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Taking the rapid out of transit

Dan Turner is a Times editorial writer.

LIKE MANY EPIC JOURNEYS of exploration, mine began not out of necessity but out of curiosity -- the ancestral human urge to test the boundaries of endurance and knowledge. My quest: to get from my house in the Hollywood Hills to LAX, using only public transportation.

“I had not anticipated that the work would present any great difficulties,” said Sir Ernest Shackleton after surviving his harrowing, failed attempt to reach the South Pole in 1915, his icebound ship by that time at the bottom of the sea.

Nearly a century later, I, like Sir Ernest, would learn the folly of underestimating the awesome power of natural forces -- in his case, the treacherous ice floes and brutal cold of the Ross Sea, in mine, the mindless dysfunctionality of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Trains ferry passengers in and out of most big airports across the country, including Atlanta’s Hartsfield, Chicago’s O’Hare and even San Francisco International. But not at Los Angeles International Airport. It is the fifth-busiest airport in the world, with more than 60 million passengers a year, and more people start their flights there than anywhere else -- yet it is not served by any rail line. Like reaching the Pole, getting to the airport using only public transit is a feat requiring courage, fortitude and very bad judgment.

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As most of history’s great explorers have quickly discovered, a lack of proper equipment can have tragic consequences. Overconfident, I leave the house with only one real piece of survival gear: a cellphone, which, I figure, I can use to call a cab if all else fails. Soon after reaching the bus stop, I recognize my first mistake. The most critical piece of equipment when riding L.A. public transit is -- a book. Or a magazine. Or a newspaper. Anything to relieve the crushing boredom.

Twenty-four minutes later the bus arrives. Knowingly, I put $1.25 in the slot and take a seat. Leaving the bus at Hollywood Boulevard, I ask the driver for a transfer. He fixes me with a fishy stare. MTA buses do not issue transfers. You have to buy a day pass, which is $3. I hold out a $5 bill. The driver looks at it as if it’s a used tissue. He does not give change.

So begins the 1.5-mile trek to the Hollywood and Highland Red Line station, with not a sled dog or Sherpa to lead the way. Yes, I could take another bus, but I’m still steamed about the day-pass snub. Along the way, I pass a fearsome reminder of the perils of this expedition. A sleek black Lexus has just been in an accident, looking like a seal carcass half-eaten by polar bears.

The MTA had tested my mettle, and I had failed. It would not happen again.

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At least I didn’t have to contend with bus drivers anymore. Riding the escalator into the bowels of Hollywood, I enter the Mercedes of L.A. public transit, the $4.5-billion Red Line subway. The 17.4-mile system is fast, semi-clean, quiet -- a wonder of efficiency with nearly 120,000 boardings a day. It would attract many thousands more if only it went somewhere. Originally planned to run all the way down Wilshire Boulevard, the city’s densest corridor, it instead ends with a whimper at Wilshire and Western Avenue, its spine hacked off by community opposition and weak-kneed politicians.

Inside the station, I insert my $5 bill into the ticket machine that dispenses a $3 day pass. Again, the bill is found wanting. The adjacent machine finds it distasteful too. As does the next. Everywhere I turn, my path is blocked.

At last I spot it across the room: a change machine. I insert the bill, gingerly, with Lincoln’s face pointed in the instructed direction. The bill disappears like a dogsled falling into a crevasse. “Out of Order,” the machine blinks.

Ten minutes later, I wait at a platform, having tracked down an MTA worker to rescue my cash. From here it’s 17 minutes to the 7th Street station in downtown L.A., where I transfer to the Blue Line. Eight minutes later, I’m flashing through downtown at 25 mph.

It is on the Blue Line that I discover my second equipment oversight. A man wearing wraparound sunglasses and a backward baseball cap raps at the top of his voice, alternating from English to Spanish and demonstrating an encyclopedic, bilingual knowledge of profanity. By the Slauson station in Huntington Park, I try to puncture my eardrums with my house keys to make the noise stop. I look around at my fellow passengers. They are pod people, staring ahead, seemingly without awareness. Then I notice the wires leading from their ears to devices tucked in pockets or purses. Not pod people at all -- they’re iPod people.

Several days later -- or maybe it’s 24 minutes -- I’m at the Imperial/Wilmington station in Lynwood, prepared to transfer to the Green Line. Thirteen minutes later, I’m on the train heading toward LAX. At last I can see it up ahead -- the LAX/Aviation Boulevard station. But my adventure isn’t over.

The Green Line from Norwalk was originally planned to end inside the airport, but in 1995, after the money ran short, so did the line. An $11-billion plan to remodel LAX, approved in 2004, called for a people mover that would carry passengers to the terminals from a big transportation center connected to the Green Line, but when most of the plan was recently scrapped to settle a lawsuit with airport neighbors, so was the people mover. Instead, there is a shuttle bus from the Aviation station.

On the wall of my office hangs a map that is as striking as a landscape by a Dutch master. Titled “Rail Plan to Connect Los Angeles,” it is the public transit vision unveiled by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa during his election campaign last year. It depicts a Los Angeles of dreams -- a place with trains that go from somewhere to somewhere, rather than from absolutely nowhere to just short of somewhere.

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There is a line, as elegant as a Picasso brush stroke, on this marvelous map that runs from Union Station straight to LAX. It is a rail right-of-way that could be turned into a fast, efficient transit route. Like the rest of Villaraigosa’s plan, it exists only in fantasy. If he has an idea about how to make the line a reality, he has yet to reveal it. Meanwhile, airport officials will soon unveil a new shuttle bus, called a FlyAway, that will run nonstop from Union Station to LAX. This means that if you can get to Union Station, you will earn the opportunity to creep through the surface traffic around LAX.

Or, like me, you can try taking the trains. My expedition from home to LAX takes two hours and 47 minutes, yet I am flushed with the thrill of accomplishment when the shuttle finally arrives. I am footloose and free, untied to a vehicle in a long-term parking lot. Records are sketchy, but I’m confident that no one else from the Hollywood Hills has ever attempted this journey. After all, they could drive or take a cab to LAX in about 40 minutes. Unlike Shackleton, I have reached my Pole.

Of course, I wasn’t carrying any luggage.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

BY THE NUMBERS

How does Metro Rail measure up to other cities’ systems in daily boardings and miles of track?

Los Angeles

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245,700

Daily boardings

73

Miles of track

New York

5,717,900

Daily boardings

660

Miles of track

Washington

680,183

Daily boardings

106

Miles of track

Boston

641,700

Daily boardings

65.5

Miles of track

Chicago

519,000

Daily boardings

222

Miles of track

San Francisco Bay Area

484,800

Daily boardings

182

Miles of track

Philadelphia

337,700

Daily boardings

43

Miles of track

Atlanta

229,655

Daily boardings

48

Miles of track

*

Sources: MTA, American Public Transit Assn., Federal Transit Administration, transit agencies


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