LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS: At 10 years old, Valley’s Orange Line busway needs more juice, officials say

By Dana Bartholomew

November 6, 2015

AN NUYS >> When the first Orange Line buses rolled across the San Fernando Valley a decade ago, officials hoped they might pick up 5,000 passengers a day.

Within six months, the “train on rubber wheels” was ferrying four times that — a benchmark not expected until 2020. Ten years later, daily ridership has now hit nearly 30,000.

“This is a proud day for a Valley boy who grew up riding the bus right here,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti during a Metro Orange Line 10th Anniversary Celebration on Thursday at the Sepulveda Station in Van Nuys. “It has far exceeded expectations: It’s a world-class transit line, built more cheaply and efficiently than anybody thought.

“But now is not the time to rest on our laurels. We need to build (more) transit infrastructure across Los Angeles.”

Now with passengers on the bus rapid transit line squeezed elbow to elbow on their daily commutes to school and work, officials trumpeted the Orange Line decade but said it needs to carry more, and the Valley deserves better public transit.

 

RALLYING FOR TRANSIT TAX

With the Orange Line full, the 405 and 101 freeways clogged and Valley buses failing to serve most residents, they rallied for a 1-cent transit sales tax — with a “fair share” of billions for rail lines and transit upgrades for the Valley.

A proposed extension of the current half-cent Measure R tax, as well as a tandem tax proposal known as Measure R2, could inject $121 billion for new, people-moving projects across the Valley and Los Angeles County for decades.

Transit officials hope to put them before voters on the November 2016 ballot containing the presidential race.

“Failure is not an option,” said Phil Washington, CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which was launched 25 years ago. “We have the ability in Los Angeles County to be the Transportation Infrastructure Capital of the World.”

Car capital

After becoming the Car Capital of the World — with its world-famous customs, hot rods, cruise nights, drive-thrus and silver screen freeway traffic jams — the Valley hasn’t always been keen for public transit.

For years, its residents fought railways or busways as either noisy, a threat to property values or unsafe, especially for Orthodox Jewish walkers on their Sabbath. A bill by then-state Sen. Alan Robbins was passed in 1991 to bar any above-ground rail.

• VIDEO: Officials celebrate 10 years of the Metro Orange Line busway

But then county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky sketched an airline napkin workaround. While on a visit in 1999 to Curitiba, Brazil, he got the idea for what would became the Valley’s major transit artery — a bus rapid transit system with superlong buses on a special road marked with transit stations.

“I was blown away,” Yaroslavsky told the Daily News on Thursday. “My first reaction was, we can do this in the Valley. This is perfect.”

So on the flight home, seated next to state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, then a state assemblyman, the supervisor sketched a plan on a Varig Airlines napkin and said, “Bob, here’s what we could do....”

 

THUNDERBIRD DETAIL

It was Oct. 29, 2005, when Metro opened the $350 million Orange Line busway that ran 14 miles between the Red Line subway terminus in North Hollywood and Woodland Hills. Its custom buses boasted sleek noses and flared fenders, based on a 1957 Ford Thunderbird owned by General Manager Richard Hunt.

Three years ago, the transit agency extended it another 4 miles from Canoga Park to the Chatsworth Metrolink/Amtrak Station. The Orange Line now includes an 18-mile pedestrian bikeway.

Since its inception, Metro Orange Line buses have boarded more than 74 million passengers, have stopped every 4 minutes during rush hour, on time 91 percent of the time. To critics, however, they’re far too slow — with a trip from Warner Center to North Hollywood taking 45 minutes — and don’t pack in enough people.

Now the law against Valley rail has been overturned. And local officials and business leaders are pushing to convert the slower-than-expected busway to steel rails. They’re also advocating for voter-financed light rail lines from Van Nuys to the northeast Valley, and from the Valley to L.A.’s Westside through a Sepulveda Pass tunnel.

 

CROWDED CELEBRATION

It was a chilly morning Thursday when roughly 100 elected officials, business leaders and transit officials watched an Orange Line bus bust through a handheld anniversary banner, followed by a cavalcade of buses with hundreds of standing passengers.

“The Orange Line has already put a lie to the (Valley) stereotype,” said Councilman Paul Krekorian, a member of the Metro board. “The Valley wants transit. … The Valley will get out of its cars and use it — if it works.”

The far west Valley is experiencing a growth boom, with 40,000 more jobs expected around Warner Center, added Councilman Bob Blumenfield. And those people will need roomy and fast public transit. “So for me,” he said, “the top priority is increasing capacity of the Orange Line — and going to rail.”

Passengers, meanwhile, said they liked the Orange Line busway but noted its graffiti, trash and some shifty riders.

“I think it comes in handy,” said Chris Nelson, 18, of Van Nuys, who for 2½ years has commuted to Pierce College to study theater, or headed downtown via the Red Line to the Central Market. “It’s pretty fast but could be faster. A rail line would be pretty cool.”

CONVERTING TO RAIL

Converting the Orange Line to a rail line might cost between $1.2 billion and $1.5 billion, while running faster and handling more than twice the number of current passengers, proponents say. The problem, critics say, would be the disruption to tens of thousands of busway commuters during construction.

Some say the Orange Line busway can be speeded up, at far less cost, with better signal timing and grade separations at car crossings. Last year, Metro approved a study on how to expand the busway into a light rail system, with another study on how to boost speeds on the busway expected to be completed this month. A state law was passed last month allowing larger buses.

The transit agency is now considering whether to swap the Orange Line’s 62-foot compressed natural gas buses with 82-foot electric buses, designed to carry 40 percent more passengers at a cost of $1.7 million each. Its 50 older buses would then be reused on a Wilshire Boulevard busway.

“It would solve the crowding problem. Grade separations would mean speed. We could cross the Valley and save 20 minutes,” said David Fleming, a Valley civic leader and former Metro board member. “Rail can wait till later.”

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