Los Angeles: Gold Line Opens; “Planners” Blamed

Metro-gold-line-map Congratulations to Los Angeles on today’s opening of the Gold Line light rail extension, which runs from Union Station through several historically neglected suburbs to East Los Angeles, and will probably someday go further.

More precisely, congratulations to every Angeleno except Ari B.Bloomekatz of the Los Angeles Times, who wrote this:

Why is the Gold Line not a subway?

From the beginning, residents and politicians on the Eastside pushed for the Gold Line extension to be built completely underground. In the end, transportation planners decided to make a roughly 1.7-mile portion of the Gold Line a subway — the part that runs underneath Boyle Heights. The majority of the route runs above ground.

Ah, those nasty cruel “transportation planners”!  Sorry, but the answer to “why” is not “the planners decided …” unless your main goal as a journalist is to instill feelings of ignorant helplessness in your readers. Planners and political leaders made these decisions for a reason, and that reason is the real answer to the question. Mr. Bloomekatz missed an opportunity to educate his readers about the real choices that transit planning requires. We all need citizens to be smarter about those choices.

Yes, there was once a plan to extend the Red Line heavy-rail subway east from Union Station to cover a similar area, all underground. There is no way this would have cost less than $2 billion at today’s prices, probably much more. The Gold Line extension came in just under $0.9 billon, and that’s high largely because of the one underground section they still had to build, to get through a segment of Boyle Heights where there was no good surface option.

Los Angeles has the worst deficit in transit infrastructure of any city in North America. No other city on the continent grew so large without retaining and expanding its rapid transit. Today, most of the region’s leaders understand this was a mistake, and are trying to build rapid transit as fast as they can. But underground construction is massively more expensive, so if you insist on undergrounding everywhere, you’ll get a much smaller network.

When you’re trying to build as much of a network as you can, as fast as you can, there are just three technically compelling reasons to bear the huge cost of going underground:

  • to get past a specific surface obstacle that can’t be bridged over more cheaply, such as the Hollywood Hills, or San Francisco Bay, or more commonly a segment where there’s no credible surface alignment, such as through Boyle Heights on the Gold Line.  (This is, admittedly, a grey area, as the credibility of a surface alignment often turns on the politics of how much you can impact current traffic and parking on the street.)
  • to get to a crucial station site — usually a connection point with other lines — where there’s no surface or elevated option.
  • to serve a very dense corridor where highrise development is or will be the norm, and which can therefore generate the very high ridership to justify a subway, such as Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles, Second Avenue in New York.  Even here, we’re talking about streets that are already so built out that elevated structure would be unacceptable.  If you’re just talking about future highrise corridors, elevated may still be the answer, as it was in Vancouver.

(BART in San Francisco used to have a good reason:  The original network offered to go underground for any city that wanted to pay the difference in cost itself.  Only Berkeley accepted this offer, which is why BART is underground within its city limits.  This elegant approach had the virtue of insisting on local funding to manage a local impact, where this impact was broadly viewed as acceptable by most of the other cities involved.)

Remember, too, that even if your current heavy rail subway is underground, it’s extensions don’t have to be.  Most “subways” are heavy rail which take power from a third rail.  Unlike light rail, these lines usually don’t intersect streets, but they can be elevated and often are, sometimes with not-bad visual impacts.

So congratulations to all but one of the people of Los Angeles.  This is a good start for a long-neglected part of the city.

UPDATE:  See follow-up post here.

Graphic:  Los Angless County MTA

26 Responses to Los Angeles: Gold Line Opens; “Planners” Blamed

  1. Scottieie November 14, 2009 at 7:31 pm #

    Reminds me of the web site created by the Portland DOT (I believe), where you get certain amount of money and you get to build your system where and with whatever technology is available within the confines of that budget. Might be good for illustrating the point of: we had this much money and it could do this, this or this.

  2. Alon Levy November 15, 2009 at 1:53 am #

    Jarrett, the complaints aren’t just that the Eastside extension isn’t in subway. They’re that the plan to have this extension connect to the Red Line was scrapped. Originally, the Eastside line was supposed to be part of the Red Line, and the Gold Line north of Union was supposed to connect to the Blue Line, providing north-south and east-west axes. Instead, LA is getting a C-shaped light rail line, with a bundle of bad decisions:
    – The surface portion runs on Third, which has little commercial development. The main throughfare of East LA is Whittier, which is too narrow for surface light rail.
    – The Gold Line could get to Cesar Chavez, a more important throughfare than First, by turning east immediately south of Union Station. It might have requires some tunneling, but it would’ve eliminated the street-running detour through the Arts District.
    – The stations are built to the specs of the Gold Line, with its maximum three-car trains, rather than to those of the six-car Red Line, making future through-routing impossible.

