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More Aboard! : Metrolink's Ridership Gains May Signal a Change in Region's Commuting Habits

December 17, 1995|DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They begin arriving before the sun rises. Leaving their cars in shadowy parking lots, they hustle through the pre-dawn mist toward sleek silver railroad cars.

"The traffic to L.A. is horrendous," said Erinn Madden, 26, a lawyer who lives in Corona del Mar and catches the train in Irvine every day for the ride to her office in Downtown Los Angeles. "This makes me a nicer person when I get there."

Madden is among the burgeoning number of commuters on Metrolink, a railroad that serves six Southern California counties. In existence only since 1992, it has become the fastest-growing commuter rail system in the United States, tallying an average of 20,146 passenger trips each day.

The result: the beginning of what many transportation experts see as a potentially significant shift in the way people get around.

"It's changing the culture of commuting in Southern California," said Jim Sims, director of the Southern California Assn. of Government's Rideshare Services, which encourages commuters to carpool.

In 1994, according to a survey by the American Public Transit Assn. in Washington, Metrolink's ridership increased 119% from the previous year, from 1.89 to 4.13 million one-way trips, overtaking projections and prompting plans for leasing 15 more cars in the next six months while manufacturers scramble to build 24 new ones.

And in Southern California, Metrolink officials say, the fastest-growing line is the Oceanside-to-Los Angeles route, on which ridership from 1994 to 1995 increased 40%, compared to 28% on the Riverside-to-Los Angeles line.

Although Metrolink is still only a medium-sized system by national standards, Caltrans officials say that if everyone riding the trains got into their cars instead, the increased traffic would extend the rush hour 30 to 60 minutes along most of the freeways paralleling the rail lines.

The significance goes well beyond the numbers, said Sims, citing studies showing that most of the new riders previously drove alone.

"What Metrolink is doing," he said, "is attracting the die-hard drive-alones, people who said, 'You'll never get me out of my car.' "

Snarled traffic and smog has forced a reconsideration of the area's commuting ethos in recent years. Surveys such as one conducted in 1990 at UC Irvine revealed a surprising number of people who said they would consider commuting by rail if such an option were available.

"What we consistently found," said Mark Baldassare, chairman of the university's department of urban planning, which conducted the survey, "is that if you built a rail system . . . people would use it."

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The Southern California Regional Rail Authority began operating Metrolink, centered at Los Angeles' Union Station, in 1992. Two years later it opened the system's Orange County line. In October, the company added what was touted as the nation's first suburb-to-suburb commuter rail line from Riverside to Irvine. Still on the drawing boards is a line linking Riverside, Fullerton and Los Angeles.

"We have always believed that Southern California needed an alternative to the freeway," Metrolink spokesman Peter Hidalgo said.

Today the system has 394 miles of track linking 44 stations through which 85 trains run daily between destinations as far-flung as Oxnard, Lancaster, Oceanside and San Bernardino. "Our rail routes generally parallel significant freeways," Hidalgo said. "We're making the same trip that they're making in bumper-to-bumper traffic."

But critics describe Metrolink as an overly expensive system that can only make a small dent in traffic while primarily benefiting affluent commuters.

Charles Lave, an economics professor at UC Irvine who specializes in transportation, said railroads will never offer serious competition to freeways in Southern California. While rail transit is indispensable in older cities such as Boston, New York and Philadelphia because they lack adequate road and parking space, in Southern California "there's no reason for people to get out of their cars," he said.

Brian Taylor, an assistant professor of urban planning at UCLA, tends to agree, describing Metrolink as a costly way of achieving relatively modest results.

"This is a time to give taxpayers more bang for the buck," he said. "There are probably more cost-effective ways."

A lawsuit scheduled to be heard Jan. 23 in federal court accuses the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of discriminating against poor and minority bus riders by funding Metrolink, which largely benefits suburban white commuters.

"That's immoral and illegal," said Eric Mann, director of the Labor Community Strategy Center, which initiated the lawsuit. "We consider it a scandal of policy."

But, countered Hidalgo, "Metrolink can't discriminate on who is allowed to ride our trains."

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