By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Photo by Kathleen Clark
Six p.m. on the northbound Pasadena Freeway and nothing is moving but time. Red taillights as far as you can see, with hundreds more feeding into the narrowing traffic stream near the four-level. This is high-tech travel at three miles per hour.
This is also a prolonged, interactive commercial for the construction of the Pasadena Blue Line. The old Arroyo Parkway, constrained as it is by its geography, has no room for additional auto or bus lanes. The Arroyo conveys vehicles the way it used to channel floods. But channeled water moves deadly fast. Channeled traffic doesn’t seem to move at all.
Yes indeed, after a half-hour of snarl, your imagination lusts to see rows of bright train windows swooshing across the overpasses, carrying Pasadena’s day shift south toward Pico-Union and downtown’s white-shoed lawyers back to the groves of the Crown City, stopping along the way to discharge passengers at Chinatown and Highland Park. In late-evening traffic, even $687 million doesn’t seem too much to spend for a cure.
Now, this column stands behind the Pasadena Blue Line as a key element in the regional-transit future. The Bus Riders’ Union surely has better things to do than to oppose the single transit project that will do more to help poor people get to work quickly and cheaply than any other proposal.
Actually, it’s Councilman Mike Hernandez who deserves the credit for, as it were, proletarianizing the project. He’s secured promises of more stations in L.A.’s Eastside. He also gets credit for slimming the project down from its near-billion-dollar original cost.
And yet, by the cold light of day, the nearly $700 million cost of the project still seems awfully high for a 13.5-mile light-trolley line that already has right of way. According to the Blue Line’s own figures, this comes to $25 million per mile — 50 percent more than the average light-rail line per-mile cost of $16 million. If you do your own long division rather than rely on the MTA, dividing $687 million by 13.7 miles, the way most per-mile rail costs are figured, you get $50 million per mile.
Light rail is supposed to be cheap. This isn’t. Particularly when you consider that it is supposed to run on extant rail trackage recently used by the big trains of the Santa Fe railroad.
But those Santa Fe rails are now mysteriously gone, so that one of the added costs of the Pasadena line is the laying of new track, two entire lines of it. It turns out that someone picked up and moved the old track six years ago, even as the fledgling MTA was spending tens of millions to retrofit the same line’s bridges and overpasses.
Why tear up the track of the railroad you are otherwise renovating? The thinking behind this move was either greatly confused or overvisionary; it’s now hard to say which. According to MTA spokesman Marc Litman, the pertinent decision-making dates to those freewheeling days before the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission merged with the Rapid Transit District to create the MTA. Thus, accountability is hard to come by. No wonder. But here’s what I infer did happen.
Apparently, around 1990, there was a proposal simply to convert the Santa Fe route to a Metrolink commuter line, running diesel passenger trains. Reasonable and dubious reasons prevailed against this solution. First, it was felt that, considering the high operating costs of the big locomotives, this line could economically make at most two stops on its way downtown. Compared with the 10 stops that at minimum were possible with light rail, this would limit the big train’s usefulness as a bus alternative.
But I suspect that a stronger reason was that Metrolink was too simple a solution for the spendthrift transit agencies of a decade ago, firm in their faith that federal, state and county transit dollars would always be as infinite as the stars in a galactic cluster. They therefore planned to replace the old single track with a superdeluxe light rail — with costly, completely new double tracking, laid on fresh concrete-tie roadbed. Frugality figured so faintly in this plan that someone even gave away nearly $4 million worth of the old Santa Fe rails to the Metrolink system, where they became the line’s 1994 Antelope Valley extension.
In the case of the Red Line, such spendthrift thinking wound up costing taxpayers hundreds of millions a mile. The Pasadena line is much cheaper than that, but, according to the Metro Blue Line’s own March 12 financing plan — which compares projects in Sacramento; Portland, Oregon; Pittsburgh; Baltimore; and New Jersey — it is still slated to be the most expensive per-mile light-rail project in America.
By comparison, it’s just over a year since San Diego’s Regional Transit Corp. (SDTC) built a 6.1-mile double-tracked light-rail extension. The cost was about $22 million a mile, including railcars and signals: the lot. Okay, that’s not too far off the Blue Line’s own low estimate. But wait. Most of the Pasadena line’s route — the roadbed, viaducts, overpasses and several stations — has been there for nearly a century. San Diego had to build a brand-new, high-cost elevated line, with 10 overpasses, compared to the two new ones planned on the Pasadena route. It had to designate and set aside a 25-plus-acre wetlands nature preserve. If the Blue Line were built by the SDTC — completely from scratch — its total cost would probably be $300 million, less than half of what the MTA has projected.
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