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Will LA’s next light rail line strand riders in the Arts District?

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Southeast LA County leaders want to make sure Metro’s West Santa Ana Branch actually gets to Downtown

One of the biggest questions Metro needs to answer over the next few months is where exactly the next light rail line to be built into Downtown Los Angeles will travel.

At its last meeting, Metro’s Board of Directors defined six potential route options for the northern section of the West Santa Ana Branch line, which will run roughly 20 miles between Downtown LA and the Gateway Cities in southeast LA County.

Metro already knows that the southern portion of the line will follow along a disused Pacific Electric interurban right-of-way south to Artesia. It’s the northern portion of the line through Downtown LA, including the line’s terminus, that’s up for consideration.

Of the six potential options approved for further study at the last Board of Directors meeting, three of them end at Union Station, two of them at yet-to-be-defined station location in the “Downtown Transit Core,” and one of them at an also-to-be-defined station in the Los Angeles Arts District, close to where the old 6th Street Viaduct once stood (and where the new viaduct will be complete by 2020).

The last option, the one that would end in the LA Arts District, would theoretically connect to an eastern extension of the Red/Purple Line from Union Station, along the Los Angeles River.

The thing is, three of these options—the three that don’t end at Union Station—represent a departure from how the West Santa Ana Branch line (WSAB) has been studied in recent years as a line that provides a “one seat” ride from southeast LA County directly to Downtown LA’s Union Station.

“We’re very concerned about it,” Karen Heit, the transportation deputy for the Gateway Cities Coalition of Governments, told Curbed on the day of the board meeting. “And there’s something more problematic—terminate it in the Arts District and it’d either have to be a bus bridge to Union Station, or something like that, because there is no existing funding for extension of the Red or Purple line. That’s not a project on anybody’s list right now.”

Since Curbed spoke to to Heit, Metro has requested that the Red/Purple Line extension be added to a guiding list of potential transportation projects in Southern California. There’s also the news that the City of Los Angeles will reportedly seek city-level funding options for Metro projects in the area, potentially including an extension of the Red and Purple lines to the Arts District

In the past, Metro CEO Phil Washington has said it would take a literal miracle to get an arts district extension of the Red and Purple lines. But Downtown LA interests continued to advocate their cause, and now the station appears once again in Metro’s planning documents.

Now, as Los Angeles Mayor and Metro Board Chair Eric Garcetti said at Metro’s last board meeting, the question for the West Santa Ana Branch will be “one seat to where?”

Metro is considering several options for the West Santa Ana Branch line through Downtown LA.

The West Santa Ana Branch line Metro’s working on today has its origins in 2003, when a dozen LA County cities and what was then known as the Bob Hope Airport in Burbank formed a joint powers authority (JPA) to plan and study a rail line that would eventually run from Orange County to Burbank. By the early 2010s, the JPA mapped out several options for a route that terminated at Union Station, which Metro adopted in its initial planning documents.

The concern now from WSAB planning veterans is that Metro’s decision to study more potential northern end-points is a change from the project as it has been studied since 2003. The stress is specifically over whether a potential station in the LA Arts District might be a less than ideal terminus for the new rail line because, despite however nice a riverfront station at the new 6th Street Viaduct could be, it would effectively force passengers traveling to Downtown Los Angeles on the new train to transfer before getting to their final destinations.

“Well, you’re not necessarily providing a one seat ride to primary destinations with that,” said Michael Kodama, executive director of the Eco-Rapid Transit JPA. “The Arts District is one of many destinations, but to go other places you’d still have to switch all over the place. Imagine having to get from that to Staples Center or to Little Tokyo from there.”

“We’re very concerned about it, and we’re going to follow the public process to voice those concerns,” said Heit. “Right now we don’t have anything to jump up and down about, but we’re watching closely.”

On the flip side, actually building the train to Union Station might be more challenging due to the fact that Union Station is already space-constrained. Over the past year, Metro has received letters from Metrolink, the Federal Railroad Administration, and the California High Speed Rail Authority expressing concern over whether building the West Santa Ana Branch to Union Station could potentially limit regional railroad capacity at Union Station.

Even so, leaders who represent southeast Los Angeles County are watching closely, in order to make sure that their constituents aren’t short-changed with a hamstrung rail line.

“I understand where Metro is coming from as far as studying the alignment,” says Karina Macias, a Huntington Park City Councilmember who’s been long-involved with the line’s planning. “But I can say that, for my part, I’ll continue to advocate what I’ve been advocating for, which is the goal of going to Union Station.”

Robert Garcia, the Mayor of Long Beach who also represents the Gateway Cities on the Metro Board, agrees.

“It has been the interest of the southeast communities to be able to reach and connect to Union Station,” said Garcia to Curbed. “That is what the goal has been, that’s what the community deserves, and that’s what we’ll be advocating for. If there’s an opportunity to build this line that meets everyone’s needs, that’s great as well.”

Garcia says it’s critical for Metro to make sure the West Santa Ana Branch is built correctly because it’s the only major project outlined for southeast LA County.

“It is one of the most important projects that Metro has in front of it,” says Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia. “I’m especially supportive of it because it connects historically disadvantaged communities up and down southeast LA, and really gives them a chance to have rail connection through their communities.”

A proposed alignment through the Arts District would provide access to the 6th Street Viaduct, which will be complete in 2020.
Sixth Street Viaduct Replacement Project

That said, Metro has a very real budgetary constraint. According to county officials, Metro has approximately $4 billion available to build the entire line. Agency officials have expressed concern that amount might not be sufficient to underground the roughly two-mile Downtown portion of the West Santa Ana Branch (regardless of its alignment), while leaving enough funds to complete the remaining parts of the line.

The 1.9 mile Regional Connector, for context, will end up costing about $1.76 billion.

Los Angeles City also reportedly plans to seek city-level funding options for Metro projects in the area, which would likely include an extension of the Red/Purple lines to the Arts District. It remains to be seen how this could influence the West Santa Branch’s northern alignment.

“We want to take a moment and study, ultimately, where the southeast community wants to go,” said Laura Cornejo, Metro’s Design Executive Officer. “If their goal is to ultimately get to Union Station, then that’s great. But if their goal is to get to Union Station so that they can transfer further into downtown, or somewhere else along our system, then we want to get them to their final destination.”

Kodama, who has been a part of the project’s process for years, views planning the line as a vast utilitarian calculus.

“There’s no answer yet. Looking at what’s best for one area is one way to look at the question, but so is what’s best for the region, and what’s best for downtown. It’s a balancing act,” said Kodama.

Community meetings on the new northern alignments will be held throughout the Month of March. More information is available at Metro’s West Santa Ana Branch project page. Cornejo added that Metro hopes to have a final alignment decision ready for board consideration by May.