Gold Line Railway on Track for Summer Start

Times Staff Writer

The trains aren't running yet, but Los Angeles' newest light-rail line swoops out of downtown toward a pagoda-like station that seems to float over Chinatown.

"Look at that," said Rick Thorpe, who is overseeing construction of the Gold Line railway. "The future looks good."

When it carries its first passengers sometime around July 1, the 14-mile Gold Line will not only connect Los Angeles and Pasadena, it will also make real a vision first promised to taxpayers nearly 25 years ago.

All along the Gold Line route, signs are clear that the trains are coming. The tracks are down -- straight, smooth and stretching from downtown through Mount Washington, Highland Park and South Pasadena and on through Pasadena.

Thirteen stations are nearly ready for the 30,000 passengers expected on opening day. Twenty-six sleek white-and-orange trains are poised to carry those passengers on a trip planned to take about 37 minutes, end-to-end.

The railway does have its critics.

Though the Gold Line's total cost will approach $900 million, some believe it was built on the cheap and may not be able to meet its long-term ridership goals without costing millions more.

Some worry that the trains will be dangerous and loud and may make congestion worse.

Still others argue that buses, with lower start-up costs and routes that can be altered to fit changing work and housing patterns, are better able to handle the region's transit load.

But transit officials in Los Angeles County are almost universally attracted to trains, which are typically much faster than buses, have lower operating costs once the lines have been built and, they believe, are more likely to pry people from their cars.

"I drive the freeway enough to know we need to get this line up and running as soon as possible, to give people another option," said MTA Chief Executive Roger Snoble, whose agency will run the trains. "It's something that should have been in place long ago."

The Gold Line, the first light railway to open in traffic-choked Los Angeles since the Green Line started running from Norwalk to Redondo Beach in 1995, will feed into Union Station, which is becoming a hub for rail and buses.

Planners expect the line's opening to have a ripple effect on the countywide rail system, which now carries about 260,000 people a day.

The MTA has no official ridership forecasts for the Gold Line beyond its opening-day projection of 30,000. But Thorpe's agency, the Los Angeles to Pasadena Metro Construction Authority, estimates daily ridership could reach 68,000 by 2015.

Claremont Extension

The MTA hopes to extend the line to Claremont and connect it to a light railway running from downtown to East Los Angeles.

Just five years ago, a cash-strapped MTA had indefinitely tabled the Gold Line. The agency had already spent $274 million to design the railway and begin construction of a line that planners once estimated would cost nearly $1 billion.

The move angered residents, who were first promised light rail in 1980. It also prompted state lawmakers to step in. They created an independent agency to build the line, with the MTA to operate the trains after construction.

Thorpe, known for building light rail in Salt Lake City and San Diego, was named to head the agency and given a mandate to construct the Gold Line as fast as possible. The construction agency said it would do the job for $725 million, including the money the MTA had already spent.

While the agency has stayed on its budget, there have been bumps along the way.

Though more than 90% complete, Gold Line construction is several months behind schedule and will not be finished until April or May, Thorpe's agency said. The delay, caused largely by disputes with state regulators over construction at intersections, has pushed back testing schedules and cast doubt on whether Gold Line trains will, in fact, be carrying riders by July 1.

Although it's not responsible for construction, the MTA decided the line needed safety and other improvements and spent $10 million on such elements as video monitoring systems, train control and signal systems. That money is in addition to other unexpected costs absorbed by the MTA: $10 million for a parking garage and $17 million to test the line before it opens.

The total taxpayer cost of nearly $900 million will include almost $100 million paid by the MTA for new train cars.

What's more, transit officials agree that a seven-acre maintenance facility, just below Dodger Stadium, is too small and will need to be replaced within a decade. A new, full-sized maintenance yard could cost about $30 million.

The additions and the problematic maintenance facility rankle many longtime critics of county rail projects, who contend the line has not been built with the kind of long-lasting quality that a transit system in the nation's second-largest city deserves.

Compared with some of the county's rail projects in the 1990s, however, Gold Line construction has gone pretty much as planned.

For example, the first projections for the 22-mile Blue Line between Long Beach and Los Angeles put construction costs at less than $200 million. By the time it was finished, the Blue Line had cost taxpayers $860 million. Construction of the Red Line subway was bogged down when tunneling created a massive sinkhole on Hollywood Boulevard. The Green Line was built on the Century Freeway, which has required costly retrofitting.

In neighborhoods along the Gold Line, the reaction of residents is a mix of anticipation and wariness.

Although similar systems have taken hold and expanded in cities like San Diego, Dallas and Portland, Ore., most Los Angeles-area residents are not used to seeing light-rail trains running on streets and mixing with cars and pedestrians, which the Gold Line does at several points along its route.

Noise Feared

Many worry that the railway will be too loud and too dangerous and will cause more congestion by causing long backups when trains course through intersections.

Still, after waiting so long and enduring construction for three years, many living along the route simply want the trains to start running.

"Just get it done; that's all we've wanted," said architect Michael Blatt, as he strolled near the Highland Park station. "It's happening. You walk around and see how close they are to finishing. It leaves you kind of thinking, 'This thing is impressive.' "

There are the elevated tracks and station in Chinatown, running about a half-mile and rising 20 feet above the street in a soft arc.

There's Pasadena, with its tunnel under Colorado Boulevard and tracks reemerging in the middle of the Foothill Freeway, and with its "transit villages" -- two large apartment complexes, one finished, another under construction -- each with its own train stop.

There's Marmion Way in Highland Park, where a neighborhood filled with artists and working-class Latinos marvels at how the railway has transformed an eight-block stretch where "el tren" will pass just feet from the front doors of residents.

And there's South Pasadena, where a station at Mission Street is poised to energize a commercial district full of antique and clothing stores, bakeries, curio shops and, in a brick walk-up just feet away from the tracks, Buster's Ice Cream & Coffee Stop.

"It's been trying for some of the businesses here, waiting for all the construction to end," said Colette Richards, who owns Buster's with her sister, Renee.

Richards said construction of the line has blocked streets and limited access for two years, causing small businesses to suffer. Now she's looking forward to a big payoff.

"People will be traveling through this little part of South Pasadena, and a lot of them are going to be surprised by what they see," she said. "Hopefully, they are going to get off the train and take a closer look."

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