Plan for Gold Line to airport off track
By Richard Stanger
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa recently came out in favor of extending the proposed Gold Line extension to Montclair another eight miles to LA/Ontario International Airport. While the concept of connecting this airport to a regional transit system is great, light rail and extending the Gold Line are not the way to do it.
It would be better to upgrade Metrolink service and run a shuttle bus between that line and the airport.
Light rail is a mode designed to serve urban neighborhoods, not long-distance trips. More stops slow down trains and tire its riders, and more crossings decrease service reliability. The upper limit may well be the Blue Line between Long Beach and Los Angeles: at 22 miles it is among the longest light rail lines in the world.
The Gold Line's planned 24-mile extension to Montclair would increase the Gold Line's length to 43 miles (including, as it must, its 6-mile East Los Angeles segment). The extension to Montclair will cost at least $1.3 billion plus $500 million, conservatively, for the Ontario airport extension. Travel time to Union Station will approach 100 minutes. Is this what the mayor really wants?
Meanwhile, Metrolink's existing San Bernardino Line is two miles north of Ontario Airport. Metrolink service and trains are specifically designed for long-distance trips. (Travel time between Archibald Avenue and Union Station is 65 minutes plus at most another 10 by bus to the airport.)
The San Bernardino Line is severely hampered, however, because it operates primarily over a single rail track; trains can only pass each other in a few places. A second track must be built to upgrade the service and, of course, more trains purchased.
Orange County is already making similar investments. Within two years there will be 30-minute, all-day Metrolink service between Fullerton and Laguna Niguel (28 miles). Orange County's cost will be $400 million.
Unfortunately, this proposal would not get Metrolink trains into Ontario Airport, but it would provide the level of service along the entire San Bernardino Line needed to operate an attractive, dedicated bus shuttle. By comparison, the distance between LAX and its parking lot D is the same. In time this link could be upgraded to some form of guideway transit.
Getting back to the Gold Line extension. Its high cost and relatively low added ridership - estimated to be half that of the existing Gold Line in spite of an assumed $1.25 flat fare for even a 43-mile trip - makes funding this line problematic for the MTA.
However, fast, 15-minute all-day service can be far more cost-effective using diesel multiple unit (DMU) technology, a rail mode well suited to the needs of the Foothill Corridor. An example can be seen in Southern California. The 22-mile Escondido-Oceanside Rail Line uses DMU vehicles and will open this December. Its cost, $480 million, is 40 percent of the estimated cost-per-mile of the Gold Line extension. Moreover, certain DMU trains can operate on the same tracks as Metrolink trains.
At worse, DMU service would start from Sierra Madre Villa (after an across-the-platform transfer from light rail) and continue to Montclair or Ontario. Trains would be scheduled to arrive together. Would a DMU line be as high-quality as the light rail extension? No. Would it come close? Definitely.
It would be a shame if, 20 years from now, Foothill cities found themselves still waiting for rail service that could have been operating for most of those years. It would be even more of a shame if a brand new Gold Line Extension operated to Ontario Airport while Metrolink's San Bernardino service still operated over a single track.
Richard Stanger was the executive director of Metrolink from 1991-1998 and the Los Angeles County Transit Commission's director of rail planning from 1983-1991. He lives in Venice.