  3. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org November 15, 2009 at 4:46 am #

    No disagreement with any of that.  The regional connector project, of course, will undo the C-shape of the Gold Line and combine this segment with the Expo Line, producing a through line from East LA to Santa Monica, and the redevelopment potential of this East LA segment probably won't happen until then.   I agree the train size may be a limitation in the very long run. 

  4. Alon Levy November 15, 2009 at 3:18 pm #

    But East LA doesn’t need any redevelopment – it’s a functioning neighborhood with more than twice the density of LA. It needs access, preferably to the busier job corridor of Wilshire rather than the less busy Expo Line, preferably without a winding crawl through downtown in streetcar mode.

  5. Damien Goodmon November 16, 2009 at 9:46 am #

    Overall a good post, but you missed a few things primarily related to the purpose and need of mass transit expansion throughout the LA region.
    Specifically, you’ve overlooked the speed issue. The Eastside Extension is currently planned to take 24 mins to travel less than 6 miles: 15 mph, or half the speed of typical heavy rail in our city 29-32 mph.
    Operating this slow is practically a death sentence in LA transit, a very poly-centric region, and especially along this corridor, where many of the major activity centers are beyond the 1/4 mile walking mark, and thereby a final transfer is needed.
    We have long distance commutes in our city. Many of the trips generated along this corridor are going directly into downtown, where even if there were a downtown connector, the trip on the local bus will be faster and on the westside along the Wilshire corridor, which if it were built as an extension of the subway would be a one seat ride.
    It really does beg the question, if the system is not going to be invested in to adequately serve the need and purpose of the region/provide substantial travel time savings (the importance of which is increased by placing stations far away from major activity points), is the rail expansion a sound investment compared to BRT?
    Don’t get me wrong, people will absolutely ride the line – this is a highly transit dependent area, but it will be substantially less than would be, and the already built up nature of the corridor ensures that infill development opportunities are lower than they would be.
    This line has all of the drawbacks of modern Los Angeles rail planning as we know it: laying tracks where right-of-way where tracks exist or lane drops can fit, instead of where most people are/want to go.
    And yes, while HRT might have cost in order of $2B, to little attention is paid to the long-term nature of these projects and their long-term life cycle costs that include not just system maintenance, which for poorly ridden lines is high (the low ridership Pasadena Gold Line in every category has been nearly twice as expensive to operate per mile, per passenger, and per passenger mile than any other line; we’ll see how/if the extension changes that), but including but not limited to:
    -overall economic cost of reduced roadway capacity, which includes not just car accommodation for those not on transit (parking, street maintenance, etc.), but also pedestrian capacity: sidewalks widening, bike lane implementation, street furniture, etc. Incidentally, numerous sidewalks were cut, hundreds of parking spots were removed, which acted as a safety buffer, and countless vehicular and pedestrian crossings were closed to fit the tracks. So even if the area were not built out already the smart growth development prospects (especially in this market) were significantly harmed in comparison to the system being built underground.
    -reduced system reliability
    -reduced system expansion opportunities (both in frequency and length)
    -reduced if not worsened air quality (fewer riders = more cars, and at-grade crossings = more congestion)
    -increased legal liability
    Instead of excusing these mistakes I’d rather see the country and LA specifically:
    a) study/go to other parts of the world (many of which have just as stringent design and environmental regulations and powerful labor movements) and see how they’re able to do it so much cheaper (Spain comes to mind) and then work to swiftly implement those policies and procedures here
    b) get our urban centers to push for inclusion of mass transit funding in any green economy initiatives, public safety initiative, and provide regions greater flexibility to program highway funds towards transit capital expansion
    We do need more money, but in the interim, especially given the political environment, it’s wiser to appropriate our resources to building shorter more effective lines in the long term than longer ones that restrain our expansion and growth opportunities in the future. That’s a better road to recovery than building systems that 50 years from now have little impact on our commute time transit share. Said a little differently, continuing to excuse the mistakes made on this line and others, will only cost us more in the long run. I mean it seems as though people forget that the major driving factor in the removal of street cars throughout the country were traffic congestion, accidents and the maintenance cost.

