Lack of a smooth-running transit hub is the nexus of L.A.’s alternative transportation shortcomings

By Charles Rappleye

It can be done: a Pacific Electric car on its way to Venice in the 1940s

It can be done: a Pacific Electric car on its way to Venice in the 1940s

If you want to understand the conundrum of falling ridership despite billions invested in new transit service, you need only visit the downtown headquarters of the LA Metro system. There under the looming shadow of the marble-clad, faux-deco Nicholas Patsaouras Gateway Intermodal Transit Center lies a snarl of confusion, congestion and disconnection that only a traffic engineer could love.

Better yet, arrive at night, on the Flyaway bus from LAX. You’ll pull into the bus plaza, a circular drive where buses travel clockwise on an inside lane — like they do in England? — while passenger cars travel counterclockwise, also in a single lane, to arrive at a 50-foot stretch that allows only drop-off and pickup, as at the airport.

The plaza is an intriguing space, with an interior ramp to a lower-level entrance to the train station, a wealth of tile and intricate stonework, and benches that make you feel like settling in on a lazy afternoon. Except you’re not there to while away the hours. You’re trying to get somewhere! And with the intense crowding, the heavy buses navigating a single narrow lane, and passenger cars seeking a safe and legal place to park, you’d be excused for fleeing in panic.

Of course, you might not have someone waiting for you. In which case you can take a cab — after, first, learning that taxis are not allowed in or near the bus plaza, and then getting directions to the sole taxi stand, located as far as physically possible from the buses, a quarter-mile trek through the train tunnels, across the grand but oddly underutilized Union Station, out to the street, and over to the left. There you will find a line of forlorn taxicabs patiently awaiting fares from any passengers intrepid enough to get there. Not many, it turns out.

Then there’s the Flyaway itself, one of the few useful innovations on the L.A. transit scene. It was a much-needed step, as there is no convenient transit option for getting to the airport, despite years of agitation for a direct rail link. Not surprisingly, the initiative came not from Metro but from the airport, which has been running buses from the Valley to LAX since 1975. When service to Union Station began in 2006, it was bargain-priced, at $3 a trip. Since then, unfortunately, management of the service appears to have been handed off to the folks who run Dodger Stadium; the price started to climb, incrementally at first, but then rising about a dollar a year. It now costs $9 to travel one-way. With a cab fare at the Union Station end, and the hike from bus to taxi, a couple may do better calling Uber.

The easiest connection from the Flyaway is to the Red Line subway, which terminates at a station just an escalator-ride away from the bus snarl — er, plaza. But there you run into the larger dysfunction of the Metro rail system.
You might take a train to Hollywood, or Los Feliz, or out to the Valley, but from there you’re on your own. Bus connections from the rail stations are always iffy, due in part to the fact that neighborhood bus service is run by the city Department of Transportation, which shows little interest in linking up with Metro-operated rail.

Or you could take the Red Line to either the Blue Line light rail or the new Expo Line, but that would require another transfer at yet another station. On that score there is help on the way — a billion-dollar project, 15 years in the planning and now just under way, to reconfigure several downtown rail stations with the common-sense objective of having all the principal rail lines converging at Union Station.

Why, one might reasonably ask, did not the planners at Metro design these lines to converge on a single downtown center in the first place? Don’t ask. The answer is simply too infuriating — though not just the fault of the MTA. The popular Blue Line from Long Beach was initially conceived to run straight through to Pasadena, but that scheme had to be abandoned in 1998, when L.A. voters, disgusted with cost overruns, passed Measure R, which barred spending on “new rail.” It took 15 years for MTA planners to figure out a way around those funding limits; now much of the expense of the new connector will involve breaking down and rebuilding several downtown stations, one built only five years ago. That connector will ease transit through the city center, but so long as the Pasadena line operates at the speed of a Disney jitney — an ill-conceived Metro concession to safety fears — functional urban commuter rail for the Arroyo Seco corridor will remain a pipe dream.

And there’s more help on the way — but with the same people in charge, the same results are to be expected. The new fix is for the Silver Line express bus that plys the 110 Elevated Freeway into downtown. For some reason that bus never makes it into the bus plaza — it’s probably just too congested in there — and instead stops outside Union Station in what has always appeared a temporary drop-off. Now, thanks to a windfall in federal funding, the MTA is planning
a new, dedicated platform just west of the Patsaouras Plaza. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the new bus platform is already three years behind schedule, and well over budget. Worse, the new configuration will still leave travelers a long walk from any rail or bus connections — the same hike other transit users currently face.

Why is it that L.A. transit planners cannot seem to fuse the snarl of rail, bus and train commuters that converges daily downtown into a smooth-functioning transit hub? Hard to say, but I have to figure the secret lies somewhere in that ornate, $300-million headquarters building the MTA built for itself on the backside of Union Station. Late at night the lights of the building burn bright, illuminating empty offices that soar 400 feet above the freeway below. Those offices hum during the day; one can only hope that sometime soon one of those transit experts will pause from studying their ledgers and spreadsheets long enough to simply look out the window. Perhaps they’ll notice all the frustration and confusion unfolding on the streets below; perhaps they’ll recognize that it’s their job to do something about it.

Charles Rappleye won the 2007 George Washington Book Prize for “Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution.”