Sunday, January 24, 2016

Closing the Green Line Gap

Getting from the eastern end of the Green Line in Norwalk to the Norwalk / Santa Fe Springs Metrolink station is a roughly 4.5 km (three-mile) odyssey with low-quality transit options today.  Image: Google Maps.
The Los Angeles Times recently covered the discussion about closing the nearly 4.5 kilometer gap between the Green Line light rail's Norwalk station and the Norwalk / Santa Fe Springs Metrolink commuter rail station.  After I read this story I checked out the Norwalk / Santa Fe Spings Metrolink station and the Metrolink Orange County (OC) Line for the first time.  The OC line actually takes you as far south as Oceanside in northern San Diego County, hitting up major OC Centers allong the way, including Downtown Fullerton, Angel Stadium, Old Town Orange, Downtown Santa Ana and more.  All of these places are worth checking out if you're into walkable neighborhoods.  You can ride Metrolink all day for $10 on the weekend, which is quite a deal considering how far it can take you.  Norwalk to Oceanside is over 100 km.  The service frequency isn't great on the weekend (one train every couple of hours on Saturday, worse on Sunday) but it works pretty well for a day trip.
Oceanside is an aptly named and picturesque place with a pier and a walkable town center steps from the Metrolink station.  This shot faces east from the pier.
It would be great if the Green Line connected to the Norwalk Metrolink Station.  That way, people on Metrolink trains heading towards Downtown LA wouldn't have to go all the way Downtown in order to connect to places like Long Beach or LAX and straphangers in the southern and western parts of LA County would have better access to the OC and Inland Empire.  Of course you can connect between the Green Line and Norwalk Metrolink with the Norwalk #4 Bus, but the time between buses is 10-50 minutes on weekdays and once every 40 minutes on weekends.  With those service intervals, walking the 4.5 km would sometimes take the same amount of time as riding the bus!  Not ideal to say the least.

How would extending the Green Line work?  The eastern end starts below grade (street level) so it would probably have to tunnel northeast under some single-family homes to get out to Imperial Highway, at which point it could run at grade or on a new aerial structure.  Imperial Highway is pretty wide through here (six through lanes plus a center turn lane) so it could use a diet.  The problem is money.  Light rail ain't cheap, especially to the extent that it runs underground or on an elevated track.  Those grade separations make the train faster and disrupt traffic less, but cost more to build and maintain.  The surrounding area is pretty suburban (low density) as well, meaning the new segment probably wouldn't generate a lot of riders.  I would put a station at Norwalk Blvd. and Imperial Highway to serve the Norwalk Civic Center, which has some County Offices, a movie theater, a strip mall cluster and some multifamily housing nearby and then a second station to connect with Metrolink one kilometer farther east.  Another option would be to pay to improve the service frequency on the #4 bus.  If this bus ran at the same frequency as the Green Line, the gap would still be annoying, but more tolerable.  The short run cost would certainly be less than building light rail, which would cost at least several hundred million dollars.  Another option would be to put Imperial Highway on a diet: go from six through lanes to four and add protected bike lanes and wider sidewalks.  Cars would drive slower (safer), the road would put off less noise, and bikes would be able to put the road to use with less fear of death.

The tougher question is whether a Green Line extension is worth it compared to what else the money could buy.  Maybe another transit line is more needed, maybe the funds should be put to some other public purpose, or maybe taxes should be lowered.  That's the debate, and it's a debate worth having as LA County considers another transit sales tax measure this November.

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