  6. Anonymous November 16, 2009 at 10:53 am #

    To state that third-rail-equipped electric railways, such as subway lines, can’t cross streets is incorrect.
    There are numerous grade crossings on the electrified portions of the Long Island Rail Road, all of which use a third rail to deliver traction power to multiple-unit trains.
    Remember that the train can move under power as long as the collector shoe on at least one car is in contact with the third rail, so it’s not a problem to have a break in the third rail for a grade crossing.
    Whether grade crossings are a good idea on urban rail lines with frequent passenger service is another matter, but there’s no reason they can’t exist in electrified territory.

  7. Tom Radulovich November 16, 2009 at 11:44 am #

    Transportation planners often make dumb calls, but the blame here might belong with the voters. In 1998, Los Angeles County voters approved Proposition A, which forbids the use of county sales tax revenue for the building or planning of subways. The subway section under Mariachi Plaza was done with a wink and a nod, but Prop A took new subways in LA County off the table during the years when the Gold Line extension was being planned. More recently, Mayor Villaraigosa and others have helped politically rehabilitate subways in LA.

  8. Damien Goodmon November 16, 2009 at 12:51 pm #

    They way they were able to build the subway section of the Eastside Extension was by appropriating the sales tax dollars towards the sections of the project that were not subway.
    Incidentally, the project in total received 80% of federal funds (non-local sales taxes).
    And I agree some blame goes to Prop. A, which was pushed by many of the board members who now favor the subway to the sea (going west).

  9. Scott Mercer November 16, 2009 at 1:07 pm #

    “No other city on the continent grew so large with so little rapid transit.”
    Man, that’s just ignorant. Los Angeles used to have THE LARGEST RAPID TRANSIT SYSTEM IN THE WORLD. It was in place during most of the major growth and development in the Los Angeles area.
    Of course, I am talking about The Pacfic Electric (red cars) and Los Angeles Railway (yellow cars). Those rail systems were in place from, let’s say 1910 to about 1960. That’s when the bulk of Los Angeles’ development took place. Of course, there was SOME development after 1960, most significantly the downtown skyscrapers, but the patterns were well in place by 1960.
    The Red Cars had over 1,000 miles of track, and reached from San Fernando to Redlands, and down to Riverside Orange County. The yellow cars had hundreds of miles of streetcars, in an urban setting of downtown L.A. and nearby areas.
    These systems are exactly WHY Los Angeles is so spread out. They were the harbingers of the suburban commuting model; live in a nice home in Long Beach or Bellflower, and take the train to your professional office in downtown Los Angeles.
    The mistake that the region’s leaders are trying to rectify was not never building any mass transit at all, but RIPPING IT OUT and replacing it with freeways in the 1950’s.
    Please do some research on this. It might surprise you.

  10. Alon Levy November 16, 2009 at 1:35 pm #

    Scott, streetcars aren’t rapid transit. Arguably, light rail running in dedicated ROW is, but even that is nothing like a true metro or regional rail. And no, it was definitely not the largest system in the world – by ridership, it was much smaller than the rapid transit networks of older cities, such as New York, London, and Chicago.

  11. EngineerScotty November 16, 2009 at 1:55 pm #

    It’s all Judge Doom’s fault. 🙂

  12. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org November 16, 2009 at 2:08 pm #

    @ Damien Goodman and Alon Levy. Great points, and I don’t fundamentally disagree.
    @ Scott Mercer. Obviously I know a bit of the history of the Pacific Electric. My point was about continuously existing rapid transit, so I’ve revised the post. We could of course debate whether the PE would seem like rapid transit today, if it magically reappeared overnight.

  13. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org November 16, 2009 at 2:12 pm #

    @ anonymous re third rail. Thanks, I’ve corrected the post.

  14. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org November 16, 2009 at 2:26 pm #

    Thanks for your comments!  I agree completely about the downsides of the Gold Line, and expect its patronage to be disappointing until it's hooked into the Regional Connector.  That's part of why the RC should look good in cost/new rider terms.  I also agree that the Measure A politics were ugly and that this may be part of why the line was built as it is.  I was trying to do one of those "feel good" opening-day puff-pieces, but I agree there's plenty of disappointment here.

