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Blue Line Revs Up for Start of Runs Saturday : Transit: L.A.-Long Beach link is the first in new regional rail system. Security is among major concerns.

July 13, 1990|RONALD B. TAYLOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three decades after the last of the area's Big Red Car trolley lines was abandoned, Los Angeles is taking the first step to rebuild a rail transit network that will eventually cost more than $5 billion and once again link cities such as Santa Monica, Santa Ana and San Bernardino.

In a megalopolis famous for its long romance with automobiles and freeways, transit officials are betting that, despite concerns about security, thousands of motorists can be lured onto the high-tech trolleys that start running on the new $877-million Los Angeles-Long Beach Light Rail Line this weekend.

The so-called Blue Line is the first leg of a projected 150-mile rail network that will be built over the next two decades and will include the Green Line along the new Century Freeway, the Metro Rail Red Line to North Hollywood and other suburban commuter lines.

On Saturday morning, after ribbon-cutting ceremonies and speeches at the Pico Station in downtown Los Angeles, the Blue Line trains will start humming down the tracks every 10 minutes, stopping to pick up passengers at each station.

Transit officials estimate that nearly 100,000 people will take advantage of free rides Saturday afternoon and Sunday as part of festivities designed to promote Monday's start of commuter runs. To encourage ridership, officials will allow passengers to ride free through the end of the month.

Reinstituting rail transit is a big gamble in Los Angeles County, most experts agree. But county transit officials believe that many motorists are so fed up with freeway congestion they will take the train.

"When the Blue Line trains start rolling Saturday, it will show that Los Angeles is finally taking the first step toward returning to rails," said Neil Peterson, executive director of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, the agency paying the Blue Line bills. "And this will send a signal: Even in Los Angeles, the people are beginning to realize they must change their way of travel if we are to have a livable planet."

Passenger security is the major worry, officials say, because the 19-mile line traverses gang turf and high-crime sections of Los Angeles. To ensure rider safety, the line will be policed by 120 Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies.

Traffic safety concerns have been raised by the union representing the train engineers, who fear that the trains will collide with cars at street crossings.

And skeptics question whether the "honor system" for buying tickets and boarding the trains will work, or whether cheating will become widespread, resulting in lost revenue.

Rail critics predict that motorists will not leave their cars and will be afraid to ride the trains.

Commission officials acknowledge that daily ridership will be low initially--roughly 5,000--because portions of the line in downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach will not be completed for another year.

The line will attract up to 35,000 riders a day by the summer of 1991, transit experts predict. A decade from now, when the Blue Line is linked to the other subway and light-rail projects now under construction, the line should be carrying 54,000 passengers a day, they say.

During the first few years of operation, the line is expected to lose money and require heavy subsidies.

Officials say fares will bring in only about $1.5 million, or about 5%, of the $33-million first-year operating budget set by the Southern California Rapid Transit District, which runs the line. By comparison, fares charged on the RTD bus system--one of the largest in the nation--return about 40% of the operating costs.

More than a third of the Blue Line budget--$12 million--will go to pay for security provided by the Transit Services Bureau, a new unit of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

No other transit agency has spent so much of its budget on security, according to the RTD. New York City, for example, spends only 10% of its operating budget on security, RTD Comptroller Tom Rubin said.

"We are deliberately making a major investment in security . . . to protect the riders and the $877-million investment," said Peterson, the transit commission executive director.

Major promotional efforts have been mounted to attract passengers. The RTD spent $250,000 to make and distribute a videotape called "Operation Blue Line" starring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It demonstrates how to buy tickets from the automatic vending machines and ride the trains.

In another effort to lure riders, the commission has set the train fare at $1.10 for a one-way ticket, about half what it costs for a bus ride along the same route, and the Blue Line will honor bus passes and transfers.

The start-up of the trolley line has not been smooth or free of conflict.

Built without federal assistance, the project was funded primarily by money raised through a special half-cent county sales tax passed by voters in 1980. This Proposition A money also subsidizes RTD bus operations and funds other transit projects in the county's 86 cities.

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