Green Line Defies Predictions as Ridership Surges

By HOWARD FINE
Staff Reporter

When it opened in the summer of 1995, the Metro Rail Green Line was dubbed "the train to nowhere."

On the west, it bypassed LAX and went to the shrinking aerospace employment center in El Segundo. On the east, it ended in Norwalk, two miles short of a major rail and bus transportation hub in Santa Fe Springs.

Transit officials predicted a mere 10,000 riders per day for the line running down the median of the Century (105) Freeway.

But now, the Green Line is packed at rush hour as average ridership reaches a record 33,000 passengers per day. So many people are taking the Green Line that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is adding cars to the 12 trains that use the track, effectively doubling capacity.

"I'm amazed at how well it's turned out," said Dana Gabbard, executive director of Southern California Transit Advocates, a local mass transit support group. "We had very low expectations when this opened, and now you see scads of people running upstairs off the Long Beach Blue Line to take the Green Line. We're glad they're adding the extra cars."

Even L.A. City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who said at the opening that she didn't "believe there is going to be anyone to ride this train," admits she has been pleasantly surprised.

"I'm delighted," she said. "However, it's not because the Green Line actually goes anywhere. It's that the other options, like taking the car or the bus, have become less attractive."

Indeed, a combination of circumstances has driven the year-over-year ridership increases none involving changes or improvements to the Green Line itself. Last year, for example, higher gasoline prices drew more commuters who appear to have remained even as gas prices plunge. MTA figures show a surge in ridership in early 2000, from the low 20,000s of passengers per day to nearly 30,000 passengers a day.

Higher parking rates downtown and gradually increasing congestion on local freeways also have drawn more riders. Most use the Green Line to get to the Long Beach-to-Los Angeles Blue Line and then into the downtown area.

Take Lakewood resident Ralph Gomez, an account manager at Landmark Document Services downtown, just a block away from the north end of the Long Beach Blue Line. He takes the Green Line from its eastern terminus in Norwalk and, like most riders, transfers to the Blue Line for the ride downtown.

"About a year ago, the traffic was getting too bad going into downtown and the gas and parking expenses were really going up, so I decided to take the train and see what that was like," Gomez said. "It has saved me so much time and money, not to mention all the wear and tear on my car."

More recently, the temporary ban on cars at LAX also pushed people onto the Green Line, even though the line doesn't connect directly to the airport. Many drivers didn't want the hassle of dropping off or picking up passengers in the long-term parking lots or pay hefty cab or shuttle fees. MTA officials say that's why the Green Line showed little decrease in ridership in September and October, while the Red Line and the Blue Line did.

In effect, the Green Line has become a backstop for commuters. And, like Gomez, once many of these people start taking the rail line, they are hooked.

This has been one of the primary arguments that MTA officials and other transit planners have used for years to justify the enormous cost $950 million for the Green Line alone of building rail lines. As the area's population grows, freeways get more crowded and parking more expensive, rail becomes a more effective way to move people around.

But not every rider sees the Green Line as more convenient.

"My car broke down a couple weeks ago; as soon as it's fixed, I'm going back to driving," said Trevan Fields, a Kaiser Permanente employee. Fields said the combination of buses and trains he must take to get to Kaiser has added almost an hour to his commute.

Also, according to MTA statistics, roughly two-thirds of Green Line riders don't have cars and rely primarily on public transit to get around the region. For these low-income riders, freeway congestion and parking fees are not the problem; they have to contend with a slow and complex network of bus routes to get to and from their jobs.

One such rider is Compton College student Veronica Sosa, who until recently took three bus lines to get to the school from her Eastside home. A year ago, a friend told her about the Green Line and suggested she try it.

"With the train, it now takes me two hours instead of three hours to get to school," Sosa said.

But rail critics have long argued that the best way to serve people like Sosa is not to pour billions of dollars into rail projects that serve a few tens of thousands of riders in a narrow corridor, but rather to use the same money to improve the bus system.

"We should be building busways; they move more people, are more flexible, and cost less than the Green Line or any other rail line," said USC associate professor of civil engineering James Moore. He called it "pathetic" that until now Green Line trains have had only one rail car. And he took issue with the ridership figures.

While Green Line ridership has more than tripled the projections transit officials made when the line opened in 1995, it's only slightly higher than the 27,000 passengers originally projected when it was being planned in the mid-1980s. That was when the aerospace sector was booming in the South Bay. Many of those workers lived in Downey, Lakewood and other "mid-cities" communities, which is why planners opted for a line connecting those areas.

Missing the airport

In what is now regarded as one of the great transit planning debacles, a decision was made not to connect the Green Line to Los Angeles International Airport. Instead, about 1.5 miles southeast of the airport terminals, the line veers south to El Segundo and Redondo Beach.

By the time the line opened, the local aerospace sector had been decimated by the defense cutbacks at the end of the Cold War and the recession of the early 1990s. When transit officials didn't adjust the line accordingly, they came in for sharp criticism.

Recently, L.A. Mayor James Hahn committed to having the Green Line connect to the LAX terminals as part of his revised master plan due out early next year. Also, MTA officials say that is their top priority.

However, extending the Green Line to the airport remains tied up in the master-planning process for LAX. Construction on a 1 or 2-mile spur remains years away, with little likelihood it would be completed much before 2010.

Not all the aerospace jobs left the South Bay, and some of these workers do take the Green Line. Boeing Space Systems Co. engineer Ed Kurzawa has ridden the Green Line ever since it opened. "It's great," Kurzawa said. "Instead of fighting traffic on the 105, I can sit here and read the paper on my way into work."

But Kurzawa said that if the Boeing plant wasn't so close to the station, he wouldn't take the Green Line. "To really make this system effective, you need some sort of shuttle service from the train stations," he said.

Bus upgrades urged

MTA officials are preparing to improve bus service to and from some of the Green Line stations. MTA executive officer for regional planning Jim de la Loza that some of the new north-south Rapid Bus lines that will be rolled out over the next couple of years will intersect with the Green Line, making it easier for rail passengers to reach more distant destinations.

As a result, MTA officials believe ridership will continue to increase over the next few years. Yet even transit advocates say the line won't reach its full potential until it has more functional destination points.

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