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The Problem With the Metro Blue/Expo Light Rail Is… Cars

Can you spot the Expo Line train waiting behind all those cars downtown? Capture from Streetsfilms

Streetfilms and TransitCenter were in Los Angeles a couple weeks ago riding Metro's rail lines, and interviewing livability experts on what's working here and what isn't. Below is the first short documentary to come from that visit.

The Streetfilm features some of Streetsblog's favorite L.A. transportation experts: Curbed's Alissa Walker, and UCLA's Juan Matute and Michael Manville.

The experts shed light on a big problem with Metro light rail lines. As Walker puts it, "the problem with mass transit in Los Angeles is cars."

Both the Blue and Expo Lines move at fairly high speeds where they are on their own dedicated rail rights-of-way, but, as they get into downtown Los Angeles, they run at-grade on streets. There they compete with lots of car traffic, and their speeds decrease a great deal. Specifically, as Manville states:

You get into that [downtown] area, and suddenly there's a dispute over who's going to have priority. I think, in a real way, in that fight, the transit line lost. Because the Blue Line and the Expo Line, not only do they have to circumnavigate with each other, but now you're in a congested urban environment and the cars, in a real way, do have priority.

This has been very clear on the Blue and Expo lines, but it also applies to the Orange Line and parts of the Gold Line - and probably the planned Van Nuys Blvd line.

Metro board and staff are aware of the issue. In early 2017, the board passed a motion directing staff to improve Expo/Blue speed and reliability, especially along the at-grade portion downtown. The motion directs Metro staff to evaluate and implement short-term improvements "including but not limited to signal optimization, signal priority, signal preemption, and consideration of street closures" as well as studying long-term improvements such as grade separation.

Thanks to the board's push and Metro staff's hard work, some short-term improvements have been implemented. A new gate-arm was installed to keep scofflaw drivers from repeatedly crashing into trains when illegally turning left from Flower Street onto the 10 Freeway on-ramp. Internally, Metro improved reliability by improving operational procedures at 7th Street, adding new rail cars, and cross-training Blue/Expo operators.

But why not give a train, carrying hundreds of people, priority over a car, which typically carries one person?

Part of Metro's answer is that streets and signal prioritization are not entirely in its control. Metro runs the trains, and must negotiate with local cities for how streets will operate.

Prior to the arrival of its current General Manager Seleta Reynolds, the city of L.A. Transportation Department (LADOT) was more-or-less hostile to transit operations that would impact car through-put. Under Reynolds, LADOT is more open to supporting transit operations, but getting Metro and DOT to work together to improve transit is not easy.

In 2014, there appeared to be a political and staff consensus that it was time to speed up the Orange Line BRT even if it meant very minor delays to drivers. Despite a push by City Councilmember and Metro Boardmember Paul Krekorian, those Orange Line improvements never materialized. (Perhaps they will be rolled into Metro's planned Orange Line gates and bridge project, anticipated circa 2025.)

In 2019, as part of the "New Blue" Blue Line rehabilitation project, basically each half of the Blue Line will be shut down for six months so that the line can be brought into a state of good repair and some capital improvements can be completed. The major capital project will be the Willowbrook/Rosa Parks station overhaul. There are also a couple of improvements that will help with Blue/Expo reliability downtown: 7th Street station crossover tracks and an upgrade to the Washington/Flower wye junction.

Why not implement more improvements downtown? At least as of February, Metro staff stated that they will be working with LADOT to finalize projects under consideration for the Blue Line’s at-grade stretches in downtown L.A.

If you ride the Blue and Expo Lines, then now is the time to make some noise and let your city council, your mayor, and your Metro board representatives know that the train should have priority. The New Blue shutdown presents an opportune time to implement improvements.

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