Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What about upgrading the Orange Line to Light Rail?

Let me preface this blog post by stating I think bus service is wonderful, and I support a county-wide network of transit only lanes and busways.

However, I do not subscribe to the belief that a seat on the bus is as "good" as a seat on a train, nor do I agree with the choice of Metro to brand busways with official colors like the "Orange Line" and the "Silver Line".

The San Fernando Valley seems to be left out of mass transit planning in Southern California. Meanwhile the entire San Gabriel Valley political structure is united and is eagerly anticipating two or more Gold Line extensions eventually on the northern prong to Montclair and even Ontario Airport and on the southern prong to possibly Whittier and/or Duarte. The reason for this is obvious. With our oversized, too populous, too few legislative districts at the national, state, county and municipal level, many of the politicos who represent the southern San Fernando Valley also represent and have their power bases in the Westside. All of their attention is going toward extending the Purple Line to the Westside, which of course is the most needed and highest profile transit project in planning.

Just how did this former rail corridor end up as a busway anyway?

From Wikipedia:

The majority of the Orange Line is built on part of the former Southern Pacific Railroad Burbank Branch right-of-way. This had passenger service from 1904 to 1920, with stations at several locations including North Hollywood and Van Nuys. It had Pacific Electric Red Car service fromNorth Hollywood to Van Nuys again from 1938 to 1952.

The right of way was purchased by the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (now Metropolitan Transportation Authority) in 1991 along with several other rail road right of ways across the Southland for future use in transportation projects.

The California Legislature passed a law in 1991 introduced by Alan Robbins which prohibited the use of the corridor for any form of rail transit other than a "deep bore subway located at least 25 feet below ground". Later Los Angeles County passed Proposition A in 1998, promoted by supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, which prohibited Metro from using its county sales tax funding to build subways anywhere in the county.

With subway and light rail now off the table the only option left to develop the transit corridor was to build a busway.

The "Orange Line" busway is already at capacity and shows the limits of BRT. The San Fernando Valley deserves an east-west rail project that connects Warner Center with the Red Line (and could potentially be extended east through Burbank and Glendale to meet up with the Gold Line in Pasadena). Since the San Fernando Valley politicos are focused elsewhere, it is up to you and me to remind them that simply extending a busway north doesn't cut it. Perhaps some of you could lobby to get VICA (Valley Industry and Commerce Association) behind an east-west line and a north-south line for the San Fernando Valley. If the San Gabriel Valley is getting two light rail lines, the San Fernando Valley deserves no less.

In Measure R which was approved by voters in 2008, there is a project study for a north-south transit project connecting the Orange Line with Wilshire/Westwood through the Sepulveda Pass. If this were a rail project, many local transit advocates see it logically being extended south down to LAX and north up to Sylmar Metrolink. That would take care of a needed north-south rail line for the San Fernando Valley.

What about east-west rail travel? The most obvious solution is to upgrade the existing Orange Line to light rail.

I asked the incomparable Kymberleigh Richards (, member of Metro's San Fernando Valley Governance Council, her thoughts on the issue and the possible challenges and here is what she had to say:

Here are the problems that would be faced:

1. You would need to retrofit the busway without seriously disrupting existing service, otherwise what's the point? You wouldn't want to inconvenience the existing passengers by forcing them to a slower alternative during construction. The most likely way to proceed would be to close one segment at a time, one lane at a time, then cut grooves into the pavement down to the roadbed and install the rails so that they were flush with the pavement (like a grade crossing, only along the entire alignment) then reopen the lane to bus traffic. Service would continue to run with only a minor delay by using the remaining open lane to run both directions, with flagmen. Grade crossings would require a bit more logistics, especially the major arterials like Van NuysBlvd.

2. You would have to use a low floor light rail vehicle in order to avoid having to retrofit the existing station platforms. This means the existing light rail cars would not be compatible with the Orange Line. So there would be a third fleet of LRVs at Metro; heavy rail subway (Red/Purple), high floor/high platform light rail (Blue/Green/Gold/Expo/Crenshaw) and low floor/low platform light rail (Orange). So forget any Orange Line extensions that would interline with something else.

