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Question of Ridership : Light Rails: Visionary or a Step Back?

October 20, 1985|RICH CONNELL | Times Staff Writer

Political leaders will break ground later this month on a $685-million, Los Angeles-to-Long Beach commuter rail line--a massive project that has left transit experts and local officials sharply divided over its design and potential benefits.

When completed about 1990, the 21-mile, trolley-like line is expected to be the first operational link in a modern reincarnation of the old Pacific Electric Red Cars, once the backbone of the regional transportation system. Plans are to couple a large web of so-called light-rail lines with the proposed Metro Rail subway, forming a 150-mile commuter system.

The Oct. 31 ground-breaking on a dusty, gravel-covered strip of land next to cars streaming along the Long Beach Freeway will be subtly ironic.

Last Trip of a Red Car

In a gloomier ceremony 24 years ago, the last train of the once-extensive commuter network wailed its horn on a final, late-night journey past the same spot--the last Red Car to succumb to the competition created by the marriage of affordable automobiles and hundreds of miles of new Southland freeways, like the Long Beach.

Resurrecting the Long Beach line remains highly controversial, with proponents and opponents continuing to debate whether the investment represents a visionary leap forward or a costly turn backward for regional transit.

Armed with voter approval in 1980 of a proposed regional commuter rail plan and a half-cent transit sales tax that now is generating $300 million a year, members of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, the regional agency of county and cities' representatives that will build the line, say they are carrying out a mandate.

Citing government projections that Southern California will add 3 million additional residents in the next 15 years and peak-hour freeway speeds will fall sharply, the commission and a broad-based coalition of business and community leaders argue that a rail network--the 18.6-mile Metro Rail subway and a much larger web of light-rail lines--offers the only hope for keeping the area moving.

'Have the Obligation'

"We have the vote of the people, we have the resources and we have the obligation" to add rail to the transportation system, said Jacki Bacharach, chairwoman of the commission.

Indeed, many backers of the project see the Long Beach and other rail lines as an essential, missing ingredient in making Los Angeles a first-class city.

"If you're going to have a great city, you have to have rapid rail transit," County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn says.

But critics contend that the benefits of the light-rail system in general and the Long Beach line in particular are not worth the projected costs, which on the first line have more than tripled since the project was proposed.

Peter Gordon, a USC associate professor of urban planning who has studied the area's public transit, said commuter patterns along the Long Beach route indicate that the line could be a "disaster" in terms of ridership.

"There is just no reason for optimism," he said. "It's going to be a ghost train."

Predicted Savings Doubted

Critics also contend that potential savings from operation of the train are being exaggerated and accompanying cutbacks in the surrounding bus system could mean overall transit service along the route may be worse after the project.

As the start of construction nears, some things do appear clear, based on the planning and technical documents that have piled up.

The Long Beach line, which is forecast to carry about 35,000 passengers in 1989, when it is scheduled to begin service, and about 54,000 passengers in the year 2000, will do little to relieve traffic congestion.

Ridership projections indicate that in the year 2000, several years after the Long Beach line is fully operational, it will reduce commuter auto trips along the route by less than one-half of 1%. And that assumes that riders will be able to transfer to either an approved light-rail line on the Century Freeway, which is under construction, or the still-uncertain Metro Rail subway.

"From a county-level or even a corridor-level, the (light-rail) project has only a very minor positive impact on traffic," concluded a report by analysts at the Southern California Assn. of Governments, which the commission hired to prepare the ridership forecasts.

Because more than 9 out of 10 of the anticipated riders would be users of public transit with or without the project, the rail line also is not expected to make a significant difference in energy consumption or smog--potential benefits that, like reduced traffic congestion, were used to promote the rail plan to voters.

Expectations Called Unfair

Supporters of the project say it is unfair to expect those kinds of payoffs from the Long Beach line alone. "The Long Beach line by itself is not something to write home to mother about," Bacharach said.

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