AS FUEL PRICES INCREASE, METROLINK RIDERSHIP SOARS.
IT'S time for a breather, Southern California. Floods, fires, earthquakes, sinkholes, subway cost overruns and O.J. Simpson. What's next?
Actually, in the midst of a seemingly endless stream of bad news, there is one local government initiative that was built within budget and, contrary to the predictions of many homegrown anti-transit transportation experts, is actually carrying discretionary riders. A lot of them. This unheralded success story is Metrolink, Southern California's commuter railroad.
From day one of its ribbon-cutting in 1992, Metrolink ridership has never stopped growing. On the Friday prior to the Jan. 17, 1994, Northridge Earthquake, ridership already stood at 9,000 daily riders.
And several days later on Jan. 26, Metrolink reached its current all-time-record ridership of 31,276 as commuters from the Antelope and Santa Clarita valleys jammed the trains seeking a way around the collapsed freeways into the San Fernando Valley.
With the post-earthquake recovery, ridership ``settled'' back to a new record daily high of 15,000 riders. By early April 1996, that 15,000 had grown to more than 21,000. And as retail gasoline prices soared in late April, ridership once again surged higher to more than 22,000 trips per day.
Metrolink operates trains primarily during peak morning and afternoon hours between downtown Los Angeles and Oxnard, Lancaster/Santa Clarita, San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange County/Oceanside. It also operates the nation's first suburb-to-suburb commuter line between San Bernardino, Riverside and Irvine.
Metrolink is distinguished from its city cousins at the MTA (the multihued Green, Blue and Red Metro Rail lines) not only by the fact that its passenger cars are pulled by locomotives on railroad tracks but also by the fact that it is managed by all the counties of Southern California, not just by Los Angeles' own MTA.
The news is just as good in the cash register. Current fare box recovery is more than 43 percent with every indication that it will move several notches higher by the end of the fiscal year.
Tucked into these ridership statistics is one very surprising development. With all the riders traveling to downtown Los Angeles, more than 700 depart the trains each morning in Burbank and Glendale, reinforcing the growing jobs base in each of those communities.
But the real success story of Metrolink lies not just with growing ridership and a good-and-getting-better fare box ratio. The success story is that at last we car-indentured Southern Californians have found a transit system which meets our needs.
Transit critics frequently disparage the other rail projects in the Southland because those have not yet captured large numbers of discretionary riders. They have not, in other words, done much to relieve freeway traffic congestion.
We are now finding that Metrolink is indeed different from other transit systems in the basin. Fully 61 percent of Metrolink's riders have never before ridden a bus or train, or even car-pooled to work.
These ``drive-alones'' had heretofore seemingly confirmed by their actions the common wisdom that Southern Californians would never abandon their cars for such an obscure public good as reducing congestion. And yet that is just what is happening. And not only are they riding the train; they love it.
In a recent survey of its riders, more than 81 percent stated that Metrolink is a better value than other modes of travel. And 85 percent indicated that one of the reasons they chose Metrolink was that they were tired of commute traffic.
This attitude directly corresponds to the factors which they most like about Metrolink: avoiding driving and a less stressful commute.
It also turns out that Metrolink is not just the preserve of the privileged white suburbanite. More than 36 percent of its riders are minority.
What does all this mean to our traffic-choked freeways? Some modest relief. With such a significant percentage of riders coming from single-occupant vehicles, Metrolink is, in fact, taking cars off the freeways.
By conservative counts, approximately 6,000 cars have been removed from freeways approaching the downtown Los Angeles core each morning.
These missing cars are spread over the three-hour morning peak period and over the several freeways converging from the east and north.
Nevertheless, the equivalent of three peak hour lanes of traffic capacity have been made available - all without having to pour concrete for one more lane of traffic or rebuild dozens of overpasses to accommodate widened freeways.
It is this aspect of Metrolink which is the best news for the region. Metrolink is showing that in certain key corridors with sufficient employment density it can provide a very attractive alternative to all commuters.
MEMO: Carl Schiermeyer is a transportation consultant based in Fountain Valley.
Photo: (1--Color) Boarding Metrolink: By late April, rid ership surged to more than 22,000 trips per day.
(2) Last-minute business: Metrolink commuter finishes some work before reaching his office.