3. Because of the constraints of construction, the technology will have to be something other than overhead catenary for power. Installing that would require full busway closure for longer periods of time, which puts us back to inconveniencing passengers during construction. Third rail power, like the Red/Purple Line, is also out of the question because of the open-air operation (you can't have passengers in danger of making contact with the electric source). A DMU, like the San Diego system, is going to be far too expensive for this and brings constraints of its own to the process. So either you need a protectedthird rail (very costly; they are experimenting with this in some of the Middle Eastern countries, where cost is no object) or a self-contained, rechargeable on-board power source. Perhaps some type of storage battery that could plug in at the layovers?

4. The street running segment between Canoga Station and Warner Center would have to be negotiated with traffic engineers at LADOT. I doubt they'd give up traffic lanes for the light rail, and I don't savor the idea of running light rail in mixed-flow traffic.

And of course, you'd have to do an entire new scoping/AA/EIR/EIS and figure out where the funding is coming from. Just that last part (the $$$) pretty much means all the Measure R projects would have to be underway and near completion before you could start programming funds for an Orange Line upgrade.

No one has ever done a busway-to-light rail conversion. We'd be breaking new ground, which is why there's no hard research available on the subject.

Hmm. Sounds problematic, doesn't it? However, why couldn't this be the first corridor to attempt a busway to light-rail conversion? I'm game.

In any event, the Robbins bill would have to be repealed for any light rail project, so start lobbying your state legislators if you want to see ANY rail service in this area, for a subway ain't coming to this corridor this century.

What about alternatives? Metrolink commuter rail is in the northern San Fernando Valley, but many people travelling to the San Fernando Valley are travelling to/from a destination on or near Ventura Blvd. in the southern part of the Valley.

1) San Fernando Valley transit advocates could lobby for a subway under Ventura Blvd. connecting Warner Center with the Universal City station. Yes, sounds great. Only there are easily 50 years of subway projects ahead in line, assuming those actually get full funding and constructed.

2) San Fernando Valley transit advocates could lobby for a transit-only lane on Ventura Blvd. that ran buses and modern streetcars. This would require taking away street parking on Ventura Blvd. and possibly losing a lane of traffic each way. I have no problem with this as I don't believe we can or should socially engineer our cities in favor of single-occupancy motorists anymore, but I suspect not a few single-occupancy motorists would object. However, a streetcar is much less expensive than a subway and could be up and running within a few years, while it will be decades before we would see a subway on Ventura Blvd. Here's a fun map I created for a Ventura Blvd. streetcar project to spur your imagination:

One challenge of doing some project on Ventura Blvd. means you need to find another way to connect Burbank and Glendale into Metrorail.

Your thoughts?


Tobias087 said...

An East/West line could perhaps be looked at further north as well. A line near Nordhoff could catch riders at the Van Nuys LRT (which would head off to LAX =) CSUN, the Northridge Mall, and maybe even hook to the Chatsworth Metrolink station, or at least to the Orange Line extension.

Also, if the Orange line were to be converted to rail, it seems to me that the logical thing to do would be to ditch Warner Center and just continue along the ROW to Chatsworth. You could run a shuttle between Canoga and Warner Center.

Joseph E said...

Seeing that the Orange Line uses buses, you can close the route in segments and run the buses on city streets until a rail segment is completed. If rail construction will take more than a year, the alignment could be divided in one-year segments a few miles long, with a transfer from bus to rail in the middle, during construction of the rest of the route.

Consider that the current Orange Line forces the majority of passengers to transfer to the Red Line to get to their destinations; one more transfer would be tolerable for a couple of years, if it were timed with the trains.

Eric Tooley said...

The valley did not want light rail so I think they are stuck forever with what they have and should just live with it. I recall that the valley even opposed the current Orange Line and sued to halt construction before it opened.

There is the Red line in the valley that could be expanded on, as well as a mysterious 405 line funded in measure R that would hook up to the Orange Line.

Your streetcar idea down Ventura Blvd. seems like the best way to go to me.

