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Westside and South Bay clash over how to connect two rail lines

Westside and South Bay clash over how to connect two rail lines
A Metro Green Line train leaves the Aviation/LAX station in El Segundo in 2016. The new Crenshaw Line will meet the Green Line near this stop, but transit officials are at odds over how to run trains along the junction shown to the right. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

One of the most important elements of the $2-billion Crenshaw Line, the light rail route under construction in Inglewood and South Los Angeles, is a Y-shaped convergence of track at the end of the line in El Segundo.

The junction will allow Crenshaw Line trains to merge onto the tracks used by the nearby Green Line, which runs alongside the 105 Freeway. In a sprawling system in which riders can face multiple transfers to get to their destinations, the design creates a rare opportunity for riders: a seamless, 22-mile trip between Norwalk and the Mid-City area of Los Angeles.

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The junction could also reduce the number of transfers required to reach a planned rail connection to Los Angeles International Airport that is slated to open in 2023.

To accommodate the connection, the Green Line’s operation will have to change once the Crenshaw Line opens in mid-2020, officials say. The two connection options, and the service changes that passengers could face as a result, have created a rare disagreement between the officials who represent the South Bay and the Westside on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board.

Both options would allow riders to travel between Mid-City and Norwalk without changing trains. But one option would create a slower and more inconvenient trip for riders headed in and out of the South Bay, while the other would restrict the capacity of the brand-new Crenshaw Line.

(Los Angeles Times)

The difficulty, Metro said, is that the junction in El Segundo was designed to work more like an intersection than a freeway interchange. Two trains can’t move through the crossing at the same time without risking a collision, limiting the options for how trains can run through it, said Metro senior executive officer Conan Cheung.

Metro’s favored option would break the Green Line into two pieces at Aviation Boulevard. Riders along the portion of the line that runs along the 105 would be able to board a train every six minutes during peak periods and ride west and north to the Expo Line without transferring.

But riders going to or coming from the South Bay’s four Green Line stations, the portion of the line with the lowest ridership, would lose their one-seat ride. Requiring riders to transfer along Aviation Boulevard would add seven minutes for a one-way trip for about 12% of Green Line riders.

Seamless trips between Mid-City and Norwalk would serve a greater number of people than it would inconvenience, Metro said, and could convert some of the 620,000 workers in the commercial areas around the airport into transit commuters. Once the LAX station opens, the system would also provide a one-seat ride to the airport train from all stations on both lines.

But the plan has prompted criticism from South Bay officials who say that millennial workers who want to reach high-tech jobs in El Segundo as well as loyal longtime Green Line riders would be put off by a trip that would require a transfer. The four stations in the South Bay see about 3,400 trips per day.

“We’re going to lose riders,” Steve Lantz, transportation director for the South Bay Cities Council of Governments, said at a recent Metro meeting.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn, whose district includes Redondo Beach, called the proposal a “crazy plan” that would require “transferring from the Green Line to the Green Line.”

Hahn, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia and four other Metro directors are pushing for another option that would preserve South Bay riders’ one-seat trip to the stations that connect to the Blue and Silver lines. The plan would operate on a trial basis for one year after the Crenshaw Line opened.

Keeping service the same for Green Line riders, Hahn said at a recent Metro hearing, is “the right thing to do.”

The South Bay’s proposal would require running a train along the 105 portion of the Green Line as often as every three minutes during rush hour. The line, built in L.A.’s early days of rail construction, can’t handle that frequency if either the Crenshaw Line or the Green Line is running three-car trains, Cheung said.

The substations that power the Green Line’s overhead wires can’t run anything heavier than a two-car train without the risk of tripping a circuit breaker on the line, shutting down service and stranding thousands of commuters, Cheung said.

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The Crenshaw Line was built to accommodate three-car trains, which can carry up to 357 people, every five minutes. The South Bay’s plan would force the Crenshaw Line to run two-car trains, significantly restricting the line’s capacity, officials said.

“We’ve got a real rub,” said Metro spokeswoman Pauletta Tonilas. “On Day 1, when we open up the line, we wouldn’t be able to provide the level of service that was planned.”

The South Bay’s plan would also require riders coming from Redondo Beach to change trains to reach the future rail connection to LAX at 96th Street and Aviation Boulevard.

That sparked concern from Westside officials, who are pushing for a more convenient transit connection to LAX, one of the world’s busiest airports.

“For as long as I have lived in California, I have heard people ask why the hell do we have a rail system that doesn’t connect to the airport?” said Mike Bonin, a Los Angeles city councilman and Metro director who represents the airport area. “I can’t get comfortable with the idea of deferring that.”

South Bay officials have said that providing a one-seat ride to LAX from all directions is not important until the airport station opens. There, riders will be able to transfer to a smaller airport train that will carry them to a consolidated car rental area and the central terminals.

Riders from Redondo Beach, El Segundo and other South Bay cities who are headed to downtown Los Angeles and don’t want to change trains multiple times could instead board one of the city’s commuter express buses, Cheung said. Metro has explored running more buses on the line, which would cost about $250,000 annually, he said.

The Green Line is Metro’s least utilized line. Monthly trips have dropped more than 25% over the last five years, from a little less than 1.2 million in October 2013 to about 876,000 last month.

Neither plan would be in place permanently, Metro officials said. In the mid-2020s, the agency expects to break ground on a four-mile extension of the Green Line from Redondo Beach to Torrance, funded through revenue from Measure M, the sales tax increase that county voters approved two years ago.

That extension is expected to add up to 16,300 daily trips on the South Bay portion of the line, Metro said. That change would prompt a wholesale reevaluation of service on the line within a decade.

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Metro’s directors are scheduled to decide the issue at their Dec. 6 board meeting.

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