Wednesday, May 6, 2009

2015 Rail Deadline for Orange Line?

I was reading some comments on Curbed LA about the Orange line extension and came across this comment:

Thankfully, Metro had the foresight and built the Orange line to Light Rail Spec, so that in the future it will be relatively easy to convert it from bus to rail. All we need is the support of the people in the valley and its done.

I also believe Metro used state funds earmarked for rail projects when constructing the orange line, and there is a mandate that the corridor must be converted to rail by 2015 or metro must pay back the funds. We might see the conversion start within the next couple years, especially with Valleyites being choked in traffic and their envy of trendy urban/suburban communities like Culver City and Santa Monica getting rail and them being snuffed by metro.

I thought to myself, this seems a little strange. Can't be true. But check out Kimberleigh Richards post and got to her page on Prop 108.

Specifically, §2701.06 reads (again, emphasis mine): The money in the fund, upon appropriation by the Legislature, shall be available, without regard to fiscal years, for acquisition of rights-of-way, capital expenditures, and acquisition of rolling stock for intercity rail, passenger rail, and urban rail transit and for capital improvements which directly support rail transportation, including exclusive busways which are converted within 10 years after completion of construction into rail lines, grade separations to enhance rail passenger service, and multimodal terminals.
Part of the deal seems to be that the MTA needs to pay back money to the state that was used to buy the ROW if its not rail in 10 years. How much is this?

This obligation was acknowledged by then-CEO Franklin White in his October 21, 1994 memo to the MTA board of directors in which he responded to questions raised at the October 13 Planning and Programming Committee meeting:

Question: Does the MTA incur any financial loss if it does not build a rail project along this line?
Response: MTA ... has an obligation to pay the State of California $44.8 million in the event that it does not proceed with a passenger rail project on the SP right-of-way, unless CTC agrees to waive such repayment.

As of the end of 2007, the "then-present value" of the original $44.8 million was $67.4 million; if the inflation rate remains approximately the same, by October 30, 2015 (the tenth anniversary of the Orange Line beginning passenger service) it will be $83.1 million. While no one can say for certain whether or not the CTC would waive the repayment (which would presumably come due on that date, based on the Prop 108 language), the state's budget problems in the intervening years seems to predict that they would.

Very interesting. I wonder if this would actually happen or if its just a law that is not enforceable. I'm assuming that they would not make MTA pay it back. But who knows. Anyone know more about this?


Matt Fisher said...

I say the Orange Line should be converted to rail, but is it a good idea to pave over rail lines and turn them into busways with this promise? I don't think so. Part of the Transitway here in Ottawa, the three busways in Pittsburgh, and the South Busway in Miami were all built like that, with the same promise in mind that has not been delivered.

It will be difficult to do it. Preferably, I would have wanted an electrified Metrolink on this former rail line from Burbank to Chatsworth, and saved a subway for Ventura Blvd.

A 10 year deadline? That's a shock.

bgfa said...

The original plan for the Orange Line was a heavy rail subway, but the local County Supervisor had a law passed prohibiting the use of transit sales tax funds for subway construction. The busway was the compromise, with a promise to look into an upgrade to rail if and when the ridership reached capacity.
Capacity was reached at the end of the first month of operation. Now the line is being extended further west and north to meet up with Metrolink. A new sales tax has passed without the onerous limitations of the last one, so there is likely a funding source for the conversion. But Metro has been quiet about this, so I am not sure if they have an actual plan to make the conversion.

The Orange Line is a huge success. It's carrying almost 29,000 people a day. That's almost as many as the entire Metrolink network.

arcady said...

The original plan for the Orange Line was probably light rail, but a bill was passed prohibiting at-grade rail in part of that corridor. This, in combination with the subway ban, meant that no rail at all could be built, which is how we got the busway. By the way, as per the latest statistics, the Orange Line carried 22,000 per day in March, less than even the Gold Line's 24,000 (and much less than Metrolink's 43,000. I think the Orange Line has run into fundamental capacity limitations, the problem is that converting it to light rail will be fairly expensive and might require grade separations. The buses are already doing a decent job (compared to what was there before, anyway) and there are higher priorities for new rail. In the long term, a light rail conversion makes sense, and would form part of a line running via Burbank and Glendale to Pasadena, a corridor that currently has fairly poor transit connections.

Justin said...

The Orange Line is not a huge success. The corridor was a former rail corridor that already had a mature transit ridership. The fact that the Orange Line reached capacity that quick, only reinforces the opinion that the line should have been built as rail from the start.

Matt Fisher said...