Tom Rubin said...

While Kymberleigh's comments re the difficulties of converting the Orange Line to Light Rail are on point, there is actually no reason to continue to run bus service on the alignment, as MTA itself has found that travel between North Hollywood and Warner Center would be faster with "Metro Rapid" type service, running on the streets (chiefly Victory and Lankershim).
This was actually in the addendum to the Revised Final EIR that the MTA Board adopted in December 2004 and I'd link you to it, but MTA took it off their web site a few months ago.

(For those of you wondering, "If it was faster to run the buses on the street, then why did MTA spend over $300 million [not counting the $150+ million for the land or the cost of the buses] to build the busway?," all I can say is, you are asking the right question. What was promised to the voters in the DEIS/DEIR was 28.8 minutes for what we now call the Orange line vs. 50 minutes for Metro Rapid, but the Orange line schedule has bounced between about 43 and 46 minutes, and MTA projected Metro Rapid in the mid-30's. The run times on the busway are, however, more consistent than street running, which is far more subject to delays.)

The other question that should be asked is, what would be gained from doing the conversion? Well, not much.

First, the Orange Line is NOT at capacity, it is simply that MTA has not elected to add more buses to carry more people. The line was designed to allow "platooning" of buses, with two operating close together -- which is why the station platforms are as long as they are.

Second, there would be very little speed advantage of light rail over bus with VERY extensive changes to the alignment. The reason for the long travel time now is NOT the vehicle, but the alignment, with all the at-grade crossings, signal coordination issues, and strange station and right-of-way alignments. Yes, this alignment could be designed for higher speed, but that would require a lot of arial structures, which would be well over $10 million each -- or going down, which would be even more expensive. The cost of the conversion to light rail, even if the buses were taken off, would likely be a lot closer to $1 billion than $500 million, and would pose a lot of new problems -- such as, exactly where should the operating and maintenance facility be placed?

The political reality is that MTA Board Members see their job as building as many miles of guideway transit -- mainly rail, of course, but busways in a pinch -- to as many corners of the County as possible. This emphasis on miles of track has two significant results for this question:
1. The speed and capacity of the system suffer because low cost means at-grade, and this significantly limits both.
2. The Valley has already gotten "its" transit guideways -- not only the Orange Line and the extension now going on, but also the Red Line and one-and-one-half Metrolink lines -- and it just ain't gonna get much more until other elected politico's get their first lines.

We can talk about all the technical stuff for years, but, if you really want to get to the important driving factor in this decision, just read the last paragraph on the political realities -- transportation decisions in American government have very little to do with transportation.

Tom Rubin

Anonymous said...

This was a VERY good article!! And I applaud the extensive analysis and responses by Kimberly Richards, as well as the detailed description of the article itself. ;-)

I agree with both of you.
Personally, I am all in full support of conversion of Busway to LRT. Yes, the initial cost would be tremendous, and the conversion itself would inconvenience the riders, as well as commuters and residents. BUT... we have to sacrifice something to get some good things done, don't we ;-)

Ironically, it's the Valley residents themselves who shut themselves in their own foot, so to speak - because they are the ones who openly refused from Light rail option (hello, NIMBY's!) - which was, to be blunt, an outright dumb decision! I can't imagine a person in his/her sane state of mind would want a busway over a light-rail... So, they got what they asked for.

But now the valley residents, I'm sure, are deeply regretting about their own NIMBY'ism since they realize: a busway is no more than a lousy busway; and a bus will always be a bus, even on a dedicated busway.

If we want to upgrade the Orange line to LRT, we would probably need to received a dedicated grant from the Feds - otherwise, I'm afraid, there's no way of affording it...

So, let's see what happens next. Let's try to promote this conversion, and bring up at public comments (and write letters to Metro).

Oh, and by the way -
I also fully agree with you about subway under Ventura Blvd ; in fact, I've written to Metro (and commented in public) about the necessity of building a subway line under Ventura Blvd; the corridor is definitely dense enough, and congested enough, to qualify for a subway study.

Alek F.

Carter Rubin said...

