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Expo Line's halting start

If mass transit is to succeed in Los Angeles, the MTA is going to have to get its act together.

June 20, 2012|By Molly Selvin
  • An Expo Line train pulls into the La Cienega/Jefferson station. Metro's newest light rail line started service in April.
An Expo Line train pulls into the La Cienega/Jefferson station. Metro's… (Los Angeles Times )

We usually get only one chance to make a good impression. Fortunately, Metro's Expo Line gets two.

It took two decades of begging, arm-twisting, engineering and funding delays, as well as litigation of Dickensian length, before the light-rail trains started running in April, from downtown west to La Cienega Boulevard. Meanwhile, we Westside commuters idled — and fumed — while politicians insisted we didn't need rapid transit and wouldn't ride it anyway.

During those years, I spoke out in support of Expo at Metro's open houses and penned a tidy pile of letters urging public officials to give us a realistic alternative to our cars.

So one recent Saturday, with Music Center tickets in hand, I suggested to my husband that we ride the new 7.9-mile line downtown.

We drove to the La Cienega station, parked in the free Metro lot adjacent to the track and bought our tickets. But instead of a train every 12 minutes or so, as promised on MTA's schedule, we waited 25 minutes for the train, without explanation from the Metro staffers on the platform. When the train did arrive, 15 or so of us sat inside for another 20 minutes, again without a word from the driver.

"Signal problems," said a Metro employee my husband finally hailed as she passed by the train.

His query apparently prompted the driver to announce the obvious: The train was delayed and it wasn't clear how much longer we'd be there.

That was enough for us — and apparently the fellow who had ridden his bike to the train and hoped to spend the afternoon cycling downtown, and for several others. Concerned about missing our curtain, we got back in our car and crawled through the freeway traffic downtown, more sad than mad.

We just can't do mass transit in Los Angeles, David sighed.

A friend had a similarly dispiriting experience on Expo's opening weekend. He took the train to downtown for an evening concert, assuming the train would still be running after the show ended, as the printed schedule indicated. Instead, he learned — at 10:30 p.m. — from a Metro worker at the station that Expo ended service at 7 p.m. those first days. There were, my friend recalled, no signs at the stations or on the trains about the early closing. Two bus rides and two long walks later, he and his wife made it home in the wee hours. Others had similar experiences.

For every one of these stories there are, I know, many other people who are happily — and gratefully — using the new line.

And I'll ride it again, maybe even Wednesday, when trains will extend service to the heart of Culver City, at Robertson Boulevard. The opening of that station, the farthest western stop, and the one at Dorsey High School, had been delayed.

Expo now has a respectable 11,000 boardings a day, and with the new Culver City stop near movies, shopping and restaurants, the line should draw many more riders.

But Metro officials need to get this right or folks like my husband, already dubious about whether mass transit can be a viable alternative in Los Angeles, will give up on it. As it is, it will be four more years — at least — before the line extends to Santa Monica.

So here's my advice. Tell us when there's an operations problem, and as quickly as possible. Give plenty of notice and post signs when the schedule changes. Stick to the timetable. Of course, it takes awhile to iron out the kinks, but the longer those problems persist, the grumpier and more disappointed riders become. Simply, make it easy — easier than fighting traffic.

Members of the neighborhood groups that have tried for years to block this line — and still hope to derail it through an appeal pending before the state Supreme Court — may prefer to inch along Olympic or Pico boulevards solo during rush hour, or the 10 Freeway just about any time.

But many of us road warriors are tired, and we have a lot of hopes riding on these rails.

Molly Selvin teaches at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles.

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