Crenshaw: Rail line to nowhere?

Times Staff Writer

Is the MTA going to build a rail line to nowhere?

That's what some critics are asking after transportation officials unveiled long-awaited plans for a light-rail system that would run through Southwest L.A. and to the South Bay.

The proposed $1-billion line would start on Crenshaw Boulevard at Exposition Boulevard and end at the 105 Freeway in El Segundo. MTA officials call the route a cost-effective way to connect the Expo Line, which is under construction between downtown and Culver City, and the Green Line, which runs from Norwalk to El Segundo.

But some transportation experts question the logic of the route, noting that it would require several different rail legs for the most basic commutes, such as from the South Bay to downtown or from Hollywood or the Mid-Wilshire area into Inglewood.

"They're connecting a place where no one lives to where no one works," said Jim Moore, a civil engineering professor and director of the transportation engineering program at USC.

The proposed line is also getting mixed reviews from officials in the cities it would serve. In Inglewood, officials wanted the line to run through its central commercial district and new development planned around Hollywood Park. Instead, the route bypasses those areas and hits the less dense west side of the city.

Inglewood City Councilman Daniel Tabor said city leaders were concerned that people would not use the rail line because it wouldn't take them to destinations like shopping centers or office districts.

"It's the old railroad mentality; we'll build it where we are and people will come to us, rather than taking the line to where people are," he said.

Tabor worries the rail route would become another Green Line, which garnered the nickname "the train that goes from nowhere to nowhere," because it runs between two outlying communities -- Norwalk and El Segundo -- ending a mile shy of Los Angeles International Airport.

Still, the idea of a Crenshaw line has excited some rail enthusiasts, who see it as another step in the MTA's long-term effort to build an extensive rail network. They argue that if enough new lines are built -- even modest ones like Crenshaw -- it will become easier for commuters to make their way around the region.

The route has also won support from some community leaders in Southwest L.A., who note that Crenshaw is already one of the county's busiest bus corridors, with about 35,000 boardings a day.

The plan for the 8.5-mile line was unveiled to the public this week at the first of four planned community meetings. Once it goes through state and federal environmental reviews, construction could begin as early as 2010 if funding is found.

Planners say building along existing rail lines will keep the price tag down. The project is expected to cost more than $1 billion and as much as $1.6 billion. Extending north of Exposition Boulevard toward the Mid-Wilshire area could cost another billion because Crenshaw narrows, said project manager Roderick Diaz.

MTA officials said the proposed route was the economical approach to integrating communities along Crenshaw into the existing light rail system.

"It ties together all of our previous investments," Diaz said. "It's an investment improving north-south mobility, and tying the communities along the Crenshaw corridor to rest of the region."

Funding is expected to be a key issue. The Crenshaw line is one of several proposed rail extensions that the MTA has been considering. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has championed the Subway to the Sea, a $6-billion project designed to connect downtown to the Westside and Santa Monica, probably along Wilshire Boulevard. Officials in the San Gabriel Valley want to extend the Gold Line from Pasadena east to Ontario International Airport.

None of these projects has funding. And if some money becomes available, there's expected to be a major fight for which line goes first.

To Tabor and other critics, the Crenshaw line seems like a series of near misses. Starting at Exposition Boulevard, the route almost connects to the Red Line, but stops three miles south. Running south along Crenshaw, it stops short of downtown Inglewood, swerving west to follow existing freight rail lines. It almost reaches LAX but falls short by a mile.

A trip from downtown to LAX would require several links. From downtown, people would have to take the Exposition Line, switch to the Crenshaw line, then switch to an "automated people-mover" system LAX plans to build by 2015.

Diaz envisions that Crenshaw trains may eventually run along the Expo Line, which will make it possible to take the same train from downtown to within a mile of the airport.

Officials are also considering less expensive alternatives to rail.

One idea is operating the Crenshaw line as a rapid busway.

The MTA's Orange Line through the San Fernando Valley is a dedicated busway and has recorded ridership that exceeded estimates.

victoria.kim@latimes.com

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