  15. Damien Goodmon November 16, 2009 at 5:02 pm #

    I think your post did a good job of explaining how the planning process went down and the difficult decisions that must be made within the existing parameters. (Heck, don’t even get me started on New Starts.) I’m just taking the birdeye view, and as a 27 yr old transit activist, who will god-willing, be around one day when we do have an expansive system, I’d like to see us all raise the consciousness of what we’re doing so the possibilities of necessary systemic change are increased.
    I do think, given your background, you could help contribute to the discussion of why are we spending so much more than some countries and getting so little (both in quality and length of construction), even in this political environment (green economy, when the need is so great, trains! trains! trains!, infrastructure projects in response to the recession. The fact that the rest of the 1st world is lapping us in this regard is even more interesting a subject. LA should be ground zero for experimentation, questioning, study, and ambitious implementation plans…and by “implementation” I mean anything that isn’t planned to have a shovel in the ground by 2020 only be considered conceptual.
    If we get more of our elected officials asking, “How do we get our subway systems down to $125-150M a mile, like they’re doing in X and Y 1st world country” we might see a bit of a shift that will be felt throughout the industry. It inevitably will lead to reconsideration and a critical look of how we build and design (the design/professional overhead on these projects, some at times 30-40%, is highly unjustifiable.)
    I also think the light rail movement is too eager to apply what may be possible in Charlotte or Salt Lake City as universal principles applicable in all urban cities throughout the U.S. Said a little differently, taking a street fronted by vacant parking lots in Charlotte from 6 lanes down to 4, or increasing overall vehicular delay at suburban intersection by 20% in a region with lots of capacity to spare, is much different than doing it in a city like LA where in most of the urban core there is no street capacity to give. One size doesn’t fit all, and while several people in pretty high positions at LA’s MTA will privately admit this, they’re very rarely willing to say it publicly, because the industry (the professionals/consultants) are typically singing a different tune.

  16. Alon Levy November 16, 2009 at 8:36 pm #

    Damien, I don’t think there’s a single first-world country where underground urban rail costs $80-90 million per route-km. The normal costs I’ve seen for Tokyo are $400 million; for the LA Red Line, they were $300 million, in today’s money.
    The problem for US rail projects isn’t high cost – it’s low patronage. The Red Line carries 47 million passengers a year. For comparison, the Northern line in London carries 207 million, and the only line that carries fewer than 50 million is the two-station Waterloo and City line. In Paris, Line 1 carries 166 million people, and only two lines, 10 and 11, carry fewer than 60 million, with both performing in the 40s. In New York, the Lexington line carries 240 million people per year.

  17. spokker November 16, 2009 at 10:37 pm #

    The other lines you cite connect with expansive transit systems. In LA, there’s just one subway line (no, the purple line doesn’t really count). If the Red Line connected to a system as expansive as London’s, what is the return to the ridership numbers?
    In any case, light rail in Los Angeles is here to stay under the current funding schemes we’ve got. Change the system and you change the mode. These politicians and their consultants would love to build heavy rail everywhere if they thought they could get away with it.

  18. Alon Levy November 16, 2009 at 11:51 pm #

    Okay, then compare the Red Line to New York’s first subway line. Hell, compare the Red Line to Rome’s two-line, 330-million passengers a year system.

  19. EngineerScotty November 17, 2009 at 9:53 am #

    LA commuters have other choices besides the subway. If we were to close the Santa Monica Freeway, I’m sure that the Red Line would have a great increase in ridership. Ain’t gonna happen, though.

