Sunday, June 16, 2024

Downtown Regional Connector train opens after 10 years and $1.8 billion

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In a ceremony punctuated by speeches, videos and streams of confetti, LA Metro opened its new 1.9-mile Regional Connector rail line on Friday, June 16, in hopes that its eighth train line will not only connect tourists to L.A.’s cultural landmarks but also bring back local commuters to downtown offices.

The county’s transit agency has spent billions on new rail lines but has not recovered ridership to pre-pandemic levels, mostly because of a shift toward telecommuting. Underlying the congratulatory speeches given during the 90-minute ceremony in Little Tokyo was a whisper of making LA Metro great again.

  • Government officials and LA Metro representatives hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony...

    Government officials and LA Metro representatives hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Metro’s new Regional Connector on Friday, June 16, 2023, in front of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. (Photo by Howard Freshman, Contributing Photographer)

  • U.S. Senator Alex Padilla, second from left, poses with Metro...

    U.S. Senator Alex Padilla, second from left, poses with Metro construction workers outside the new Little Tokyo / LA Arts District Metro station in Los Angeles on Friday, June 16, 2023. (Photo by Howard Freshman, Contributing Photographer)

  • Works by artist Audrey Chan, shown here on Friday, June...

    Works by artist Audrey Chan, shown here on Friday, June 16, 2023, are displayed on walls of the new Little Tokyo/LA Arts District station in Los Angeles for the new Regional Connector light-rail train. (Photo by Howard Freshman, Contributing Photographer)

  • The new Little Tokyo/LA Arts District Metro station at 1st...

    The new Little Tokyo/LA Arts District Metro station at 1st Street and Central Avenue in Los Angeles, shown here at its official opening on Friday, June 16, 2023, features artworks by Clare Rojas and Audrey Chan. (Photo by Howard Freshman, Contributing Photographer)

  • Works by artist Audrey Chan, shown here on Friday, June...

    Works by artist Audrey Chan, shown here on Friday, June 16, 2023, are displayed on walls of the new Little Tokyo/LA Arts District Metro station in Los Angeles. (Photo by Howard Freshman, Contributing Photographer)

  • Mayor Karen Bass addresses dignitaries and guests gathered on Friday,...

    Mayor Karen Bass addresses dignitaries and guests gathered on Friday, June 16, 2023, for the official grand opening of LA Metro’s Regional Connector rail line in Los Angeles. (Photo by Howard Freshman, Contributing Photographer)

“It will do a lot for ridership,” answered Ara Najarian, a Glendale City Council member and chair of the LA Metro board, after a photo-op in front of the Little Tokyo/Arts District Station that is one of three new Regional Connector underground stations. The other two are Historic Broadway Station and the Grand Avenue Arts/Bunker Hill Station.

The Regional Connector has been under construction since 2014 but in the planning stages since the mid-1970s. It cost about $1.8 billion to build, $400 million over budget and three years beyond its original opening date. About $1 billion came from federal grants, while local funding came from four Metro sales tax measures.

In his remarks to several hundred people at the plaza of the Japanese American National Museum, Najarian expanded on the ridership theme. “Now that it (Regional Connector) is completed, it will help catalyze ridership growth systemwide in the years ahead,” he said.

Metro projects ridership out to 2035, when it estimates 90,000 daily trips within the new rail segment, including 17,000 new transit riders.

Ridership on the bus and train system in April was 74% of ridership in April 2019, still about one-quarter behind pre-pandemic levels, Metro reported. However, April 2023 ridership had increased by 10% as compared to April 2022.

Metro CEO Stephanie Wiggins said in May that another issue — safety concerns fueled by those on the system using drugs, unhoused people sleeping on trains and platforms, and isolated violent attacks on operators and passengers — tamped down ridership growth. She said ridership would be higher without concerns about safety and security that keep potential passengers in their cars or at home.

In her remarks on Friday, Wiggins made a plea to telecommuters who’ve stopped riding the trains “to come back to downtown L.A.” She also continued her marketing pitch that has shown some success: Appealing to weekend riders going to sporting and cultural events. Last weekend’s LA Pride Parade brought out 150,000 people, with many packing B (Red) Line stations in Hollywood and downtown.

Lucia Martinez, who arrived from Guatemala to attend a blink-182 concert at BMO Stadium was planning to ride the system this weekend to tourist destinations. All rides are free starting Friday at noon through Sunday, June 18, Metro announced.

“We also want to go to Santa Monica. We want to go to the beaches. I heard there is a famous one, is it Venice?” she asked.

The connector line is also designed to make it easier and faster for local residents to get to their destinations.

“I don’t take the Metro that often. I bike to work or I drive. But it is great because L.A. needs its public transportation and it has gotten a bad rep,” said Gerald Nicdao, 37, who was snapping photos of the new Little Tokyo station.

Mandatory gorgeous photo of a new era for @metrolosangeles pic.twitter.com/5kg6sQBvqs

— Reed Alvarado (@GT_Transit) June 16, 2023

Like an enhancement placed over the decades old rail system, the $1.8 billion project provides underground transit to more places, such as Little Tokyo, one of L.A.’s oldest neighborhoods, as well as the Broadway area with access to Grand Central Market and the Angel’s Flight funicular. The Grand Avenue station brings visitors to the steps of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Broad Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA).

The “connector” part is more complex and harder for the public to grasp. Basically, the train brings together other train lines from the exurbs so passengers won’t have to transfer at Union Station, but can stay on board in a one-seat ride.

Some rides will be reduced by 20 minutes each way, Metro officials said.

The Regional Connector connects the A, E and L lines through downtown, providing quicker rides with fewer transfers to and from Azusa, Pasadena, East Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Long Beach.

The new connector melds three existing lines into two, the A and the E lines. The new A Line runs north and south between Azusa and Long Beach — and, eventually, between Pomona and Long Beach once the eastern foothills segment under construction reaches Pomona in about two years.

The new E Line runs east and west between East Los Angeles and Santa Monica.

The old Gold Line, which became the L Line, will no longer carry either name. It was absorbed by the A Line, a 50-mile-long light-rail train that allows a rider to go from Azusa to Long Beach without transferring to another train. “At 50 miles, we claim it is the longest transit rail line in the country, if not the world,” Najarian said.

The southeastern part of the L Line gives riders from East L.A. and the eastern part of the San Gabriel Valley a one-seat ride to Exposition Park attractions and Santa Monica.

“Transit riders who used to worry about making one or more transfers can now sit back and enjoy a one-seat ride to enjoy tacos in East L.A. and sushi in Little Tokyo,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor and Metro board member Hilda Solis in a prepared statement.

The bulk of the ceremony featured elected officials who touted the line as historic and a demonstration of President Joe Biden’s $1.2 billion infrastructure law.

“The president of the United States understands the need to fix infrastructure in America,” declared Mitch Landrieu, Biden’s senior advisor on infrastructure.

A plaque was unveiled in honor of the late U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Norman Yoshio Mineta, who passed away on May 3, 2022 at age 90. As a child he was taken to the Heart Mountain internment camp during World War II. He was the first Asian American cabinet member in the United States and served under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Landrieu called the removal of Japanese-Americans from their homes to camps one of the saddest parts of American history, an act that promoted bigotry and isolation. He said the Regional Connector, a project Mineta supported, is about bringing together diverse people in Los Angeles and Southern California.

“The lesson for us to learn as we dedicate this connector project to Norman Mineta is that it doesn’t separate or isolate but rather brings people together,” Landrieu said.

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