The Los Angeles Times ran my op-ed today on the politics behind the Gold Line extension to Azusa:
Back in 2008, rail boosters needed two-thirds support from Los Angeles voters for the sales tax increase for transportation known as Measure R — a threshold required by Proposition 13. The measure would fund important transit projects all around the county, from the Purple Line subway under Wilshire Boulevard to the Expo Line to Santa Monica.
San Gabriel Valley leaders argued that their region was being unfairly left out of the coming transit boom, and they repeatedly threatened to block the measure from even appearing on the ballot. In reality, they were always slated to get a gold-plated rail line. But Metro officials had to give the Gold Line extension priority in the funding plan in order to secure voter support along the route.
In some ways, the Gold Line extension is the price we all had to pay to secure funding for more cost-effective rail lines in densely populated parts of the county, which are now under construction.
Now that the Gold Line extension is operational, San Gabriel Valley leaders should be proactive about creating demand along the route. They should do everything they can to build more housing and offices near the stations — the optimal way to capitalize on the investment.
I can’t emphasize that last point enough. Now that we’ve spent the money on rail, San Gabriel Valley leaders must salvage the investment through more transit-oriented development.
Reaction to the station area grades that Berkeley Law and Next 10 released this week has been mixed, with some transit leaders celebrating good scores and others reacting defensively. Part of the problem is that the media played up the overall transit system average grades, which weren’t great, and didn’t emphasize (or comprehend) that the grades were about the 1/2 mile station areas — not the stations themselves.
Over at the Los Angeles Metro, blogger Steve Hymon raised some interesting questions about the grades for Metro:
I think the results are certainly interesting although not terribly surprising — visiting any of the stations in person gives you a fairly good idea how they’re performing. And let’s face it: tossing 11 factors into a blender to come up with a letter grade only gets you so far: the Gold Line’s Chinatown Station on the edge of downtown L.A. gets an A, but the 7th/Metro Station in the heart of DTLA gets an A-. The Gold Line’s Mariachi Plaza gets an A (perhaps because there is a big employer, a hospital, nearby) but the Gold Line’s South Pasadena Station gets a C-.
The South Pasadena Station is busy and has helped revitalize Mission Street. As I’ve noted in the past, it hasn’t attracted a ton of residential development, although the number of parcels available nearby are limited. The area around the station is largely residential and I don’t think anyone wants or expects serious commercial development nearby. Parking is limited. To my eye, the the station has been very successful — but gets dinged here, presumably, because it’s not near a ton of jobs.
His comments are worth a closer look. First, the Chinatown station versus 7th & Metro. Steve is right that at first glance, the results seem odd. Chinatown gets an A but 7th & Metro gets an A-, even though it’s in the heart of the rail system as a bustling station.
So I checked the breakdown, and the scores were close. Ultimately Chinatown scored better on key metrics like affordability, safety, and transit dependency (number of zero vehicle households in the 1/2 mile radius). But the other factor is that the Chinatown station was competing against other station areas in the “mixed” category (mixed between employment and residential), whereas 7th & Metro was competing in the much tougher “employment” category. Stations in that category tend to be in high-density downtowns like San Francisco, so it’s more difficult to get a good grade. 7the & Metro came close to an A though and still finished in the top quartile statewide.
Second, I agree with Steve that the South Pasadena/Mission station on the Gold Line is a great station (photo above). It’s probably the prettiest and most well-designed in the system. So why did it get such a low score, with a C-?
The issue is not, as Steve suggests, about a lack of jobs or commercial development nearby. Instead, in looking at the data, the station area scored low because it was at the bottom for the percentage of people (workers and residents) within 1/2 mile who actually use transit. It also scored low for affordability in the area and for the percentage of people who don’t own a car. Otherwise, it scored well on transit quality, safety and walkability, among a few others.
So if South Pasadena leaders want to boost the Mission station score, they need to encourage people in the area to ride transit more. Certainly building more affordable housing nearby would help, as lower-income people tend to ride transit more often. And presumably the station will benefit from the opening of new lines like the Regional Connector and Expo, which might encourage more locals to ride transit to access more destinations.
But overall, the data reveal that the station area is not that competitive with other rail stations in its place type around the state. They also show that just building a few nice projects nearby is not enough to create a thriving, truly transit-oriented neighborhood. The neighborhood may be thriving, but not many people actually use transit.
Perhaps this station and others like it along the Gold Line, such as Del Mar, will benefit from a newer version of the report card. The 2010 census, on which much of the ridership data was based, does not capture the opening of new lines like Expo and the Gold Line eastside extension, and it doesn’t capture new transit riders moving into the neighborhood in the past few years.
But the data do not lie, and local leaders should explore ways to encourage more transit ridership in that station area if they want a better score in the future.
Robert L. Davis, a longtime Angeleno from the San Gabriel Valley, emailed me an update on the construction of the Gold Line light rail extension to Azusa. Davis sent me some recollections on San Gabriel train history that I posted last year. He remembers the original Pacific Electric streetcar lines on the right-of-way, back when the area from his boyhood was “a land of cow pastures and orange groves”:
Although I can remember my mother buying milk at an East Pasadena dairy where it came from cows we knew personally, and when I was in kindergarten in Monrovia, we little ones went on a field trip to an orange packing plant near our school (Santa Fe School, named after the railway), them days is gone forever.
His update on the Gold Line extension construction (sent in December):
This photo was taken on Nov. 23 and is already outdated. The trolley wire is now suspended from the messenger cable and is in place from here (California Ave.) to Mayflower Ave. in Monrovia. The photo is looking east, and from here the wire goes all the way past the Miller brewery in Irwindale. Except for the final “fine tuning”, the track is complete from Sierra Madre Villa to the Azusa-Glendora boundary:
And then a nice comparison of modern overhead wire installation compared to the old school:
A Mass Electric Construction crew installing the trolley wire in Duarte, near the City of Hope Medical Center. I found this process interesting, being a some-time member of the Overhead Lines dept. at Orange Empire Railway Museum (oerm.org):
This is how the Pacific Electric did it–a crew of volunteer linemen at OERM electrifying the north main line with a wooden tower car. One of my “dreams come true” is running this relic, which went by my house when I was a lad:
Many thanks to Robert for passing along these photos, updates, and recollections.