Indeed. But I think Tom Rubin, who will try to make another tediously long comment, will regurgitate his same suggestion: it would have been better to go with a cheaper "rapid bus" in mixed traffic just painted in a different colour than build this. He will still say it was better than rail. Just my opinion.

Besides, I'm concerned that this promise about conversion is a secret ruse to keep rail out.

About the paving over rail lines into busways question, who thinks it is a good idea? Why do they think so? I just don't know who or why.

arcady said...

Oh and about paving over the Chandler ROW: even if it were built as a surface light rail line, it would still have required completely tearing out everything down to the subgrade, and building up the track completely from scratch. Look at the Expo Line for an example. The existing rail was completely useless for pretty much anything other than maybe the occasional freight train with a top speed of 10 mph.

neroden@gmail said...

I think it all depends on whether the "no surface rail" law can be repealed.

If it can be, the MTA wanted the Orange Line to be light rail all along, the pavement is already cracking up, and they'll probably be pretty happy to convert it. Even though this would require a second yard (since it's not connected to the Blue Line), there are very reasonable places for such a yard.

The articulated busses can be used somewhere else, I'm sure.

If the "no surface rail" law can't be repealed, the MTA will just beg to have its debt forgiven -- or will repay the debt to the state by using bond money which was supposed to be used for new rail. :-P It's completely not worth building a subway in this location and there's no way they'll get the cash for it anyway.

Jarrett at said...

Hey, what do folks mean when they talk about the Orange Line being at capacity? The published timetable on the LACMTA website says the peak headway is only 4-5 minutes. That's nowhere close to the physical capacity of a busway. It might be near the capacity of the mixed-flow operations on approach to Warner Center, but there are solutions to that that are way cheaper than light rail.

The other issue to address, in all fairness, is what speed could be achieved with stronger signal priority.

Remember, in urban transit operations, travel time isn't about technology. Rail and bus have the same range of speeds. Travel time is about specific causes of delay. And on the Orange Line, that's the signals, no?

arcady said...

Jarrett: even with the 4-5 minute headways, there's significant bunching, and the buses are pretty packed. Part of it is that the Orange Line is primarily a Red Line feeder, and outbound buses pretty much fill up at North Hollywood, mostly from passengers who arrive on the Red Line, which runs at exactly double the headway. Also, if you think about it, a bus every 4 minutes in each direction is pretty much the limit of an effective traffic-signal preemption system, given the typical length of a signal cycle. Sure it may not be the limits of the capacity of a dedicated busway, but it's pretty much the limit on a busway with many local stops and many, many traffic lights. With a light rail you could have almost 5 times the capacity at the same headway, with three car trains.

As for the speed issue, a big part of it is that buses have to have traffic lights, and have to be operated in such a way as to be able to stop if the preemption system fails, because there's no sufficiently reliable mechanism to detect the presence of a bus, the way that there are track circuits for trains. Also, because of incompetent car drivers (and sometimes complex intersections) the buses have to slow down even further at intersections, where a train could just as well go through at 55. So basically, a dedicated ROW with grade crossings is a dedicated ROW as far as trains are concerned, and street running as far as buses are concerned, hence the difference in speed. There's also the fact that the buses Metro uses are kind of sluggish, while electric trains (and electric buses) have excellent acceleration, which helps when there are many stops.

Matt Fisher said...

I still am asking the question: Is it a good idea to pave over rail lines and turn them into dedicated busways? Why do some cities think this is a good idea to do what I said? I question this. It's not a good idea to do this, and it will be difficult to put the rails back there. Is it truly "cost effective"?

In any situation, see what I wrote above.

The idea of conversion from BRT to LRT or similar sounds good, but in practice it will be difficult and unlikely to happen any time soon. I would like to see a conversion, but as I said, it will not be something that can be done with a "magic wand".

Spokker said...

The Orange Line is what it is because of circumstance and politics.

Anonymous said...

Matt Fisher: If there are a number of different local lines serving low-density areas which then all come together to run express to a distant destination, a busway shared by all these services potentially makes more sense than forcing all passengers to change to a train. This is the case with the Pittsburgh and Ottawa busways and the LA Harbor and El Monte transitways, though not with Miami or the LA Orange Line.

Matt Fisher said...

Transfers do not necessarily make the ride worse, but you're wrong. Even if rail means "forced transfers" that supposedly can be eliminated by buses, rail is better and attracts development in a way buses don't, and could even reduce transfers. I've heard this stuff about how "one seat rides" supposedly make buses better than trains, and buses are not better than trains to me.