From busway to rail line?

Ad­vo­cates say it’s time to con­vert the Or­ange Line, the Val­ley’s busiest. Some bridges are in place.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - LAURA J. NEL­SON laura.nel­son@la­ Twit­ter: @lau­ra_nel­son Have an idea, gripe or ques­tion? Times staff writ­ers Laura J. Nel­son and Dan Weikel write Cal­i­for­nia Com­mute and are look­ing for leads. Please send them along.

A gen­er­a­tion ago, Los An­ge­les County of­fi­cials en­vi­sioned a sub­way that would gather up com­muters across the San Fer­nando Val­ley and whisk them to down­town Los An­ge­les, avoid­ing the in­fa­mous traf­fic of the 101 Free­way.

But af­ter years of fund­ing, de­sign and po­lit­i­cal bat­tles, the Metropoli­tan Trans­porta­tion Author­ity scut­tled plans for a rail line — ei­ther above or be­low ground — and opted for a ded­i­cated 18-mile busway that could be built rel­a­tively quickly and cheaply on an old street­car right-of-way.

The Or­ange Line has since be­come the busiest bus route in the Val­ley, car­ry­ing about 30,000 rid­ers a day be­tween Chatsworth, Warner Cen­ter and North Hol­ly­wood.

That’s a sign, ad­vo­cates say, that it’s fi­nally time for the busway to be­come a rail line.

Such a con­ver­sion — in­clud­ing buy­ing trains, build­ing sta­tions and lay­ing track — would cost $1.2 bil­lion to $1.7 bil­lion and take two to three years to com­plete, ac­cord­ing to a new re­port pre­pared for Metro and re­viewed by The Times.

Metro’s board of di­rec­tors is sched­uled to re­view the anal­y­sis this week.

Some elected of­fi­cials and ad­vo­cates ar­gue the county’s rail-build­ing boom over the last three decades has short­changed the Val­ley, home to nearly 20% of county res­i­dents. The sprawl­ing and largely builtout sub­urb, with its own large em­ploy­ment and com­mer­cial cen­ters, has just two of Metro’s 80 rail sta­tions.

None of the 37 miles of rail Metro cur­rently plans to build in the next decade would be north of the 101 Free­way.

When the Or­ange Line was built, its bridges were en­gi­neered to one day ac­com­mo­date trains. With that sort of in­fra­struc­ture in place, along with ex­ist­ing sta­tion park­ing lots, drainage and bike­ways, the cost of con­vert­ing the line to rail has been re­duced 25%, the re­port said.

But the anal­y­sis also notes there are other al­ter­na­tives to in­crease the line’s ca­pac­ity. Those in­clude buy­ing more or larger buses and adding over­passes at the busway’s busiest in­ter­sec­tions. Cur­rently, long, ar­tic­u­lated buses run in their own tran­sit way, but in some lo­ca­tions they still can be re­quired to stop for traf­fic lights.

Up­grad­ing the bus ser­vice on the line would cost up to $350 mil­lion, less than a third of the cost of re­plac­ing it with rail, ac­cord­ing to the MTA anal­y­sis.

Ei­ther change could lead to at least a 10% in­crease in rid­er­ship, the re­port es­ti­mated. But it con­cluded a rail line would be slightly faster, shav­ing about 15 min­utes off a cross-Val­ley trip, com­pared with a 10- to 12-minute travel time re­duc­tion with im­proved bus ser­vice.

How any Or­ange Line up­grade would be funded isn’t clear. Money for such a project was not in­cluded in Mea­sure R, the half-cent sales tax for trans­porta­tion projects passed by Los An­ge­les County vot­ers in 2008. That mea­sure has pro­vided lo­cal fi­nanc­ing for the bulk of the county’s re­cent rail con­struc­tion, and helped at­tract match­ing state and fed­eral dol­lars.

Po­lit­i­cal ob­servers say that up­grad­ing the Or­ange Line, par­tic­u­larly to rail, could en­cour­age Val­ley vot­ers to sup­port an­other sales tax bal­lot mea­sure.

Metro plans ei­ther to seek voter ap­proval next year for a pro­posal that could add a new tax for trans­porta­tion — rais­ing the over­all county sales tax rate to 9.5% — or ex­tend Mea­sure R be­yond its 2039 ex­pi­ra­tion date. The lat­ter ap­proach would al­low of­fi­cials to bor­row bil­lions more for new tran­sit con­struc­tion in com­ing years and re­pay it with sales taxes to be col­lected decades from now. Any tax in­crease would need the ap­proval of a su­per-ma­jor­ity of more than 66% of vot­ers.

The re­cent MTA re­port also ex­am­ined the cost of ex­tend­ing the Or­ange Line bus route to Pasadena. That project, es­ti­mated at $130 mil­lion to $230 mil­lion, could in­clude adding bus ramps link­ing to the 134 Free­way’s car­pool lanes and build­ing sta­tions in Bur­bank and Glen­dale. That ex­ten­sion could in­crease daily board­ing by up to 30,000, the re­port said.

Build­ing light rail along the ex­tended cor­ri­dor, from Warner Cen­ter to Mont­clair, could cost $4.6 bil­lion to $8 bil­lion and would re­quire two hours to travel from end to end, the re­port said.

Ge­naro Molina Los An­ge­les Times

A METRO OR­ANGE LINE BUS trav­els across Kester Av­enue in Van Nuys. Po­lit­i­cal ob­servers say that up­grad­ing the line, par­tic­u­larly to rail, could en­cour­age Val­ley vot­ers to sup­port an­other sales tax bal­lot mea­sure.

Los An­ge­les Times

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