  20. Damien Goodmon November 17, 2009 at 10:41 am #

    The Spanish are at the forefront of cost-efficiency in rail building. Both Madrid and Barcelona have been producing the cheapest tunnels in the 1st world for the past decade, and they’ve been bringing them online faster than anyone else in the world (other than the Asians).
    Patronage would be improved if we had a system that was larger (everyone in LA transit community agrees with that) and better (too many overlook that). For example, we have a 22 mile lines that takes 55 mins to travel end to end (24 traveling mph). It is plenty long, but is it sufficient for the need? If there were an option for express tracks to cut that down to 35 mins, which is 38 traveling mph (very reasonable for express tracks), more people would be on it. Heck if the local tracks were completely grade separated time would be cut to 42-44 mins.
    Ultimately the real numbers and how success should be defined is not in raw ridership, but percentage of work-time commute on transit. New York is at 55%. DC and Chicago around 40%. LA is at 12%.
    For LA to get to DC/Chicago levels we’d probably need a four track grade separated system connecting our many distant centers, some of which are 35-40 miles apart (Pasadena to Long Beach for example). Not every other city needs this, but it is what is necessary for LA to get to those levels given the fact that we have medium-high density dispersed over such a large landscape. So we’re talking at a minimum of 150 miles of 4 track grade separated rail. That’s not so easy to do ($$$), especially when the federal government refuses to invest in urban transit the way our European and Asian counterparts are.
    If it is what is needed, why aren’t the feds willing to cough up $300 for every person in LA County (amounts to $3B) for the next 10-12 to ensure that the second largest city and the only other mega-city in the country can have an efficient mass transit system and grow in a manner that strengthens our local and national economy?
    Why shouldn’t we have the worlds best tunneling professors tenured at CalTech, USC and UCLA and working in cooperation with Metro and FTA to build the system? Why shouldn’t we be looking at getting the many experts who lead/led the aerospace industry that was based in Southern California, to review current inefficiencies.
    That’s big picture. That’s what’s needed and what they’re doing in the other countries that are lapping us. Now that I’ve awakened from the false reality that we’ll remain the world leader over my lifetime, I’ll settle for two-track grade separated rail in the urban core and 25-30% transit share.

  21. Damien Goodmon November 17, 2009 at 10:44 am #

    Should read:
    If it is what is needed, why aren’t the feds willing to cough up $300 for every person in LA County (amounts to $3B) every year for the next 10-12 years to ensure that the second largest city and the only other mega-city in the country can have an efficient mass transit system and grow in a manner that strengthens our local and national economy?

  22. Wad November 17, 2009 at 7:53 pm #

    Damien Goodmon wrote:
    Why shouldn’t we have the worlds best tunneling professors tenured at CalTech, USC and UCLA and working in cooperation with Metro and FTA to build the system?
    Because, we know in the case of USC at least, their professors believe the only correct form of public transportation is to starve the underclass of options and let desperation spur the necessity to provide jitneys.

  23. Alon Levy November 19, 2009 at 12:38 am #

    I’m not sure why LA needs four-track rail at all. With the Metro’s interstations, it already runs with station spacing comparable to this of the express lines in New York. Anywhere else (except Seoul), they have two-track lines, and except on a few lines in Tokyo, trains make all stops.
    Right now, increasing the length of LA’s metro system from 18 miles’ worth of the Red Line to 150 should cost about $63 billion. That would get you the Subway to the Sea plus the Pink Line through West Hollywood, an eastward extension of the Red/Purple Line along Whittier, plus about 3 north-south trunk lines. For a few billion more you could link the Green Line with Norwalk/Santa Fe Springs and extend the Orange Line to Burbank, and soon enough you’d have an actual transit system to connect with CAHSR, rather than just a few disjoint lines converging at Union Station.

  24. Nathanael November 29, 2009 at 1:34 am #

    “To state that third-rail-equipped electric railways, such as subway lines, can’t cross streets is incorrect.”
    The current regulatory environment in the US makes it nearly impossible to build a *new* line of this sort. It exists on the LIRR and Metro-North and on the Chicago “L”, but all of those installations are *OLD*, really really old. Planned extensions of electrification involve grade-separation of the intersecting roads.
    I’m a bit surprised so few subway systems have been built with overhead power collection however, as that is unequivocally extendable to grade crossings.

  25. Alon Levy November 29, 2009 at 1:58 am #

    Nathanael, some cities are concerned with the visual impact of catenary. For example, Singapore built its first two subway lines with third rail because the lines are mostly elevated, and the government was unwilling to have catenary in plain view. The third line, which was built fully underground, was built with catenary.

  26. EngineerScotty November 29, 2009 at 9:59 am #

    There are places on the Washington DC Metro where the trains (powered by third rail) have at-grade crossings of intersecting streets (there’s one on the Red Line up by Takoma Park, not far from where the big wreck this past year was, if I remember correctly).
    Crossing gates guard the crossing to prevent cars from being struck by the train, as in most railroad crossings. In addition, a moveable fence closes off the tracks to pedestrian access when a train is NOT present, the fence opens when the gates go down to permit the trains to pass.
    So it can be done.