L.A. Looking Into Return of Downtown Trolley Line

Times Staff Writer

More than 40 years after the last Pacific Electric Red Car clanged to a stop in Los Angeles, city leaders are weighing a proposal to resurrect the trolley system with a five-mile loop that would connect downtown landmarks from Chinatown to Staples Center.

The Los Angeles redevelopment board is expected today to approve a $100,000 study to determine the feasibility of building a system that would use replicas -- and possibly even a few original trolleys -- from the historic Pacific Electric Railway that ran from 1903 to 1961.

Community Redevelopment Agency President Paul Hudson, the president of Broadway Federal Bank, said he would back construction of the trolley system if found to be feasible and if it would serve an important role in the city’s mass transit plans.

“It would have a lot of cachet, having a Red Car trolley running through downtown,” Hudson said. “The fantasy or vision is it would be used almost like the trolley cars in San Francisco -- not just for tourists but as a functional way for residents to get around.”

Mayor James K. Hahn and Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles) are among city leaders backing the study who hope a trolley system can be built. As examples of systems using vintage trolleys, they cite those in San Jose, Portland, New Orleans, Tampa and Seattle. A $10-million, 1.5-mile Red Car line linking Port of Los Angeles tourist spots has been operating with some success for more than a year, having drawn 94,000 riders. The line uses three replica cars.


“I remember with great fondness taking the trolley to downtown as a young girl, and I believe bringing it back would help to reestablish the area as the thriving cultural, social and business epicenter of Los Angeles,” Roybal-Allard said.

But the proposal faces a rough ride at a time when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority already has a long list of expensive transit projects that are struggling amid cutbacks in state and federal transit funding.

“It’s not on our radar screen,” MTA spokesman Marc Littman said. “Not that it is a bad idea, but it is not on our list of priorities.”

Indeed, some officials asked the MTA for money to conduct a feasibility study in 2001, but the agency turned down that request.

In the meantime, Roybal-Allard secured the $100,000 for the study from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The idea has been around since 1997. A group of trolley buffs and downtown business leaders formed the Downtown Red Car Advisory Group to push the proposal through the government bureaucracy.

Ken Bernstein of the L.A. Conservancy, who serves on the advisory group, said the system would probably cost more than $40 million to build.

In a letter of support, former State Librarian Kevin Starr wrote: “The Red Cars were to Los Angeles what the trolleys are to San Francisco and the El is to Chicago -- both a means of transportation and a signature institution, one that helped the city to grow and to take its present form.”

Henry Huntington established Pacific Electric Railway just after the turn of the last century. That system and the Los Angeles Railway once operated rail lines and electric streetcars that connected Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Ridership peaked in the 1920s. The trolleys began to lose riders as the automobile became the primary mode of transportation for many people. The last line, from Long Beach to Los Angeles, stopped running in 1961.

In the redevelopment agency’s application for MTA money in 2001, a consultant drafted a conceptual plan, proposing a five-mile loop that would include stops for the Convention Center, Staples Center, hotels on Figueroa Street and Bunker Hill, the Music Center, the cathedral, City Hall, Chinatown, Union Station, El Pueblo, Little Tokyo and the Broadway district.

The feasibility study would refine a possible route to in- clude new landmarks such as Walt Disney Concert Hall, and would project potential ridership, costs and rates. It would also examine how the trolley would fit in with MTA plans, including an Exposition Boulevard light-rail system.

The study would look at engineering and traffic management issues involved in building a street railway, and whether the initial loop could later be expanded, with lines serving the Exposition Park/USC area to the south and Echo Park to the north.

The initial design includes four key stations along an 11- to 22-stop line, with steel-wheeled original and replica streetcars operated manually by one person, with power provided by overhead electric lines.

The consultants envisioned 10 cars that would run 12 hours a day and as quickly as five minutes apart. While the consultants said the system might want to renovate one or two original Red Cars, they proposed using reproductions for most of the trolleys.

The Central City Assn. has endorsed the concept. The association’s president, Carol Schatz, envisions a “fun” trolley system that would be a destination of downtown visitors in its own right.

“It’s a terrific idea,” Schatz said.

“When you look at cities that have been successful at bringing suburbanites and visitors from afar to their downtowns, most have a trolley system with historical designs.”