Back in July, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 577 into law, ending a 23-year moratorium on constructing new light rail in the San Fernando Valley. Almost immediately, L.A. City Councilman Paul Krekorian, among others, filed a motion to study the effects of converting the Valley’s Metro Orange Line bus into rail.
The rationale for converting the Orange Line to rail is solid. The Valley route is busy, with nearly 30,000 daily boardings on weekdays. A standard Metro train can hold up to 400 riders, while an Orange Line bus maxes out at around 90. If a full train of Red Line riders gets off at North Hollywood, looking to transfer to the Orange Line, that means a whole lot of people standing around, twiddling their thumbs, waiting for another bus.
At an estimated cost of $100 million a mile for 18 miles, however, converting the Orange Line to light rail won’t be cheap. While light rail conversion may ultimately prove a good idea, before we go spending nearly $2 billion to gussy up a line that already exists, I’d suggest there is something Metro needs to experiment more with first: express routes.
I recently returned from a trip to New York City, where I was reminded that easily the best part about that city’s public transportation network is the presence of express subway lines. A complement to “local” trains, which stop at every station on a given route, express trains stop at only the busiest stations, often skipping five or six “local” stops at a time -- saving major travel time if you need to jump from borough to borough in a hurry.
The concept of express trains isn’t wholly unfamiliar here in Southern California. Over the past few years Metrolink has opened multiple express routes in an effort to combat sagging ridership numbers. On days the Angels play in Anaheim, for instance, you can take an express train straight from Union Station to the stadium and back. And, it was announced last week that Metro will introduce a Valley-Westside express bus, connecting to the Orange Line, in December.
Metro’s overall subway network, however, isn’t built to accommodate an express network. That would likely require four tracks per line instead of two -- two for local, two for express -- the building of which probably isn’t going to happen in any of our lifetimes. So why doesn’t Metro start running express Orange Line buses?
Buses, unlike trains, have the maneuverability to pass one another easily. To hop on at Chatsworth and take the bus all the way to North Hollywood means making 16 time-consuming stops. An express route could potentially save huge amounts of time for riders at the tail end of every route. An express bus from North Hollywood, for instance, could potentially skip right to Reseda, while another local bus leaving at the same time could service the stations it passed over. If the express bus catches a local bus in front of it, it can simply pass by and continue on its direct route -- unlike a train.
Los Angeles is in the midst of a public transportation revolution. Rail projects like the Expo Line and the “subway to the sea” may one day reinvent the way Angelenos interact with their city. The San Fernando Valley absolutely deserves to be part of this revolution.
Buses like those of the Orange Line are far less glamorous than trains. But they can be customized in a way that would be impossible with fixed rail -- without spending billions of dollars. Given the choice between glamour and convenience, I think most people would choose the latter. It’s certainly worth a shot.
Matthew Fleischer is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @MatteFleischer.
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