Get onboard L.A.’s commuter rail revolution

Recently, a gaggle of elected officials and journalists gathered on a light rail station platform to take a preview ride on Metro’s Gold Line Extension. It opens this weekend and stretches more than 11 miles between Pasadena and Azusa, with stops in Arcadia, Monrovia, Duarte and Irwindale.

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The last stop in Azusa on Metro’s new Gold Line Foothill extension, which features six new stations and connects communities in the San Gabriel Valley. Photo: Saul Gonzalez

 
The opening of this rail line deep into the San Gabriel Valley paralleling the 210 Freeway kicks off a big year for rail transit in Los Angeles County. In May, Metro will open the Expo Line Extension between Culver City and Santa Monica. That will complete a transportation line that will make it possible to travel back and forth between downtown Los Angeles and the beach via commuter rail.

Also in 2016, Metro will reach the halfway mark on construction of the Crenshaw-LAX Line through South L.A. and Inglewood. And work continues on the first phase of the Purple Line subway extension westward down Wilshire Boulevard. Eventually the Purple Line will reach Westwood Village.

Metro’s CEO Phillip Washington says these new rail lines, when taken together, represent a revolution in how people will get around the L.A. area’s sprawl.

“We have a transportation system here, but we are building a better one,” says Washington. “I would say these mobility options will only better our way of life and our quality of life.”

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Metro’s CEO Phillip Washington (foreground) and other transportation and elected officials posing for photos at Gold Line Foothill Extension station. Washington says he remains a firm believer in commuter rail even as Metro’s own studies show softening ridership in recent years. Photo: Saul Gonzalez

But even as Metro builds new rail lines as a way to reduce freeway congestion, cut air pollution, and give people more transportation options, old criticism about the value and effectiveness of the regional rail system persists. Recently Metro’s own studies showed a 10 percent decline in mass transit boarding between 2006 and 2015.

But Metro’s Phillip Washington says he’s not overly concerned about the decline in passengers, predicting there will be a rebound as Metro opens the Gold and Expo lines extensions.

“Ridership is cyclical and so when we look at the openings of these two lines, we are going to see a jump, we’re going to see a ridership increase,” Washington said.

But Metro’s critics, such as James Moore, a USC professor who studies engineering and transportation, aren’t convinced. Moore has many issues with L.A. County’s expanding rail system, but his biggest criticism is  that the billions of dollars being spent on light rail and subways would be better used improving the region’s bus system, which he calls “rubber tire transit.” Buses may not be as glamorous as trains, but they carry many more passengers.

“There are things we can do to make rubber tire transit more attractive,” said = Moore.”If we want to put more people on transit and provide everybody with more mobility, we can have a much higher level of service on buses than we do now.”

According to Moore, buses are more flexible than trains as commuter patterns change over the years. It’s fairly easy to switch a bus route to meet growing or falling passenger demand, but not so with rail because of its permanent infrastructure of tracks and stations.

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Driver perspective as new Gold Line Extension train travels east from Pasadena. Even as new light rail and subway routes are built, some transportation experts say the money would be better spent on buses. Photo: Saul Gonzalez

But with over 100 miles of light rail and subway tracks built over the last 25 years, and more to come, rail transit in Los Angels County is here to stay. And there are many people who are loyal riders of the system.

As our preview ride on the Gold Line Foothill Extension returned to the station, rail commuter Stefan Jones approached the journalists in the group to talk about his support for L.A. County’s growing rail system and how it should serve as a model for other cities grappling with nightmarish traffic.

“I am so happy because the traffic that southern California has is ridiculous, and this is going to put a dent in it,” he said. “We are serving as an example for other cities and the United States, so we are like a test city and we have to make it work.”