Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Investing in Multi-Modal Transportation Options for Southeast LA

This month, Metro will take a step forward on a major transit project in southeast Los Angeles County. The Metro Board is expected to approve a set of alternatives for environmental review on the West Santa Ana Branch Transit Corridor, a new light rail line that will connect the Gateway Cities (starting in Artesia) to Downtown Los Angeles and beyond.

The West Santa Ana Branch project represents an opportunity to provide a fast, reliable transit alternative that will improve mobility and regional access for an estimated 80,000 riders each day. It is not just a contribution to LA’s growing transit network, but also a much-needed investment in a part of our region that has long struggled with economic isolation, traffic congestion, and pollution.

According to the state’s CalEnviroScreen report, the light rail line will cross through some of California’s most pollutant-burdened communities. From Huntington Park, Bell, Maywood and Cudahy to cities like South Gate, Lynwood, and Paramount, much of the alignment is directly impacted by environmental justice issues.

Since the 1970s, the low-income communities south of Downtown Los Angeles, which are home to a significant immigrant population, have fought to remedy the significant costs they’ve borne from their proximity to polluting industries in the city of Vernon. For the past several years, they have been waiting for the state to finish cleaning up the lead that seeped into their soil from Vernon’s Exide battery recycling facility. Further south along the route, the cities lining the 710 freeway have struggled for decades with the diesel pollution from truck traffic leaving the port, which has led to high rates of asthma and increased cancer risk among residents.

As a whole, the corridor served by the West Santa Ana Branch project is diverse, dense, and contains some of the County’s highest current bus ridership. This rail line is the biggest transit investment that the Gateway Cities have seen in the 40 years since the rebuilding of Los Angeles’s rail network began, and it marks the culmination of long-standing efforts by transit planners to bring passenger rail to a corridor that all agree will be successful.

West Santa Ana Branch Project Map, summer 2017

The West Santa Ana Branch takes its name from a former Pacific Electric right-of-way that was used until the 1960s by streetcars bound for Orange County. Metro has owned a section of the right-of-way since the early 1990s, but construction never proceeded because funds were directed first to other parts of the county. That finally changed in 2016, when County voters approved Measure M. The new transit tax targets an allotment of $4 billion toward construction of the full line.

While Measure M calls for the project to be built in two phases between 2022 and 2041, Metro’s leaders have been bullish on accelerating that schedule. Metro CEO Phil Washington included it in his Operation Shovel Ready initiative to prepare major projects for construction in the event that unexpected funding became available, a strategy that may have helped the West Santa Ana Branch secure funding from California’s SB1 gas tax revenues.

Metro Chair and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also included it in his list of projects he wants to see completed by the 2028 Olympics, possibly with the assistance of a public-private partnership. Metro has advanced two unsolicited private-sector proposals that would get the West Santa Ana Branch line open to the public sooner than expected, and could enter into such a partnership following the completion of the upcoming environmental review phase of planning.

That makes the Board’s action this month an especially consequential one. When the Directors select the routes to be studied, they will be setting the stage for a rail line that will soon provide tangible benefits to communities in need and address an entrenched disparity in mobility and regional access. Following Metro’s adoption of an transit equity platform earlier this year, the West Santa Ana Branch project represents a first opportunity to step up and deliver world-class transit infrastructure in the Gateway Cities.

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