As the most car-dependent city in America, Los Angeles has long vexed millions of drivers with nightmarish traffic jams. But thanks to a massive influx of funds collected since Measure R, a half-percent sales tax increase approved by voters in 2008, the county’s Metro Rail system is taking major strides to effect change that is partially paying off Saturday with the opening of the Gold Line Foothill Extension from Pasadena to Azusa.
The six-stop, five-city extension took more than five years to build at a total cost of $735 million, starting in 2010 following a seven-year design process. That lengthy process followed the 2003 opening of the initial Gold Line route between downtown’s Union Station and the Sierra Madre Villa stop in east Pasadena, a 13.7-mile project that cost $859 million to create.
The results have been impressive, with 46,000 commuters using the Gold Line each day. The new extension is expected to add 13,000 daily riders to the mix by 2035, with the next phase to Montclair expected to add an additional 18,000 people and the final phase to Ontario Airport projected to add another 20,000 daily riders beyond that.
For Phillip Washington, CEO of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), the extension’s opening and its on-time and under-budget status brings a successful close to a year filled with ambitious projects. The extension will provide links to five more cities in the San Gabriel Valley through stops at Arcadia, Monrovia, Duarte/City of Hope, Irwindale and two locations in Azusa.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s invigorating and it’s fun,” says Washington, who came to Metro last March from Denver, where he was assistant general manager of that city’s transit system for nearly 10 years before being named its CEO in 2009. “I think people will acclimate, because people want an easy commute and appreciate mobility options. And it’s affordable, because now you can go from Azusa to Long Beach for just $1.75. Once they understand how to ride, people will do it whether for special events, or two or three days each week.”
Washington’s hopeful attitude about the extension was on full display on the morning of Feb. 17, when Metro hosted a combination of press corps members and county dignitaries for an official promotional ride from Pasadena’s Sierra Madre Villa Station to the end of the extension in Azusa. Pasadena City Council member Gene Masuda and LA County Supervisors Michael Antonovich and Don Knabe were aboard and all three expressed hopes that the extension, along with other extensive new Metro transit routes, would foster a seismic shift in the county’s commuter culture.
“Metro is getting people out of cars and giving them an option on transportation,” says Masuda. “We’re projecting an extra 13,000 riders daily from Azusa to Pasadena. That’s a good impact, and it’s just a beginning. To have another way of going to Los Angeles is great in addition to people coming east to Azusa and bringing their spending money this way. The goal is to eventually link all the way to Ontario Airport.”
Antonovich, a Republican who terms out of office after more than 35 years on the board, is currently running for the state Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Carol Liu. As a member of the Metro board of directors in his capacity as a supervisor, he touted the fact that the NoHo-Pasadena Express will also start on Saturday.
The new bus line will run every 15 minutes during weekday peak hours and every 30 minutes off-peak and on weekends between the Del Mar and Memorial Park Gold Line stations in Pasadena, and the North Hollywood Orange and Red Line Station. The bus will make the full run in an astounding 33 minutes, easily halving the time formerly needed to make the trip via the Gold Line, transferring into the Red Line.
From North Hollywood, commuters can connect to the Orange Line rapid bus line all the way to Woodland Hills. A fiscal conservative, Knabe believes that Metro and its partner on the Gold Line — the Foothill Gold Line Construction Authority — have done a good job of coming in on time and under budget.
“Taxpayers have approved increases three times in LA County for transportation projects because they’ve seen results,” says Knabe. “This all is multimodal, looking out for cars, trains, toll roads, the whole package of ideas. The next phase will bring people all the way to Claremont and then off to Ontario after that, having a tremendous impact on LAX congestion. It’s little by little, but 20 to 30 years out the change will be dramatic.”
Nearly as surprising as Knabe’s endorsement of the expansion projects is the fact that the Bus Riders Union (BRU) has not expressed any opposition to the Gold Line extension. The activist group, which seeks to ensure that Los Angeles County’s estimated 400,000 daily bus riders have their rights and routes protected, has long had a contentious history with local mass transit authorities.
The BRU won a major legal battle against Metro in 1996, resulting in a consent decree that forced the agency to improve pick-up and delivery times, decrease overcrowding and purchase a fleet of hundreds of new buses to replace aging models. The buses, BRU members successfully argued, were allowed by Metro to deteriorate at the expense of funding construction of the Gold Line.
Yet, the BRU declined comment on the current extension, a sign that Metro is keeping its commitment to bus riders — who make up 75 percent of all public transit ridership in the LA area — and quelling any reason to complain.
“We realize that we can’t just concentrate on bus and rail, but also on infrastructure proposals of roads and highways,” says Antonovich, whose district includes Pasadena and unincorporated Altadena. “We really need to connect the system. That’s what we’re doing today. We’re moving the county.”
Knabe notes that perhaps the most important figure in the Gold Line’s success is Habib Balian, the CEO of the Foothill Gold Line Construction Authority. His 11-year tenure with the agency has provided him with in-depth insights into every aspect of the massive project, which the authority manages for Metro.
“This is exciting because there are lots of opportunities out there to bring great cities and great places to visit and their people together,” says Balian, a lifelong Pasadena resident who grew up fascinated by large public works projects. “We work with each city and decide where their general plans are going and their development is occurring. For every dollar invested in transit, $4 is returned to the economy by development and nearby businesses gaining.”
Following are some facts about Saturday’s opening festivities:
* Rides will be free from noon until midnight on Saturday on the entire Gold Line.
* Trains will begin running on the new 11.5-mile Gold Line extension at noon on Saturday.
Parking is first-come, first-served at all the new Gold Line stations.
* Gold Line trains are not running between Union Station and Pico/Aliso due to regional
connector construction. There is a bus shuttle running between both Pico/Aliso and Union Station and Little Tokyo/Arts District Station and Union Station. The Gold Line is running between Pico/Aliso and Atlantic stations.
* There are parties Saturday at five of the six new stations from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Duarte/City of Hope Station at 1777 E. Duarte Road, Duarte, will host an opening ceremony at 10 a.m.
The other stations are located at:
* Arcadia Station, 201 N. First Ave., Arcadia
* Monrovia Station, 1651 S. Primrose Ave., Monrovia
* Azusa Downtown Station, 780 N. Alameda Ave., Azusa
* Irwindale Station, 16017 Avenida Padilla, Irwindale n
For more information, visit metro.net.