Long Beach Rides the Blue Line to Glory : Transit: Metro Rail has already paid off in national exposure and urban perks. And it's cost the city scarcely a dime.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fireworks popped, horns blared, a crowd cheered and the eyes of the country watched as Los Angeles, in one of its proudest moments, prepared to take its place in modern light-rail transportation history.

Then out of a dark tunnel came a sleek, white, state-of-the-art train--with Long Beach written all over it.

The Metro Rail line may be an $877-million gamble for Los Angeles, but for Long Beach the gamble has already paid off in priceless national exposure and urban perks that are making old Iowa by the Sea look almost cosmopolitan. And all of it has cost the city scarcely a dime.

"You can't put a dollar amount of that kind of publicity," Assistant City Manager John Shirey said. "That's something a city can't buy."

"This is the best press we've ever had!" a downtown business association official crowed.

"A friend in Florida called to say he saw Long Beach on the news three times," City Councilman Ray Grabinski rejoiced. "This is like a nice cool breeze on a hot day."

At Norm's restaurant along the Long Beach Boulevard route, business has boomed since the Blue Line made its maiden voyage eight days ago.

"People from downtown in business suits rode into Long Beach just to get out of the office. At lunch Monday, I was packed," manager Dennis Schroeder said.

Early reviews were less enthusiastic at video stores, dry cleaners and doughnut shops, where proprietors said the long-awaited boom was more like a thud. The only impact on business in the shopping center across from Wardlow Station is a parking shortage caused by commuters who leave their cars in the lot all day.

"I had to go and run them off," liquor store proprietor Frank Vallier grumbled.

But even inside the Quality Do-nut shop--which hasn't sold a single additional doughnut since the Blue Line started running, its manager said--a transit map and a glitzy poster of the train are pinned to the wall.

People all over the nation are hearing about the new toy in car-worshiping Los Angeles County. And anyone hearing about that is hearing about Long Beach, city officials said.

The town that has worked furiously to trade its country bumpkin reputation for international image has, it seems, been nudged ever closer to big-city status--mostly at the expense of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission that is paying the light-rail bill.

"This thing represents the keys to the county, and they are in the palm of our hands," Grabinski said. "The possibilities are endless."

From the beginning, it seemed that Long Beach was blessed when it came to Metro Rail, the three-legged, 150-mile system scheduled for completion in 1994.

When the project's designers were deciding which leg to build first, they found 16 miles of track from the old Pacific Electric Red Car's Long Beach line ripe for renovation and started there.

When a drawing was held to decide which of the county's 85 cities should be the namesake of the first Metro Rail car--the one that would greet the world with a cargo of assorted dignitaries on the first official ride--they pulled Long Beach out of the hat.

"The gods were with us," Shirey said.

Although the city is mostly celebrating now, it took more than divine providence to sell Long Beach on the idea of Metro Rail in the early days.

The business community was skeptical. Some merchants went so far as to sue the county to block construction of the Blue Line that runs through North Long Beach along Long Beach Boulevard and into the heart of downtown.

The county took great pains to win the city over, even moving 500 Long Beach Boulevard palm trees to a tree farm for two years, then replanting them when construction was complete.

In time, most of Long Beach not only learned to love light rail but to capitalize on it. The city has spent at least two years advertising the Blue Line in promotional brochures and videotapes. Officials contend that the line has already helped the reviving downtown area shake off some of its urban blight by attracting major developers and elegant hotels to the light rail's doorstep in the downtown loop, scheduled to open in September.

City officials predict that home values will soar as commuters, tired of the drive, move to Long Beach to take advantage of the only operating leg of a transit network that remains mostly under construction.

The city has begun a full-scale review of tired and decrepit Long Beach Boulevard, where most of the local stations are located, in anticipation of vigorous redevelopment because of the Blue Line that runs down the middle.

"For a long time," Grabinski said, "Long Beach was right there with Los Angeles. We had the Pike, the world's greatest amusement park, and the Red Car, the world's greatest transportation system.

"Now the Blue Line is like an artery pumping life right back into our city."

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