South Bay residents, politicians and businesses fret as LA Metro plans Green Line extension
by David Mendez
For an area within a stone’s throw of busy Inglewood Boulevard and 190th Street, the neighborhood that surrounds Redondo Beach’s Franklin Park is quiet, even on a Saturday afternoon.
Walking the sidewalks, the loudest sounds are cheers from a birthday party at the park itself, a dog barking, or dishes rattling around while people make dinner. At least, until a BNSF railroad freight train rolls down the tracks that ride the border between Torrance and Redondo Beach.
Robert Painter and his family live along those tracks, which he can see from his living room couch.
“My son loves it,” Painter said. “But he’s at that age where they all love trains.”
Painter can deal with it too – he and his family have lived at the home for seven years, and knew the freighters would be a function of everyday life when they moved in.
A plan to run a light rail commuter train down that same path, however, wasn’t something he expected to deal with. He, like his neighbors, worry about the frequency of passenger-filled trains rolling past his backyard every six to 12 minutes, alongside the approximately twice-daily freight trains.
“We’re going to think about moving, if that’s the case,” Painter said. “I understand the benefits, but I’m in the NIMBY camp.”
Reviving a plan that’s more than a decade old, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority is once again seeking to extend the Green Line light rail line. In keeping with previous studies, the line would extend from its current terminus at Redondo Beach’s Marine Avenue station down to the planned Torrance Transit Center, near the intersection of Crenshaw and Del Amo boulevards. Metro estimates that the extension plan could add another 10,000 daily riders to the Green Line ridership.
The impetus this time is Metro’s goal of completing 28 regional projects by 2028, in time for the Olympic games to be hosted in Los Angeles. Originally budgeted for $891 million with combined Measure M and Measure R funding, the addition of SB 1 gas tax grant funding has increased the extension plan’s budget to $1.167 billion, to help meet the 2028 deadline.
What’s at issue is where the tracks will be laid between those two stops. Metro has issued four route alternatives for the layout. Alternatives 1 and 2 would follow existing BNSF tracks, on an existing right-of-way owned by LA Metro, connecting with a planned Redondo Beach Transit Center before ending in Torrance. Alternative 3 would follow the 405 Freeway south, then along Hawthorne Boulevard before connecting with the ROW at 190th Street. Alternative 4 splits the difference, traveling down Hawthorne Boulevard until Redondo Beach Boulevard. From there, it would dogleg back to Artesia Boulevard to the ROW and down to Torrance.
Though critics have long labeled the Green Line as the “the train from nowhere to nowhere,” its ridership was only recently eclipsed by the once-derided Gold Line, servicing northeastern Los Angeles County.
Green Line backers would hope that the line, which runs from the South Bay to Norwalk, might match the Gold Line’s ridership gains.
The Green Line is by far Metro’s least-trafficked rail line. Its weekday ridership numbers have declined, year-over-year, from an estimated 45,244 in 2012 to 32,563 in 2017. Over that same time period, the Gold Line (which extended to Azusa two years ago) has increased its annual ridership to more than 52,000 daily weekday riders, up by 10,000 from 2012.
The Green Line was always intended to be a commuter line, though it has been afflicted by political discord throughout its lifetime. It began as a mass-transit concession to allow for the construction of the Century Freeway in the 1970s, and was planned to run from Norwalk and bend south to El Segundo, rather than north to Los Angeles International Airport.
That decision was made, in part, to take advantage of the aerospace industry’s workforce, and in part, because LAX couldn’t conclude where to put the line, explained Jacki Bacharach, the South Bay Cities Council of Government Executive Director.
Indeed, Metro ridership stats show that about 84 percent of the Green Line’s daily traffic boards between Norwalk Station and Aviation Station.
The hope for some backing the project, including recently re-elected Torrance Mayor Pat Furey, is that the Green Line could become a chief commuting option for those in the South Bay.
“My major thing is to get people to come here to go to work, and to get people to leave to go to work,” Furey said. “We can’t just think about this year, but 10, 20, 30 years into the future. That’s what we’re going to need: public transportation to get people around.”
The funny thing is that once upon a time, the South Bay’s growth was pressed forward by rail.
The BNSF freight railroad’s Harbor Subdivision dates back to the 1880s, and looped from downtown Los Angeles to Playa del Rey, then to the former Redondo port. Through the early 1900s to the 1920s, BNSF line wound through the South Bay’s oil fields and refineries south to the Port of Los Angeles.
As Redondo’s status as a port town declined, the Pacific Electric Red Car network – which famously spiderwebbed across Los Angeles and Orange County – opened its Del Rey Line. The line ran from Downtown Los Angeles, through Playa del Rey and the Beach Cities to Clifton-by-the-Sea, an ancestor to the area’s modern Avenues and Hollywood Riviera monikers. (Redondo Mayor Bill Brand is fond of repeating that the Red Car enabled riders to get to Downtown LA from Redondo in half an hour.)
According to history-keepers at the Electric Railway Historical Association of Southern California, the Del Rey Line carried as many as 1.3 million passengers in 1913, though that dropped to about 574,000 riders in 1938, its final year.
Today, Metro holds rights to the Harbor Subdivision ROW, and the transit authority views the land as its opportunity to connect the South Bay to the rest of the region.
“We have no connection to the regional system – the 405 is the most congested freeway in the United States, and it’s hard to get downtown [from the South Bay],” Bacharach said. “It would be nice for us to have a link to the regional system as the rest of LA County is getting connected.”
But residents and business owners along the right of way aren’t so enthusiastic.
“It’s scary to have some organization with that much power and no oversight,” Glen Brackenridge said of Metro. The Lawndale resident organized Right of Say, a resident organization opposed to building the Green Line along the ROW.
