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SUBWAY HOPES FADING.

Byline: Lisa Mascaro Staff Writer

As Los Angeles' Metro Red Line marks its 10th anniversary today, critics to bus rider advocates say the $4.5 billion subway has failed to live up to its promise - carrying less than half the number of passengers that was projected.

Some 133,500 passengers board the 17.4-mile-long subway each weekday, far below the 300,000 riders first projected for the 23-mile route when it was sold as the answer to the needs of transit-starved Los Angeles.

Those who do ride the subway said their commute has been improved dramatically by a 70 mph train that doesn't get stuck in traffic. They read and relax, confident of getting to their destination on time.

But critics say the Red Line remains a subway to nowhere, a hole in the ground that gobbled up precious transportation dollars with huge cost overruns, lawsuits and overambitious promises that weren't delivered.

``I think it is an incredible asset of this city, connecting downtown to the (San Fernando) Valley, and the rest of the Valley to the new dedicated bus line that is being built. However, I think we could have spent the several billion it cost better,'' said former Mayor Richard Riordan, who took office shortly after the subway opened Jan. 30, 1993.

Ridership has grown from 15,900 boardings each weekday in 1993 - the number of actual riders is less than that since many riders board twice in a day - to 133,555 boardings today with ridership boosted by the opening of stations in Hollywood in 1999 and North Hollywood in 2000.

But that's still about half the promised 300,000 boardings projected on what was supposed to be a 23-mile line that included the crowded Wilshire Boulevard corridor.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority points to the route change as well as stable gas and parking prices over the past decade as reasons for the lag in ridership.

The subway has cost $345 million thus far to operate, including $62 million in fiscal 2002. Fares covered just 5 percent in the early years and now generate about 20 percent, for a total of $40 million since 1993.

Today, for every $1.35 a rider pays to board - less with a pass or token - the MTA subsidizes the trip with an additional $1.19 per ride.

That subsidy is less than the MTA pays on its bus and light-rail lines, with subsidies of $1.33 and $1.64, respectively, per boarding - and the MTA notes that taxpayers routinely subsidize roads and highways.

Critics contend that the subway was built for downtown - for the contractors, lawyers and power-brokers who could benefit from a massive public works project rather than gridlock-weary motorists.

The subway's route runs mostly through downtown and Hollywood, with short segments into the crowded Wilshire corridor and the Valley.

It hardly offers a break for the half-million motorists clogging the 101-405 freeway interchange daily or the 1.2 million riders stuck on buses on 6,400 miles of city streets.

``The problem in the past has been the city of Los Angeles has gobbled up all of the transit dollars that (should) have been used for the county for downtown projects. They fail to realize Los Angeles County is comprised of many downtowns,'' said county Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich.

His proposal to build a monorail down the Ventura Freeway was killed in 1994 in favor of a subway from North Hollywood to Warner Center - a project that was never built.

``The $5 billion-plus would have been better spent serving more miles, more people, in a shorter time frame. It would have eliminated congestion and improved our air quality instead of (ending up) in the pockets of the contractors and lawyers that built it.''

The MTA points to the 106,200 jobs created by the Red Line, as well as several hundred millions of dollars of redevelopment along the route - including the glitzy Hollywood & Highland shopping plaza and affordable housing being built next to a station in East Hollywood.

And supporters say the subway provides a vital link to downtown for commuters who ride Metrolink trains from the suburbs.

The subway connects Blue Line riders from Long Beach, Watts and South Central - the second-busiest light-rail line in the nation - to downtown, Hollywood and the Valley. And it does the same for Green Line commuters coming from the small cities to the east and Los Angeles International Airport to the west.

When the Gold Line trains between Pasadena and downtown start rolling this summer, the Red Line will again prove its strength.

``Remember, it wasn't too long ago we had zero. People arrived at the airport and there was nothing,'' said Roger Christensen, who serves on the MTA's Citizens Advisory Committee and rides the subway a couple of days a week from his Sherman Oaks home to his job in Hollywood.

Now with trains running past midnight and its clean, art-filled stations, the subway helps L.A. feel like a real city.

``It has meant the city is growing up at last. It's taking us into a kind of adolescent phase,'' Christensen said.

The subway was supposed to be a 23-mile system, stretching across the Wilshire corridor to the Fairfax District and Hollywood.

But an unrelated underground methane gas explosion near Fairfax led to a 1985 congressional ban on tunneling under Wilshire, and the subway was rerouted up Vermont Avenue into Hollywood.

Construction problems became legendary as Hollywood Boulevard sank more than a half-foot and a sinkhole temporarily shut down the street. Three workers died during construction.

Three CEOs later, corporate turnaround expert Julian Burke took the reins of the troubled MTA and, in 1997, slashed $5 billion from the project, eliminating proposed lines to the Eastside and Pasadena.

The Valley line, killed years earlier, left the region little recourse but to accept the cheaper Metro Rapid Transitway - a bus system that is supposed to start construction in spring.

MTA's current CEO Roger Snoble, who took the helm in 2001, said he's frequently asked why the subway doesn't span the Valley or Wilshire Boulevard.

``It should be bigger. There isn't a freeway in this town that's big enough,'' Snoble said. ``But it does take a lot of people where they want to go, and very well. It's a heck of a lot easier trip.''

But he said the Red Line isn't likely to be expanded under his watch - despite recent efforts to revitalize the Wilshire Boulevard route - as the agency focuses on building cheaper busways and light rail.

On a weekday morning, the North Hollywood station's parking lot is nearly full by 7:30 a.m., and the subway entrance is bustling with riders catching the still-shiny trains.

Sherman Oaks resident Karen Locke leaves her car home most workdays and rides the subway to her hospital job downtown.

``I think it's great,'' said Locke, as she dashed off to catch a waiting train. Her main reason for taking the subway: ``The traffic - not having to deal with the traffic. And I get to read.''

For food service worker Eric Bullock of Van Nuys, one of the best parts of his commute is the ride home after a long day on the job.

``It's quicker coming down the hill than a car,'' Bullock said. ``Get off work and crash on the train.''

But for millions of other Angelenos, the subway hardly exists.

``You're always so surprised,'' said Christensen. ``For all the hoopla, all the troubles, all the success, all the headlines, there's still people who say, There's a subway in Los Angeles?''

CAPTION(S):

2 photos, 2 boxes, chart

Photo:

(1 -- color) A rider holds on while taking the Metro Red Line. Some 133,500 passengers board the subway each weekday, far below the 300,000 riders initially projected.

Tina Burch/Staff Photographer

(2 -- color) In late 1992, work crews celebrate as they break through the tunnel that will become the Wilshire Blvc./Western Ave. Red Line station.

Box:

(1) METRO RED LINE HISTORY

SOURCES: Metropolitan Transit Authority; Daily News Research

Warren Huskey/Staff Artist

(2) RED LINE FARES

Chart:

RED LINE RIDERSHIP

SOURCE: Metropolitan Transit Authority
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Article Details
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Jan 30, 2003
Words:1355
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