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Expo Line launches rail service push to Westside

Almost 60 years after the Pacific Electric Railway stopped running trains to Santa Monica, the resurrection of passenger rail service to the Westside will begin with the grand opening of the $930-million Expo light rail line.

Saturday’s start of service marks the first step in an effort to bring rail service back to one of the region’s most traffic-clogged areas, something transportation experts have long said is crucial to developing a workable rail network for Los Angeles County.

Expo Line trains are scheduled to roll into Culver City by midsummer and Santa Monica within several years, although the segment opening this weekend stops at La Cienega and Jefferson boulevards.

Some may not consider that Westside service quite yet, but officials say it’s a major milestone nonetheless.

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“It’s the first time in a half of a century that people will be able to access mass public transit west of Western Avenue,” said county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a Metro board member. “This is something that many people have been longing for for a long time.”

The first phase of the Expo Line, which is nearly two years behind schedule and cost $290 million more than initially estimated, is an 8.6-mile stretch between downtown L.A. and Culver City. A $1.5-billion extension to Santa Monica, ending within walking distance of the beach, is under construction and scheduled to open in four years.

At celebrations starting Friday, the emphasis will be on the benefits the Expo Line will offer to students, commuters, tourists and, possibly, pro football fans who may ride it in coming years.

USC, with three nearby stops, is expected to be a big beneficiary. Thomas Sayles, a university spokesman, called the Expo Line’s opening a historic moment for the city and the campus. The service, he said, will expand transportation options for students and allow visitors from all over Los Angeles to reach attractions on campus and at nearby museums.

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It’s unclear how many commuters will use the truncated line early on, although the first phase is projected to have 27,000 riders eight years from now. Officials at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority predict that the full line to Santa Monica will carry 64,000 riders per weekday by 2030.

The hope is that the line will do better than forecast and one day rival the Long Beach-to-downtown Blue Line, which is Metro’s most used light rail route and one of the busiest services of its type in the nation.

As with other light rail systems, the vast majority of Expo riders will probably be people who were already using public transit. About one in four riders will leave their cars for the Expo Line, Metro estimates.

Indeed, transportation experts said the line -- even when complete -- will not make much of a dent in Westside traffic problems. Research by the Texas Transportation Institute shows that, except during recessions, Los Angeles area traffic congestion has increased despite an investment of billions of dollars in rail projects over the last three decades.

“Expo won’t impact regional congestion,” said Brian Taylor, an urban planning professor who heads UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies. “Most transit-rich cities are also very congested. But should congestion relief be the test for transit? No, it should not.”

Taylor and other transportation experts say the Expo Line is significant because it increases travel options, improves the transit experience, connects job centers and pushes rail into a new area, extending the reach of Metro’s overall network.

The Expo Line will eventually link to a new north-south line being built along Crenshaw Boulevard. And it would parallel the long-delayed “Subway to the Sea” that officials are planning to build along Wilshire Boulevard to the Westwood area.

More than the Expo Line, the subway extension is seen as a potential game-changer for Westside mass transit because it would run beneath one of the nation’s busiest boulevards and through some of the area’s most iconic neighborhoods, including Hancock Park, the Miracle Mile, Beverly Hills, Century City and Westwood.

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The Expo Line follows an old Pacific Electric right-of-way to the south, along Exposition Boulevard. It includes stops near Staples Center -- and the site of a proposed NFL stadium -- Exposition Park, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and USC, with more than 50,000 students, faculty and staff.

“I’m definitely excited,” said Moises Contreras, 27, a USC architecture student who can spend 40 minutes getting to campus by transit and then his bike from his home in East Los Angeles.

West of USC, the line courses through residential areas, including the historic West Adams neighborhood, and makes a stop at Crenshaw Boulevard in the Jefferson Park neighborhood, and near the large West Angeles Church of God in Christ. The last station for now is at La Cienega and Jefferson boulevards near the Culver City gallery scene and the See’s Candies factory.

“There isn’t anything besides buses, anything rapid that goes from east to west,” said Elytha Saunders, 52, who caught a bus Thursday morning at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Western Avenue to make her way to jury duty downtown.

Saunders added that the line will offer residents in her area an easier link to downtown’s hub of regional rail connections. “We’re glad that it came,” she said of the line. “It’s access to the multi-purpose lines.”

Alan K. Weeks, 80, of Los Angeles said he welcomed the restoration of rail service to the Westside. He was among the last riders of Pacific Electric’s Air Line service to Santa Monica, which ceased operations in October 1953 because of declining use.

Weeks was also among the first to ride the Expo Line during a demonstration run.

“There’s no comparison. It’s apples to oranges,” said Weeks, a member of the Pacific Electric Railway Historical Society. “You wouldn’t believe the difference.”

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Expo trains will be quicker than comparable bus service -- cutting the commute time from Culver City to downtown roughly in half, to about 30 minutes, said Scott Page, Metro’s manager of service planning for bus and rail operations.

“The existing buses stop at every corner on Martin Luther King. They get stuck in traffic. There can be detours,” Page said. “Traffic is so horrible on the Westside, Expo will be like a gift.”

A gift that has not been without controversy and budget troubles.

When officials set out to build the line, it was heralded as a cheap, cost-effective way to reintroduce Westside rail service. But design changes, the relocation of a maintenance facility, construction challenges and the need for additional safety enhancements pushed the original $640-million price tag to more than $930 million.

A prolonged fight over the safety of a crossing next to Dorsey High School where hundreds of students pass by resulted in the addition of a station, speed restrictions for trains and a variety of other measures to protect pedestrians and motorists.

“We were up against a very big Goliath,” said Damien Goodmon, a transit activist involved in the Dorsey battle who wanted the line to be underground there. “From our standpoint, we obviously did not win ultimately, but there were some small victories along the way. I would hope we have made the project safer for students.”

The Expo Line brings the county’s subway and light rail system to a total of 87 miles, about two-thirds of what is ultimately planned. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the long-term goal is to “wean us from a dependence on the single-passenger automobile.”

Near the Expo route Thursday, Luis Romo, a 57-year-old auto mechanic, was weighing whether he would ride the new line as he waited for a friend to drive to work near Venice and Robertson boulevards.

“Probably going to use it,” Romo said. It’s “a better ride ... faster.”

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dan.weikel@latimes.com

ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com


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