LOS ANGELES (CN) — On Friday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg joined Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, congresswomen Karen Bass and Maxine Waters, and an assortment of elected officials in "dedicating" a new underground rail station in South LA. The station will connect the 8.5-mile, nearly completed K Line (formerly known as the Crenshaw Line) with the E Line (formerly the Expo Line).
Metro, LA's transit agency, has not given a specific date for when the K Line will start operating, saying only that it will open "by the end of the year." It was originally scheduled to begin running nearly three years ago in the fall of 2019; its construction was plagued by delays and cost overruns, which then-Metro CEO Phil Washington blamed on outside contractors.
Eventually, the K Line will run south, from the newly dedicated station in West Adams, through Leimert Park and Inglewood — including a stop at SoFi stadium, home to both the Rams and Chargers NFL teams — on its way to Los Angeles International Airport, or rather, near the airport. Eventually, an automated people mover train will connect the line to the airport's various terminals, parking lots and rental car facilities. Until then, shuttle buses will do so.
"Once the K line opens, I believe Metro will be the first choice for people going to the airport, going to SoFi stadium, and going to visit the many art galleries in Leimert Park," said Metro CEO Stephanie Wiggins at the dedication ceremony. And Ara Najarian, chair of Metro's board of directors, noted that the $2 billion K Line represents Metro's "largest investment in the South Los Angeles region" in more than two decades.
No one expects the K Line to transform LA's still-nascent rail system. But it will serve tens of thousands of predominantly low-income Black Angelenos. For example, someone living in Inglewood could ride the K Line, transfer to the E line, and be deposited in Santa Monica, half a mile from the Pacific Ocean. Numerous workers at LAX are also expected to use the line in their commute.
"Is it the missing piece that’s going to make LA transit come together? No," says Joe Linton, an editor at Streetsblog LA. "But is it going to be used by a lot of people and dependable and convenient for a lot of folks that use it? Yeah, I think so." He adds: "It’s a worthwhile piece of the puzzle directed to a community that’s long been neglected and discriminated against."
Before the pandemic and like much of the rest of the nation, LA's public transit ridership was slowly but steadily eroding. Relatively low gas prices, an increasing diffusion of the city's job centers, cheap credit and higher wages were all factors in that decline. Transit ridership, predictably, plummeted during the first few months of Covid, and has been rising ever since. Still, LA's bus ridership remains at about 70% of its pre-pandemic level. Rail ridership has fared even worse; it's languishing at just over half of its pre-pandemic level.
For one thing, many are still working at remotely for at least part of the week. But another key issue has been drivers. During the pandemic, Metro reduced its service by roughly 20%, in an effort to shave $1.2 billion from its operating budget. Since then, Metro has tried to restore full service but has not been able to hire enough drivers to fill in the gaps in service — a problem familiar to businesses all over the country. As a result, riders have had to wait longer for buses and trains than before the pandemic. Light-rail riders now face an average wait time of about 10 minutes.
There has also been a visible rise in crime and homelessness on trains. The Metro board recently approved a $122 million pilot program to hire up to 300 "transit ambassadors" — uniformed, unarmed workers who will sit on trains and buses to try to make riders feel more safe.
But LA's transit system faces a thornier, more long-term problem: a sprawling, increasingly expensive city built around automobiles. Few people both live and work near rail lines. Those who do are often wealthy enough to own at least one car.
"The working class people have been pushed outside LA because the region hasn’t built enough housing for them," said Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at Berkeley Law's Center for Law, Energy & the Environment, and author of the book "Railtown."
Elkind and other critics say that while the region has spent billions on rail, it has shot itself in the foot by not reforming its zoning laws and allowing high-density housing to be built near transit hubs. And it still has laws forcing apartment buildings to build parking spaces for all its residents, which does nothing to discourage them from owning a car.
The city has a number of other big-ticket rail projects in the works, including the extension of the D Line (formerly the Purple Line), a subway that will some day run from Downtown to West LA, mostly underneath Wilshire Boulevard. The hope is that this and other new rail lines will be showcased when LA hosts the Olympic Games in 2028.
In the somewhat more distant future, officials hope to build a rail line through the Sepulveda Pass, near the infamous 405 freeway — a corridor that has tormented LA drivers for decades. And they also hope to extend the K Line north into Hollywood, meeting up with what is now the B Line (or Red Line, LA's first subway).
Should those two projects come to pass, LA's rail system will begin to look positively grid-like. Until the then, it remains very much a work in progress.
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