Three weeks after the Orange Line opened in the San Fernando Valley, transportation officials are already hailing the busway as a big success: They originally projected 5,000 to 7,000 riders each weekday, but the line is attracting 10,000 to 12,000.
But transit experts said it's far too early for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority to declare victory.
Some are quick to point out that the ridership projections for the Orange Line were radically lower than those for several other of the MTA's transit systems. For example, the light rail Gold Line, which runs from downtown Los Angeles to Sierra Madre, was projected to have 38,000 weekday boardings this year (it's actually running far below that, at about 15,000).
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 26, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Gold Line -- An article in Monday's California section about transit ridership said the eastern terminus of the Gold Line was Sierra Madre. The light rail line ends at the Sierra Madre Villa station in Pasadena.
Another key point is whether Orange Line riders are motorists abandoning their cars to use mass transit or riders of other bus lines who switched to the busway. MTA officials said they didn't know the answer to that yet and were conducting ridership surveys to find out.
"We can't know for certain whether real ridership has gone up or down," said Brian Taylor, director of UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies. "They may not be new riders to the service."
One indicator may lie in the Orange Line's parking facilities, most of which remain largely empty. The five parking lots along the route, which offer a combined 3,200 spaces, have been only about 20% occupied, according to the agency -- suggesting that many, if not most, of the passengers are existing transit riders simply switching from another bus line.
"I think their projections are noise ... largely meaningless," said James E. Moore II, director of USC's transportation engineering program. "They got burned and are feeling embarrassed about the Gold Line, and they didn't want that to happen with the Orange Line."
MTA officials denied that they lowballed Orange Line ridership predictions but conceded that their forecasts might be more art than science.
"We didn't put it into a computer model," said Rod Goldman, the MTA's deputy executive officer for service development. "A lot of it was our educated guesswork based on our experience."
To come up with projections for the 14-mile east-west transitway, MTA employees considered ridership along parallel bus lines in the Valley. Ridership on Ventura Boulevard is about 9,000 daily boardings and Victory Boulevard's is about 8,500, Goldman said. That yielded an estimate of first-year ridership of 5,000 to 8,000 boardings a day for the Orange Line.
It's unclear why the MTA then reduced the estimate to 5,000 to 7,000, but Goldman speculated that something "got lost in the translation."
The MTA did use computer modeling for long-term projections for the Orange Line. Taking into account growth patterns, job data and census statistics, the agency predicts that the busway will draw 19,000 to 25,000 riders a day by 2020.
The $324-million Orange Line, a dedicated busway that runs from the Red Line subway station in North Hollywood west to Warner Center in Woodland Hills, is the first mass transit system that extends well into the San Fernando Valley.
"It's been so successful from a ridership point of view, they've had to add buses to the line," said county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, an MTA board member who recently stood shoulder to shoulder among passengers on an Orange Line bus. "It has taken us all by surprise ... Even with added buses, they are full to the brim all the time."
But transportation experts said the real test for the busway will be whether the line gets people out of their cars and how it interacts with other transit systems such as the Red Line, which can take riders to Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles.
Officials have yet to complete studies to see whether the Orange Line is improving traffic on the 101 Freeway and nearby roads such as Ventura Boulevard.
The MTA has struggled with projections on other lines. When the Green Line opened in 1992, authorities predicted that the Norwalk-to-El Segundo rail system would attract 25,000 riders after its first year. Shortly before the light rail line opened in 1995, nervous officials revised their projection to 10,000 passenger boardings a day. Actual daily ridership after a year turned out to be 15,000. Today, the line carries 32,000 riders a day.
The MTA has done better with the Blue Line, which runs from Long Beach to downtown Los Angeles. Considered the most-used light rail line in North America, it carries 73,000 daily passengers. The Red Line subway carries about 112,000 riders a day.
Orange Line boosters say its ridership numbers are impressive even if most of those on board switched from other buses.
"Ridership is key....Once they see something that'll move them faster, they'll gravitate toward it," said Kymberleigh Richards, a transit advocate and vice chairwoman of the MTA's bus board for the San Fernando Valley. "If people are transferring to it and riding it, they see value in it."
But USC's Moore is not convinced.
"A full train is not necessarily a victory," he said, citing how rail ridership rose after the MTA axed cheaper bus lines serving the same route. "That thinking ignores the trade-off. How many other bus lines have you given up to make way for the Orange Line?"