A Streetcar is a nice amenity, but it wouldn't do very much to improve mobility for people who want to get east/west across the whole SFV.

If you want to fund it though. You could rezone the entirety of Venture Blvd. mixed use, and let developers chip into a Streetcar fund when the redevelop a property.

Joe said...

I seem to recall that SFV residents were asked (15 years ago or so) whether they wanted a bus or light rail, and they were overwhelmingly against the rail.

I don't understand your assertion that the orange line busway is at capacity. Last I checked, there was PLENTY of room to run additional buses.

And while a seat on the bus is not as good as a seat on the train, as a rider I am much more concerned with transit time. If money is to be invested, I would far rather see it go to adding grade-separated intersections to boost speed.

J said...

@ Eric Tooley:

Let's be perfectly clear about this. Most Valley residents wanted this to be light rail. It was only a very small and vocal minority in Valley Village that opposed the project. And they they certainly didn't favor BRT over LRT. They opposed LRT, because they figured that would lead to nothing getting built.

Talk to anyone in the Valley today; most are very angry that we got screwed again. NOBODY wanted BRT but once Zev got a "clever" idea in his head, there was no turning back.

The Valley always gets screwed. We do need to start making calls. Others parts of the county do not deserve to get rail until the Orange Line has been fixed. We have been in line longer than they have.

Manuel A. said...

I am all for converting it to rail. But as Tom Rubin said, I don’t think a light rail train would make a great difference in the time it takes to get from end to end. To reduce the time it takes to complete the route Metro should have better bus drivers. I notice that a bus travels at the speed of the driver’s spirit. If he is an older person, it may take longer. If the driver is feeling tired, it is slower. If he is upbeat, he/she may drive faster. Once, a driver was driving so fast (but safe), it took 15 minutes to get from Balboa station to North Hollywood.

So what Metro needs to do to speed up the Orange Line
• Is have a set time drivers need to follow. However, they need to be faster than that time frame but not slower.
• The line needs better traffic light synchronization.
• Send two buses at a time at peak times so that the green line priority does not get exhausted by the frequency of added buses.
• Lastly; what happened to the 80 foot buses Metro was suppose to get for the Orange Line?

Anonymous said...

How about this idea?

The LA river. A completely open large space that runs from downtown to the edges of the west side in the san fernando valley. here's my thought.
Go to google maps and find the chatsworth transit center/ metrolink station. there is a wash located right against the back of that station. its a HUGE area. now follow the river and take it towards LA. Pass the sepulvida dam and down in through burbank. This can easily be a Path that can have some awesome connections to many transit lines in the valley. and because it goes at an angle, it covers or comes close to may shopping centers or heavily populated public areas. and because this land is already owned by the city, there would not be a need to acquire land. The rail line (light or heavy) would have to be elevated but its not impossible. This exact path was chosen for the bike-way in the backbone plan recently. play with the idea on google maps, see what you come up with and please share. I too would like to see light rail in the san fernando valley and have been talking about it for a while now.
please let me know if there is anything your aware of that I can join in on to get something going on my end.



Peter said...

the point of the Orange line, and BRT in general, is to prevent rail from ever happening on a corridor. that's why BP/Shell/Volvo/others pour so many millions into bus advocacy organizations like TheCityFix.

your respondent's answers were kind of funny, though -- 'the limits of construction'. haha. you know those limits? those ones? yeah - those.

and there has been a BRT-to-rail conversion -- one of the Paris light rail lines. that's the only one worldwide to ever do it, and that's not surprising because, as i said, BRT is designed to prevent light rail from ever happening on a corridor.

SF is talking about 'rail-ready' BRT, but that's nonsensical. no city is going to spend hundreds of millions on bus infrastructure just to tear it up and throw it away in a few years, and spend billions more, just to provide poor people with dignified transit.

the strategy, then, is to never allow BRT happen in your town. outside of that, push for more and better bike infrastructure - that way, at least, you won't always be stuck riding that bus.

Ottawa and Reno and others talk about converting from BRT to dignified transit, but it'll never happen.

