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Valley Light-Rail Proponents Refuse To Brake Campaign

Despite a report last month by the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority that recommended against converting the Orange Line busway into a light rail line, Valley proponents of the idea say they plan to push forward with lobbying efforts. Valley on Track, a coalition of chambers of commerce, neighborhood councils and elected politicians, plans to continue to seek funding for the conversion – which would cost well over $1 billion – from a planned $90 billion transportation sales tax measure expected to be on the L.A. County ballot next year. “We can’t wait,” said Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry & Commerce Association, which is spearheading the Valley on Track campaign. “If they do the (bus) improvements, and then need to do more for capacity, we’re stuck. The fact is we have one shot at a funding source for this.” The report found that the 18-mile busway between North Hollywood and Warner Center carries 30,000 riders daily, about double the passenger count it was designed to carry, leading to slower travel times. But it said spending an estimated $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion for the conversion to rail was not cost effective and recommended improvements to the busway that will cost $230 million to $350 million. The improvements would boost capacity between 50 and 100 percent. Operating costs for the improved bus system would be less than half the maintenance and operating expenses for a rail line. “Converting the Metro Orange Line to rail can provide two to six times more capacity than the existing buses, but comes with a rough price tag of over $1 billion,” the report states. “There may not be the ridership in the near term to support such a high-cost, high-capacity option.” Greenlighting development The Orange Line runs from North Hollywood east to Woodland Hills and then north to Chatsworth. The dedicated busway has 18 stops and 43 street crossings, causing the bus to constantly accelerate and decelerate at stations at intersections. The section of busway with the heaviest usage is North Hollywood to Reseda, according to the report. Peak hours are in the morning and evening, an indication that most travelers are commuting to work, although Metro said students at Cal State Northridge also figure into the total. Scott Page, operations manager at Metro, said most Orange riders use another form of public transit. The busway moves them east or west to a major street, and then buses move them north or south to their destination. NoHo is the most popular station because riders also connect to the Red Line rail system to go south to Hollywood or beyond. It takes 56 to 59 minutes to travel the entire route, and Metro hopes to trim 10 to 12 minutes from that total with bus improvements, Page said. The main method is to have the city of Los Angles re-time the signal lights so the buses can go through intersections with fewer stops. “This is a major undertaking – the city has to update the entire San Fernando Valley signal system,” Page said. “It’s a monster because the Orange Line crosses almost the entire Valley floor.” Implementation of re-timed lights should happen in about a year, said Renee Berlin, managing executive officer of systemwide planning at the agency. Metro also may replace the current 60-foot buses with higher-capacity 80-foot vehicles, but that would require state legislation. Constructing bus overpasses or underpasses at street-crossing would be difficult given their frequency; Page noted that it would amount to an elevated railway. Waldman at VICA believes that while bus improvement is a low-cost solution, it won’t turn the Orange Line into an economic game-changer with a much larger ridership. “Signal synchronization can work, but by and large it will not help capacity,” he said. “The people who are going to ride a bus are already riding. A lot of people who are sitting in their cars will get out of the car to ride a train, but not a bus.” Paul Krekorian, the L.A. City Councilman who represents the central Valley and sits on the Metro board, also likes rail, noting that the Orange Line was designed to carry 15,000 people a day – half its current usage. “We should make immediate and short-term improvements to the busway and also take a long, hard look at converting the Orange Line to light rail,” he said in an email to the Business Journal. “The cost would be higher, but the benefit to commuters and commerce could also be exponentially greater. … What we do with (the report) here will, in many ways, point the way forward for public transportation infrastructure in the San Fernando Valley.” Politicians and lobbyists are not the only ones who prefer rail. Real estate developers love transit-oriented projects in general and rail in particular. Bart Reed is executive director of the Transit Coalition, a non-profit citizens advocacy group in San Fernando and a member of the Valley on Track coalition. He pointed out how rail stations on Metro’s Red Line in Hollywood and the Gold Line in the San Gabriel Valley have ignited interest in housing, retail and office developments. But so far, the Orange Line hasn’t attracted any projects, despite large parcels of available land near the stations. “For whatever reason, developers don’t like to build around busways,” he said. “If it becomes rail, developers will come and build. If it’s a busway, even if it’s upgraded, I don’t see any interest.” Waldman said that developers know bus routes can change, while “the permanency of rail” gives them security to invest in construction. Also, the perception is that trains have a more professional ridership, as opposed to the blue-collar image of buses, attracting higher-end retailers and housing projects. Competing projects The dispute over the busway conversion ultimately comes down to money, specifically what is expected to be generated by Measure R2, a sales tax increase co-sponsored by the San Fernando Valley Council of Governments for the ballot in 2016. If it gets on the ballot and voters approve it, the measure could raise as much as $90 billion for transit over 45 years. Valley on Track wants to put the Orange Line rail conversion on the list of projects funded by R2, which is so named because it is a successor to Measure R, a 2008 measure that raised sales taxes to pay for light-rail and other mass transit improvements in the county. For now, though, the Orange Line rail conversion isn’t on Metro’s long-term project list. “Our board has directed us to update the plan, but that won’t happen until 2017,” said Berlin. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to rail tracks across the Valley is competition for funding from other projects. For example, Metro’s Gold Line in Pasadena has plans to extend eastward to Montclair in San Bernardino County. Called the Foothill Gold Line, the 12-station project will cost nearly $2 billion. Other Metro projects include the Purple Line extension, known as the “Subway to the Sea” under Wilshire Boulevard, with an estimated cost of $6.3 billion; the Eastside Phase 2 from East Los Angeles to El Monte or Whittier, at a cost in the $1.3 billion range; and the Exposition Corridor Phase 2 project from Culver City to Santa Monica at a cost of $640 million. Even within the Valley, the Orange Line faces funding competition. Valley on Track also supports the East San Fernando Valley Transit Corridor – a bus, tram or rail line from Sylmar to the Van Nuys Orange Line station. While it already has $170 million in funding from the original Measure R, total cost estimates range from $294 million to $2.6 billion, depending on the mode of transportation. The most ambitious local project is the Sepulveda Pass Transit Corridor, a proposed rail tunnel underneath the 405 Freeway. A 2012 Metro study estimated the cost at about $6 billion. If Metro decided to turn the tunnel into an underground freeway, the total could grow as high as $13 billion. Reed at the Transit Coalition said that since the Sepulveda, Sylmar and Gold Line projects already have some planning and funding behind them, they appear to have political priority over the Orange Line rail conversion. “Metro has $245 billion in projects that people want, but they will only fund $30 billion to $40 billion,” he said. “The Orange Line is not the low-hanging fruit option.” But Waldman thinks now is the time to get the Orange Line on the list of Measure R2 projects. If Metro makes the busway upgrades, it may consider the issue settled. And the fact that the Valley also needs other transit projects shouldn’t diminish the Orange Line’s importance, he believes. “There isn’t a choice between the Sepulveda Pass and the Orange Line,” he said. “We believe both should happen.”

Joel Russel
Joel Russel
Joel Russell joined the Los Angeles Business Journal in 2006 as a reporter. He transferred to sister publication San Fernando Valley Business Journal in 2012 as managing editor. Since he assumed the position of editor in 2015, the Business Journal has been recognized four times as the best small-circulation tabloid business publication in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publishers. Previously, he worked as senior editor at Hispanic Business magazine and editor of Business Mexico.
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