Oncoming train: Expo Line opens today

2016 is already shaping up to be quite the year for change at Santa Monica College. With a new Chief of Police, a new college president, and longstanding construction projects like "The Pit" on Pico finally getting underway, it’s a time for the new to take over.

As if to punctuate this semester of fresh starts, the long-in-development Expo Line Extension is opening today, Friday, May 20. The light rail line extends the Expo Line from its current terminus in Culver City 6.6 miles west, creating a non-automobile based public transportation option that can carry an expected 64,000 daily riders by 2030 all the way from Downtown LA to the Santa Monica Pier in less than an hour for $1.75.

This achievement for LA public transit marks the first time the west side of LA County will be connected to the rest by rail in over half a century. After a series of buyouts in what was later known as “The Great American Streetcar Scandal,” and the expanding love of automobiles led to the death of the Pacific Electric “Red Car” railway in the early 1950s, and by 1963, the system had been completely converted to bus lines.

Beginning in the 1970s, the long process of rebuilding the county’s rail system began. However, it still took another 30 years for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority (LACMTA/Metro) to officially form in 1993, which would be the organization to lead the way in LA County transit construction.

After major delays to rail projects due to funding issues were resolved with the 1998 passage of Measure A (which prevented further public funding of subway construction) by 2006, Metro had opened several light rail networks across the county. In 2006 construction had begun on the Expo Line's "Phase 1" connecting Downtown LA to the west side along the former Pacific Electric Air Line. Though there were cost overruns and fights between the Expo board and Culver City that led to delays, the first phase was completed by 2012.

Mostly funded by the passage of Measure R, "Phase 2" of the Expo Line connecting Santa Monica to the rest of the rail network began in earnest after the construction contract was awarded to Skanska-Rados, Joint Venture in March 2011. Construction ran much more smoothly and was completed on schedule by the firm, in part due to the recent drought, as there were fewer delays due to weather. After major construction was completed in 2015, the line has been running tests in preparation for its opening today.

But it doesn’t take a deep knowledge of the long and tumultuous history of light rail in LA to be excited about the opening of the Expo Line Extension.

With free rides along the line on both today (starting at noon) and tomorrow, as well as community parties at six stations — Downtown Santa Monica, 17th St./SMC, 26th St./Bergamont, Expo/Bundy, Palms, and Culver City — beginning tomorrow on Saturday, May 21 and running from 10 a.m. to 4p.m., it’s going to be quite the celebration.

To see the historic opening of the Expo Line Extension, watch the video below:

For many SMC students, this extension is a definite boon. As Helder Amaral, a 20- year-old psychology major said, “I think it is a good idea because it takes me about two hours to get to school. If I were to take the Expo Line, it would cut my trip by about an hour. I would only have to take two trains and one bus. Right now, I take three buses, sometimes four if I'm late."

Ferris Kawar, who runs the Center for Environmental and Urban Studies at SMC, agrees.

“By providing more opportunities for students and staff to leave their cars at home, we are making a huge impact on SMC’s footprint," said Kawar. “Not only will we reduce pollution, but we’ll reduce congestion on the streets and parking structures, save money on gas and bring down the stress level of sitting in traffic.”

The environmental impact of the Expo is at least partially backed up by data. A study conducted at USC in 2013 on the currently extant first phase of the line that runs from Culver City to Downtown LA highlighted several benefits, but stressed that they were limited to areas surrounding stations. As stated in the study, the benefits were primarily “large reductions in VMT (vehicle miles traveled), some increase in rail transit ridership, changes in physical activity, and large reductions in GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions among households living within ½ mile of a station.”

A more recent study by USC and the METRANS Transportation Center in 2015 also put the kibosh on hopes that the Expo would be a silver bullet for LA’s constant traffic congestion issues. Drawing from a vast archive of data collected by Geo-location sensors collected over five years, the study revealed that the first phase of the Expo had done little to remove cars from roads, but offered major benefit for those already taking public transportation.

[pullquote speaker="Ferris Kawar" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]Riders will be able to read, get some work done, or just decompress and know they are not the responsible one behind the wheel.[/pullquote]

This seems consistent with calculations conducted here at The Corsair which indicate that, at least for those driving cars, the extension isn’t going to offer much in savings of either time or money, though there is still a definite benefit not having to deal with the infamous parking issues on campus.

With so many SMC students taking current bus-based public transit options, the lacking benefit for drivers will not be as relevant as the benefits to bus riders. As with Amaral, many students currently take buses, and mentioned long travel times that they expect to be dramatically reduced by the more consistent schedule of the train.

Kawar agreed that in addition to helping the environment, it was fringe benefits that would make the largest impact on the SMC student body. He brought up a recent study conducted by the school on potential ridership saying, “53 percent of students said they would be 'likely' or 'extremely likely' to use the Expo when it opens. This shows the strong demand to have transportation solutions that allow us to leave our cars at home. Riders will be able to read, get some work done, or just decompress and know they are not the responsible one behind the wheel.”

So while the Expo Line Extension may not be the ultimate solution for the city or the planet, and there have been concerns brought up over safety issues, it’s certainly going to be a major change for life here at SMC and it's been a long time coming.


This story has been updated from its original version to include video of the opening day of the Expo Line Extension.