BRT is a failed technology. it's never worked, and it never will. but that's not going to stop all sorts of people from trying to force poor people onto buses. i hear it pays well.

Anonymous said...

Sherman Way
Sherman Way

Sherman Way

Sherman Sherman Sherman Way

Way Way Way

Sherman Way Sherman Way

BC said...

Sorry for the comment above, got carried away. More to the point (from la.streetsblog comment):

"Dan Wetzel says: "For a east/west rail line, there are really four options.
[double tracking Metrolink; Orange line to light rail; Ventura Bl. subway; and Ventura Bl. streetcar.]

Dan (or anyone) - why don't you consider Sherman Way as an east/west option? It's where the original Valley east/west streetcar was, it's very wide, it has a alternating mix of older high density residential and high density commercial,some interspersed vacant areas that could draw the support of TOD developers, and some of the few places in valley with character - old Canoga and old Reseda, as well as one or two institutions that could provide some political pull (if they were on board), eg Jewish Home for the Aging."

And it won't be up against the highly organized homeowners south of Ventura Bl. But maybe there's some obvious problem I'm overlooking.


Anonymous said...

I agree completely with you Bren.
I drove up and down sherman way the other day for work and noticed the same thing. Sherman Way has a lot of potential and if Van Nuys Airport ever grows up (its owned by the city of LA) it will already have a connection.

Shermanway can also connect to Van nuys and maybe to the 405 over the hill to the purple line and expo.

Connor Gilliland said...

I live in Encino, (south of Ventura BTW) and I am fully in favor of a red line extension westward under Ventura Blvd. It is certainly dense enough and has quite a lot of different businesses mixed together and is developing and filling in more and more. There is a lot of activity and destinations and the traffic is getting a lot worse and is not a sustainable corridor without future rail considerations. Anything other then fast, grade separated rail would not gain enough ridership, partly due to the fact that many people who live near Ventura have a choice to drive (like myself) and currently that is the fastest way to go east or west. The current buses are simply too slow, have somewhat irregular timing, and the signal priority is virtually nonexistent. This would be an absolutely integral part of the ever developing rail network in LA and would provide and excellent transportation alternative to all people, living in the south Valley. Whenever I go to Hollywood, Downtown, or anywhere in the east half of LA, I always drive to the Red line in North Hollywood because it is so much better than having to deal with the stress of all the traffic and parking in those areas and the travel time is comparable and much faster during peak hours.

Anonymous said...

Ventura would actually be a great alternative for the 101 freeway for some people. I just wonder what all of those south of ventura people would take a subway that close to their homes.

David said...

Seattle recently modified its underground downtown busway to also include full-size light rail vehicles of the LINK line that goes from Sea-Tac to downtown...buses and light rail share the same lanes, seemingly without any problems from what I saw during my recent visit there...

Anonymous said...

How about... MONORAIL! You could build it over the bus way and you are above traffic zipping along. Now you can still maximize the investment in bus and have high speed transit. Disney has operated one in a seismic active area for years. I'd rather be 20 feet up than 900 under in an earthquake!

Anonymous said...

Ottawa is shutting down most of its busway and converting it to rail.

And yes, they're actually shutting down the busway in order to convert it.

So you can go ahead and do it, shut down the Orange Lie and rebuild the rail line, high platforms and all.

The only obstructions are political. (And those are substantial; there's still a local ordinance prohibiting at-grade rail in the eastern half of the corridor.)

Anonymous said...

Ok, couple years later, are there any hints to when this will happen? Ventura Subway, or Sherman Way subway, either would work as a quick way to the east side. The bus is horrible, I did it once, very uncomfortable, felt unsafe with oncoming busses, human controlled, I'm surprised no head on accidents yet. A monorail would never be accepted by residents. I say, keep the orange and build a light rail or subway on street or through/above LA river Which is a stank dump of toxic waste, so who cares about preserving.

Anonymous said...

For those who aren't aware, AB 577, the motion to repeal the Robbins law from 1991, is in the process of being passed by the State Legislature. This will give Metro the option, legally, to upgrade the Orange Line to LRT.