“I think we’ve seen too many examples where people are not using these transit lines, and it’s not as if businesses are building around them,” Brackenridge said.”To live in LA, to really experience LA, you pretty much need a car.”
Brackenridge is a native of New York, and believes that LA’s sprawled nature makes it “risky” to lay down rails, thanks to the “waxing and waning” of development trends.
“I think buses are ideal in terms of mass transit, because then you can alter to where industries are emerging … what if, for instance, Elon Musk buys a bit of land and puts in green tech, and starts hiring people? You won’t be able to pivot,” Brackenridge said. “But if you’re putting infrastructure into buses, you can be responsive as the city grows and changes.”
Craig St. John, third-generation owner of Lawndale’s Westwood Building Supply, would be even more affected by the current plans. His business’s lot, at the intersection of Manhattan Beach and Inglewood boulevards, has been identified as a potential location for a Lawndale Green Line stop for Alternatives 1 and 2.
His fear is that he won’t be able to recoup the value of the property should Metro move to acquire it, much less the value of his business. He estimated Westwood does $28 million in sales per year, which he figures makes him among Lawndale’s highest tax generators.
“I don’t want to be a NIMBY person. If we can operate and keep the business going, yeah, we can work with it and work around it,” St. John said. But Metro, he said, has not squared where, exactly, they would place tracks. If he loses the back of his property, he said, he’s finished.
“I guess I’m looking at Gardena,” St. John said. “I don’t want to move. The South Bay, I’ve been here a long time. This is my home.”
To him, Hawthorne Boulevard is the best solution.
“It’s hard either way, but there’s far less disruption of the tax base to put it down the middle of the big-ass wide boulevard than right by everyone’s properties,” St. John said.
The City of Lawndale would disagree.
“We are principally opposed to the Green Line extension,” said Lawndale Mayor Robert Pullen-Miles. “From our standpoint, what’s the economic benefit of having the Green Line that only goes through the city? No commerce [will be] generated in Lawndale, and we’ll have all of the negative aspects connected to having a rail.”
One reason for Hawthorne Boulevard’s wide, multi-lane structure dates back to its time as a Red Car line. The Hawthorne-El Nido segment connected the El Segundo line to the Redondo via Gardena Line from 1912 to 1933. Where the tracks were is today a median with parking for Lawndale’s main thoroughfare.
Building a light rail down that median would eliminate that parking. A rail station would add more complication.
“The city would lose 82 parking spaces, and we don’t have a lot of parking as it is. You take away those 82 spaces, and there goes the ability for a business to expand,” Pullen-Miles said.
It might simply come down to economics.
Alternative 1, along with the right of way, is estimated by Metro to cost $890 million, and would already be funded should today’s allocation of funds hold. Alternative 3 may cost between $1 billion and $1.22 billion. Metro reports also state that it would have the longest travel time of the proposed alternatives, and would cross as many as six intersections at street level, including that of Artesia and Hawthorne boulevards.
But residents along the right of way have not been swayed, moving Redondo Beach District 3 Councilman Christian Horvath to send a letter to the LA Metro board on June 22, advocating for Alternative 3 “on behalf of the residents … who are most closely affected by potential impacts.”
But owing to a belief that Metro is leaning toward Alternative 1, he also urged that Metro explore building below-grade trenches should the Metro board elect to study the ROW path. According to Metro staff, a decision is likely to come this summer, with some expecting it to be made during the upcoming July meeting.
“I’m making the assumption that Metro is looking at its projects from a higher-level view …. They could say, ‘I hear you, but it’s for the greater good,’” Horvath said. “But now, with additional funding [from the SB 1 gas tax] that makes Alternative 3 more feasible and it makes trenching in Alternative 1 more feasible. Since that new funding has come in, that may alter the equation.”
That puts the importance of the SB 1 gas tax repeal measure, slated for the November 2018 ballot, in sharper relief.
Right of Say’s Glen Brackenridge has taken the tact that repealing SB 1 funding would halt the Green Line extension. That SB 1 funding may instead force Metro to choose Alternative 1 gives him pause.
“But I don’t necessarily trust that Metro will channel funds they have into Alternative 3 if they can still get Alternative 1 through,” Brackenridge said.
South Bay Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, who is given credit for securing the $231 million in SB 1 funds to the Green Line by Governor Jerry Brown, has long advocated for the Green Line project.
“Everyone in the South Bay is going to benefit from expanding LA Metro by cutting down on traffic and cutting down on air pollution,” Muratsuchi said. “I hate taxes like everyone else, but even local groups like the South Bay Chambers of Commerce supported this. We need to invest in our infrastructure.”
But the realities of transit need to be acknowledged, Jacki Bacharach of the South Bay Cities COG said.
“Transit is less than five percent of our rides… we have to think about the tradeoffs, and each community is concerned about the residents,” Bacharach said. “I just hope we don’t make a short-term decision to save money when maybe we can do a bit more, or build something that doesn’t hurt other things.”
Brian DeCato lives with his wife and daughter just a few blocks away from Robert Painter in the Franklin Park neighborhood. Like Painter, DeCato’s property butts up to the right of way, and he’s similarly unenthused, though he understands the concerns and the alternatives.
“I know there’s a plan, as a county, that we need to improve public transit, but we need to do something that the people want… as a homeowner, I would hope that they listen to the residents,” DeCato said.
As of right now, he’s not planning to move, but he’s not excited for the future, should Alternative 1 come to pass.
“If it happens, it happens,” DeCato said. “I’m not going to be adamantly against it… but it’s going to suck, you know?”
Correction: The print edition of this story misspelled the name of Lawndale Mayor Robert Pullen-Miles. We regret the error.