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Can Light Rail Carry the Load?

Some say it's not worth the money. Others call it region's lifeblood.

June 01, 2003|Dan Weikel and Kurt Streeter | Times Staff Writers

Packed with tourists and Mexican laborers, the San Diego Trolley ushered in a new era for light rail in California when its boxy red cars began running between downtown and the international border in 1981.

The street car revival has spread to Sacramento, San Jose, and Los Angeles, where transit officials this summer plan to open their third -- the 14-mile Gold Line from downtown Los Angeles to Pasadena. Other regions are eager to sign on, including traffic-choked Orange County, where Irvine voters will decide Tuesday whether to be part of an 11-mile, $1.4-billion starter line -- one of the most expensive in the nation.

Such light-rail systems are critical to meet California's growing transportation needs, many transit experts say, because modern street cars take less space than new freeways and can haul more people faster than buses. They predict white-collar workers will abandon their cars to be whisked to the office as well as the theater when light rail becomes more available.

But 22 years after the San Diego Trolley's inaugural run, the promise of light rail has yet to materialize in California. Although the San Diego line has expanded and is a success by most measures, light-rail performance in the three other regions is mixed despite an outlay of $3 billion in public funds for construction and hundreds of millions of dollars in annual subsidies to operate them.

"There are good examples of light rail, but our track record is not that good," said Robert Cervero, a professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley.

Light rail is different from subways and railroads such as Metrolink, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system or the Metro Red Line in Los Angeles. Modern trolleys use smaller cars, go slower, and make more stops.

Though cheaper to build than subways, light-rail costs usually exceed projections, sometimes dramatically so.

A 1982 estimate to build the 22-mile Blue Line from Long Beach to Los Angeles was $192 million; at completion in 1990, it cost taxpayers $877 million. The 20-mile Green Line along the Century Freeway in Los Angeles County cost $980 million, more than three times the original estimate. Sacramento County's 20.6-mile "RT" system was estimated at $117 million in 1981. It cost $176 million by its 1987 completion.

The Gold Line has been built by a construction authority created by state lawmakers, who demanded it be finished for $725 million. But the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which will run it, is adding rail cars and extras, pushing the total closer to $900 million.

Predictions Are Off

Ridership also has varied from original predictions.

The Sacramento line, for example, has about 30,000 "boardings" each weekday, far below projections of 50,000. The Los Angeles Green Line -- called "the train to nowhere" by some because it stops short of Los Angeles International Airport and serves neither shopping nor tourist destinations -- has about 29,000 boardings each weekday, less than a third of the forecast.

In contrast, the San Diego Trolley and the Los Angeles Blue Line, each with more than 70,000 boardings per weekday, either meet or surpass original forecasts. Gold Line ridership is expected to be 30,000 per weekday, doubling in 20 years.

Many riders say they prefer the comfort and speed of light rail to bus service. But some studies show that transit's share of commuters has increased little, if at all, despite the investment in modern street cars. Research suggests that many light-rail riders simply switched from the buses the trolley lines replaced.

In Los Angeles County on an average weekday, 1.5 million people use municipal buses, the subway and two light-rail lines operated by the MTA. Before transit officials raised the 50-cent fare two decades ago, 1.8 million rode buses.

Light rail's mixed record has some experts and academics asking if the lines are worth such enormous investments. Innovative or expanded use of buses can provide a cheaper alternative, they say, especially in sprawling suburban areas.

"If the goal is to move as many people as possible as far as you can per dollar spent, light rail is not effective," said Jim Moore, director of USC's transportation engineering program.

Jonathan E.D. Richmond, a Massachusetts consultant and former Harvard University research fellow, said when similar service is compared, express buses require less subsidy.

Richmond studied an express route along Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles and the Blue Line. He found the operating subsidies per passenger for light rail were at least double those of the rapid bus line. The U.S. General Accounting Office concluded in September 2001 that capital costs for express-style bus service ranged from $200,000 a mile on existing streets to $55 million a mile for roads built exclusively for buses. Light-rail systems cost $12.4 million to $118.8 million a mile.

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