or quality of service," said the report by Santa Ana-based Parsons, Brinkerhoff, Quade & Douglas Inc.

Plans for Bus Service

To boost ridership on the rail line, commission plans call for bus service along the route to be rearranged, with some routes canceled or cut back and service on others increased and rerouted into stations. For example, it has been assumed that express bus lines from Long Beach to downtown Los Angeles would be eliminated. And riders on another express bus that now runs from the east Long Beach area to downtown Los Angeles would transfer to the train at the Del Amo Boulevard light-rail station.

Dyer said the overall effect will be more efficient, less crowded transit. Buses now tied up making long hauls can be used to beef up feeder runs to the rail line, he said.

But some transportation experts warn that there could be worse overall service when the project is completed. They say transit riders probably will be making more transfers from buses to the train and back to buses to get where they want to go.

"These (rail) systems bleed the bus system," Gordon said. "If you look before and after, there will be less service rather than more, and if (riders) are transit dependent, they'll be hurt."

Jonathan Richmond, a transit consultant who is studying the Long Beach project as part of a doctoral dissertation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the train is "a symbolic solution that will do very little to meet the needs" of the poor for more local service.

Richmond of the Transportation Commission said: "I can't state categorically that no one will get any degradation of service. But I can't think of any significant body that would suffer. I think it's going to improve access . . . open up a high-quality service."

Security for Rail Line

Security also will be an issue for the Long Beach line, which runs through what is considered a high-crime area. "It's critical in terms of getting people to use the system," Richmond said.

A heavy investment will be made in roving security officers and ticket checkers, as well asclosed-circuit TV monitoring of stations and encouraging commercial and public activities near stations. Richmond said efforts will be designed to "establish a record" of safety and get commuters to use park-and-ride lots along the route.

But, he admits, it may be one of the more difficult challenges. "We don't expect (a lot of park-and-ride commuters) to show up the first day," Richmond said.

LOS ANGELES-LONG BEACH RAIL LINE

Developer. The project will be built by the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, a regional transit agency made up of representatives of cities and the county. The line would be operated by the Southern California Rapid Transit District.

Route. Twenty-one miles from downtown Los Angeles to downtown Long Beach, passing through Willowbrook, Watts and Compton. In downtown Los Angeles, the route begins at a proposed Metro Rail station at 7th and Flower streets and runs underground to 12th Street. There it rises to surface streets, where it would have a reserved median lane. South of downtown, the route enters a railroad right-of-way and 9travels south, crossing intersections. In Long Beach, the route moves to another reserved median on Long Beach Boulevard, running south to the downtown transit mall.

Cost. $685 million. Costs could go higher if a proposed freight-train diversion or additional intersection overpasses are included, as some officials are suggesting. Annual operating budget will be $13 million, with an estimated 67% to be recovered from fares.

Ridership. 35,000 per day when full service begins about 1990. 54,000 per day in the year 2000.

Fares. To be set. For planning purposes, using 1984 dollars, base fares of 60 cents for each of three zones have been used. End-to-end travel estimated at $1.50. Tickets will be purchased from self-serve machines. There will be so-called "barrier-free" boarding to the trains and roving employees will check to make sure passengers have tickets.

Schedule. Two-car trains every six to 10 minutes during rush hour. Trains every 15 to 20 minutes the rest of the day and evening. Estimated end-to-end travel time is 56 minutes. Operating 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily.

Stations. 22. Typically covered platforms level with the floor of the train.

Security. Closed-circuit monitors in stations, roving officers and ticket checkers.

Vehicles. Similar to those used on the San Diego Trolley and San Francisco MUNI systems. Approximately 90 feet long, linked into two-car trains. Each vehicle has a capacity of 200 riders standing and seated.

WHERE PEOPLE COMMUTE

Census data prepared for The Times by the Southern California Assn. of Governments shows where residents along the rail route travel to work. Highlighted are commuter patterns for those living along the middle of the route (Zone 2), where most boardings are expected. The percentages are Zone 2 workers employed in that area. Relatively few commuters travel between downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach. Critics say that the rail line will serve only a small percentage of commuters. Proponents say that those who do commute to downtown Los Angeles can make greater use of public transit.

1. Downtown Los Angeles 9% 2. Mid-Corridor Area 26% 3. Downtown Long Beach 4% 4. Century Freeway Corridor 7% 5. Southwest L.A. County 10% 6. Southeast L.A. County 7% 7. East L.A. 4% 8. San Fernando Valley 5% 9. Westside and Ventura County 12% 10. San Gabriel and North L.A. 13% 11. Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties 3%

Source: Census and Southern California Association of Governments

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