Can the Expo Line fulfill the promise of mass transit in L.A.?

By Gary Walker

An Expo Line train pulls into the new Downtown Santa Monica Station during a test run last week. Photo by Ted Soqui.

An Expo Line train pulls into the new
Downtown Santa Monica Station during a test run last week. Photo by Ted Soqui.

Forty-seven minutes.

That’s how long it will take — even at rush hour — to travel by train from Downtown Santa Monica to Downtown Los Angeles come Friday afternoon, when the western extension of the Expo Line opens to riders.

A $1.5-billion attempt to turn the tide on Los Angeles’ automobile obsession, the 6.6 miles of new track and seven new stations west of Culver City bring light rail service back to Santa Monica for the first time since the fabled Red Car trolley system disappeared in the 1950s.

But it isn’t just about Santa Monica. Expo is intended to serve Westside neighborhoods south of the 10 Freeway, too.

Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus system recently reconfigured routes to take passengers to and from Expo Line stations from Westchester, Playa Vista, Venice, Mar Vista and Marina del Rey.

Big Blue Bus Line 1, for example, takes riders who board at Via Marina and Admiralty Way to the Downtown Santa Monica Station on Fourth Street in 20 to 30 minutes. From Main and Market streets in Venice the trip can take as little as 10 to 15 minutes.

Line 3 takes riders from Manchester Avenue and Sepulveda Boulevard in Westchester to the Downtown Santa Monica Station in about 35 minutes, or about 13 minutes from Lincoln and Washington boulevards.

Line 14 travels from Bluff Creek and Campus Center Drive in Playa Vista to the Expo/Bundy Station in about 20 minutes via Centinela Avenue; Line 17 makes the trip from Marina Marketplace to the 26th Street / Bergamot Station within 25 to 30 minutes, stopping at Venice High School along the way.

“Big Blue Bus’s involvement with bus routes was a major reconstruction effort. Every single bus line gets to the train. That’s a real baseline,” said Santa Monica Strategic Planning Manager Francie Stefan.

“Now people who want to takes trips to Santa Monica and other communities can take the train without worrying about traffic jams. We’ve unlocked the dream of not having to sit in traffic,”
she said.

Metro projects the Expo Line’s western extension will serve an average of 18,000 to 20,000 riders each day in its first year of operation and as many as 64,000 daily riders by 2030.

To bring Expo to the beach, Metro tapped proceeds from the Measure R half-cent county sales tax increase (approved by voters in 2008) for a large portion of the $1.5 billion in construction costs.

Not so long ago, ridership estimates and tax dollar investments like those were almost unimaginable.

“It’s a little hard to believe that it’s happening,” said Mar Vista resident Ken Alpern, a longtime light-rail advocate for whom Expo’s completion culminates years of cajoling and at times even shaming elected officials into backing light rail on the Westside.

“It’s been like the adventure of a lifetime,” said Alpern, who considers himself among a “second wave” of activists who buttressed the work of early Westside mass transit supporters such as Move LA Executive Director and former Santa Monica Mayor Denny Zane. “I’m proud to have been a part of it.”

Darrell Clarke, a former Santa Monica planning commissioner, has been in the fight for 27 years.

“You can imagine it, you can think about it, but seeing it will be a real thrill,” said Clarke, co-chair of the advocacy group Friends 4 Expo.

Santa Monica Mayor Tony Vasquez recently took an Expo test ride from Culver City to Downtown Santa Monica.

“I think it’s going to be a huge game-changer for us. We’ve been called a model mobility city, and this opening pretty much makes it a clincher,” said Vasquez, a native of Santa Monica.

Stefan has helped Santa Monica pave the way for Expo — and a more sustainable city overall — with more pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, the city’s Breeze bike share program, an expanded network of bicycle lanes and redesigned intersections to facilitate quicker light rail crossings.

“We’re getting to a critical mass on transportation,” she said.

A new bike path parallels the Expo right-of-way from Culver City into Santa Monica, where it connects to Breeze rental stations. As part of Expo’s inaugural festivities, riding the train will be free on Friday and all day Saturday, and Breeze is doubling down by offering free ride time on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

“We’ve done a really good job of rerouting our Big Blue Bus system, we’ll have shuttle buses going to our downtown area, we have hundreds of Breeze bike stations throughout the city, and we recently authorized signing a contract with Zip Car so now we’ll have about 35 cars to rent if you come out on the train,” Vasquez said.

Some concerns about Expo remain, however, and cars are a big part of that — namely where to park them.

Alpern, co-chair of the light rail advocacy group the Transit Coalition, is among those worried that a shortage of public parking spaces at the new Expo stations will discourage riders who aren’t willing to bus or bike to the train.

Despite Metro’s five-figure daily ridership projection, the seven new stops west of Culver City have only 544 public parking spaces — combined.

The Expo/Sepulveda Station (just east of the 405) has 260 spaces, 77 of which are reserved for monthly permits, and the Expo/Bundy Station has 217 spaces, 131 of them for monthly users.

The 17th Street/Santa Monica College Station is the only Expo stop in Santa Monica with dedicated public parking — and with just 67 spaces at that, 13 of them set aside for monthly users.

Why isn’t there more parking?

“Most of the land along the Expo tracks is already developed. Acquiring property and building and maintaining parking would have cost millions more dollars on top of an already expensive project,” Steve Hymon, editor of the Metro-funded blog The Source, wrote in a Monday post.

Though parking decisions are ultimately Metro’s to make, Alpern blames Santa Monica officials for encouraging an “anti-car mentality” at the expense of mass transit accessibility.

“They have this theological, dogmatic belief that is not grounded in reality. And because of this anti-car mentality, they very well could slow down the Expo Line,” Alpern said.

Rep. Ted Lieu, whose congressional district includes Santa Monica, Venice and Marina del Rey, voiced concern on his personal Twitter handle last week.

“Bad idea to cut costs and not provide sufficient parking for Expo Line,” Lieu tweeted on May 14.

The Bus Riders Union, an advocacy group that has long criticized the shift in mass transit spending from buses to light rail, isn’t changing its tune now the light rail extends to the sea.

Organization co-chair Barbara Lott-Holland sees investment in rail as catering to the needs of wealthier riders at the expense of lower-income transit users.

“Trains are created for ‘choice’ riders, who can take the train to where they need to go, or for people who live near or along the line where the train runs. But many people are dependent on buses where trains don’t run,” Lott-Holland said. “We’re struggling to restore a million hours of bus services that has been cut over several years. … When you cut a million hours of bus service, you don’t have enough trains to compensate for that.”

Of the $40 billion that Measure R is expected to generate over 30 years, 35% is set aside for new light rail and rapid bus service, 20% is dedicated to bus line improvements and 5% is earmarked for operation of new rail lines.

Westchester resident Matthew Hetz, a frequent public transportation user, believes Metro should operate buses later into the evening, but he’s also a big fan of the Expo Line extension.

Hetz, who teaches music appreciation, plans to use the Big Blue Bus and Expo to get to work and believes many others will do the same.

“I think that [Expo] will be a highly used line. I hear people talking about it all the time,” he said. “The proof in the pudding will be getting people to get on the train and try it out.”

LAX Coastal Chamber President Christina Davis said it’s the connectivity of bus and rail that matters for Marina del Rey, Playa Vista and Westchester.

“We’re very excited that there is a bus that can provide our residents with different transportation options, including riding the Expo Line,” she said.

Stefan can hardly wait for those first occupied train cars to roll down the line.

“The amount of public interest in the Expo Line is astounding. I feel like we’re scratching an itch for the Westside,” she said.