Editorial - Saturday, December 4, 2004

Westward Ho
[Light Rail to Santa Monica]

Each day, 400,000 motorists form a snaking red ribbon of brake lights along the Santa Monica Freeway. Yet even as this freeway, one of the nation's busiest, grew steadily more clogged in recent decades, uninterested politicians and a knot of vocal opponents kept a planned light-rail line between Santa Monica and downtown on ice. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is finally poised to give a green light to the first 9.6-mile stretch of what's called the Exposition Boulevard line. That action could get trains rolling in 2010, four years ahead of schedule — and not a moment too soon.

The MTA, sometimes partnering with other transit agencies, has built rail or subway links to nearly every region in the county in recent years, but not the Westside. The biggest losers have been thousands of working people from Boyle Heights or Compton who travel west every day to jobs. But Westside commuters also have suffered.

Years of dogged lobbying by local rail advocates and city officials are finally paying off. The MTA has put aside the local, state and federal dollars needed to cover the $490-million tab. If the agency's board signs off on the project's environmental review next month as expected, bulldozers should be moving dirt by 2007.

Original plans called for a 17-mile line to Santa Monica mostly along Exposition Boulevard. Years ago, the MTA bought up the right of way, an old Red Car route. But fierce resistance from some Cheviot Hills homeowners who feared the trains would bring noise and crime stalled the project.

Now, a first phase will run south from the MTA's transit hub at 7th and Figueroa streets to Exposition, then west to Robertson Boulevard in Culver City. At stops along the way, riders will be able to transfer to existing bus lines, and expanded parking facilities are in the works. For the estimated 45,000 daily riders, the trip time of 27 minutes will be faster and far more pleasant than the freeway's creep and crawl or lurching street buses.

MTA planners say they have learned from problems that surfaced when the Pasadena Gold Line opened in 2003, including noisy trains and fears for pedestrian safety. The Exposition right of way is wider than that of the Gold Line, naturally buffering some train noise and vibrations. Also, the Westside route is straighter, meaning fewer metal-screeching turns. Finally, the trains will carry new, softer bells and benefit from better-designed grade crossings.

Support for the project's second phase to Santa Monica probably will ride on the success of these technical improvements and on Westside leaders who realize that riding the rails to work is not so wild a notion.

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