Switching to a Connection: The Limitations of Building Rail in L.A. County

I know it's hard to get excited about less than two miles of track that most Angeleños will never see (or travel on), but the release of environmental documents for Metro's "regional connector" project under downtown is, in fact, a very big deal.

(Public comment on the project's environmental impact report has begun, and Metro's board will consider approving it at the board's February meeting.

The connector, only partly funded by Measure R sales tax revenue, is estimated to cost about $1.4 billion - a rough estimate, given all the unknowns in tunneling under the city.

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According to Steve Hymon at The Source website, federal approvals are needed before the start of one to two years of design work and four years of actual construction. The project might be finished by 2019. It will follow a route mostly under 2nd and Flower streets and include three new underground stations.

And it will have been a long wait to achieve what the region's light rail lines have lacked: regional connectedness.

The Blue, Gold, Green, and Expo lines are barely pinned together now. Just a single transfer point connects the Blue and Green lines in Watts. The Blue and Expo lines meet only at the Pico Station and the 7th Street terminal downtown. You need to take the Red or Purple subway to Union Station to connect the Blue or Expo lines to the Gold Line.

The new connector will take these separate lines and weave them more seamlessly into a system, so that a rider one day could travel from downtown Long Beach to Claremont without a transfer or go from Culver City to Whittier.

When it's done, the connector will give rail transit some of the reach and relative convenience it once had when Henry Huntington's Pacific Electric cars ran to his far-flung real estate holdings. It also will create a light rail hub downtown mirroring the one that grew the center of the city from 1900 through 1930.

The connector will make downtown thick with rail stations and give residential blocks the kind of transit density that makes pedestrian mobility more than a joke about "nobody walks in L.A." (Not incidentally, it also will benefit downtown real estate interests.)

The regional connector is a big deal for transit users, urbanists, loft dwellers, and property owners. And it has all the limitations of the rail history it remakes.

Beginning with the Blue Line in 1990, Metro has been compelled -- for reasons of cost and convenience -- to build on the remnant rights-of-way of the region's late 19th and early 20th century rail network. Light rail in Los Angeles largely goes on existing and disused freight lines and abandoned Pacific Electric right-of-way -- where the past went.

(The Green Line was an once-in-a-lifetime anomaly, having been built into the centerline of what will probably be the last freeway constructed in L.A. County. As a result of its own history, the Green Line is not ideally placed for regional interconnectedness or maximum benefit for transit users who need to cross the southern half of the county.)

Worse, Metro is running out of the past to reuse. The most likely rights-of-ways are being adapted now, and the route most needed for regional transit -- the former PE line from Los Angeles to Santa Ana -- has multiple issues of continuity, ownership, and cost.

We'll move more freely with the completion of the regional connector project. We'll certainly have more of a rail system. And we may still wonder, after the billions have been spent, "Is this all there is?"

[Correction: This post previously noted that the Blue and Expo lines will connect only at the 7th and Flower terminus of the two lines. The two lines also will share a stop at the Pico Station.]

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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