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Busway's 1st Weekday Surpasses Goal

Slightly more than the expected number of passengers used the Valley's Orange Line, though its parking lots were mostly empty.

November 01, 2005|Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writer

Unfurling bus schedule pamphlets and checking their watches, thousands of commuters stepped aboard the San Fernando Valley Orange Line on Monday morning for a ride to work or school for the first time.

Transit officials announced themselves pleased that the newly opened, 14-mile busway attracted an estimated 7,500 passenger boardings, somewhat above their previous projection. They also expressed some concern that the Orange Line's five parking lots and 3,200 spaces sat mostly vacant Monday, a sign that motorists had not yet warmed up to the new transit system.

But for the riders, especially those who used it instead of driving, there were more important measures: Did the Orange Line and its unusual silver buses shorten and improve their commute?

Although some in the packed buses had to stand, many riders said the $324-million Orange Line gave them a quicker and more comfortable ride.

"It is 15 minutes faster!" exclaimed Vladmir Burkov, a 46-year-old West Hills project manager. He compared his morning ride from the Orange Line's Pierce College station to its eastern terminus at the Red Line subway station in North Hollywood with his usual drive through stop-and-go traffic on the 101 Freeway to the Universal City Red Line station, where he catches a subway connection to his job downtown. "It is great! I showed up at the office all relaxed today."

But others weren't quite sold on the new busway, which was taking about 40 minutes to go from the subway station to its western terminus at Warner Center.

They thought the Orange Line was still too slow, or didn't quite take them where they wanted to go. Phil Lipscomb, an Upland resident, shook his head as his watch showed that his commute to Warner Center -- which included connecting rides from Metrolink and the Red Line subway -- took an hour longer than his usual freeway drive.

"Today, it's not looking good," said Lipscomb, who plans to give the Orange Line at least one more try. But if the travel time doesn't beat his usual freeway commute of an hour and 40 minutes, he said he would "go back to driving."

When the Orange Line opened over the weekend, more than 80,000 riders showed up for two days of free rides. Monday marked the first day the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority began charging for travel on the busway.

A one-way ride costs $1.25 and a day pass, which includes unlimited rides on other Metro buses and rail lines, is $3.

MTA officials, who earlier predicted that the Orange Line would have 5,000 to 7,000 daily boardings in its first year, said they were pleased by Monday's turnout.

"The ridership was robust at 6 in the morning," said Los Angeles County Supervisor and MTA board member Zev Yaroslavsky, who conceived the idea for the busway. He stood Monday morning at the Orange Line's North Hollywood station to greet commuters. "The buses were full or close to full. There were few, if any, empty seats."

Monday's riders included Jorge Atlas, 19, of Van Nuys, whose bus timetable hung from his hands like a limp accordion.

"It says every 10 minutes!" marveled the Pierce College sophomore, who was accustomed to riding regular buses that run every 30 minutes. "So if you miss one bus, you don't have to wait another half-hour."

But some transit advocates and riders have criticized the MTA's reduction of some regular bus service elsewhere to help fund the Orange Line's operations, including shortening some routes and forcing passengers of regular buses to make more transfers, including to the busway.

The mainly empty parking lots along the busway, they say, is a sign that most of the Orange Line's riders are already transit users -- who are simply shifting from one bus to another.

At the Van Nuys station, which has 824 parking spaces, only 54 cars occupied spots as of 11 a.m. Monday.

The Orange Line's largest parking structure, at the Sepulveda station, which has 1,179 parking spaces and a row of 25 portable toilets, held 41 cars.

"We were hoping we would get more drivers," said Richard Hunt, the MTA general manager who oversees the San Fernando Valley region. "The parking is less than 10% utilized."

Yaroslavsky said the empty parking lots meant that the busway's "feeder lines are working, and people are using connector service" and that better marketing efforts could encourage more commuters to park and ride.

"This is the first day of service," Yaroslavsky said. "We have nowhere to go but up."

However, Donald Shoup, acting director of UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies and an expert on parking, warned that it is hard to persuade people to switch their mode of transportation.

"If the lots continue to be empty," he said, "it means they've overestimated drivers' willingness to park and get on the Orange Line."

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