Could the Sepulveda Corridor Congestion Reduction Plan Equal Carmaheaven?

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A map of the plan. Image: Google Maps and Juan Matute

With Carmageddon once again looming over Los Angeles, we have another opportunity to reflect on the 405 freeway: what does it mean and what do we want from it? 

What does it mean that the 405 between the 90 and the 101 has been under construction for the better part of this millenium, yet it still ranks as one of the most congested freeways in the U.S?  To myself and other transportation researchers, this means that adding capacity and managing the system at the margins doesn’t work for the 405.  It means that more innovative strategies are required for Los Angeles to have a transportation system that works better for everyone.

While millions of Southern Californians dread the weekend closure (perhaps not enough this year), a typical weekday on the 405 leaves hundreds of thousands of Los Angeleños wanting something better.  First, they want to spend less time stuck in traffic and more time doing other things.  Second, they want alternatives, like a robust transit connection between the San Fernando Valley, the Westside, and LAX.  Adding a northbound carpool lane and reconfiguring ramps between the 10 and 101 will not make the 405 any less congested at rush hour on a Friday.

Metro is working to create alternatives, but the agency is short on funding to implement them.  In June, Metro released an interim report on the Sepulveda Pass Corridor Systems Planning Study.  Transportation planners like to string a lot of nouns together, but essentially Metro is looking at options to move more people through the Pass, using buses, new lanes, giant freeway tunnels, and rail transit.  As of June, the were looking at 6 concepts with varied price tags:

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From the interim report on the Sepulveda Pass Corridor Systems Planning Study. Image: Metro.

Metro estimates that light rail from the Sylmar Metrolink to Century/Aviation with a tunnel under the Santa Monica mountains will cost $5.5B.  As only $1B in local funding is available between 2032 and 2039 from Measure R, Metro needs a new source of funds to complete the project.  Even with optimistic projections for state and federal funding and TIFIA financing, Metro faces a $2-3.5B shortfall in constructing this light rail line.  In order to accelerate the project as part of the 30-10 initiative to speed up Measure R transit projects, these new funds are needed within the next decade.  November’s Measure J wouldn’t provide any new funds until after 2039.  The financing program Metro plans to use to accelerate transit project construction already exists.

What’s missing? We need a source that can provide additional funds within the next decade.

Los Angeles needs a long-term plan that brings short term benefits by leveraging private investment in one of Los Angeles’s most consistently congested corridors.  When I looked at the report, I was surprised to see Metro believed that option 4 — a 10 mile, 60-foot wide toll tunnel under the Santa Monica Mountains — had public private partnership potential.  Public-private partnership potential means that there’s profit potential.    At $12.6B in costs, the toll revenues would have to be significant for the tunnel to be profitable.  I then thought — what if Metro simply converted an existing lane (as in concept #2) to a high-occupancy toll lane?  What could they build in lieu of a $12.6B tunnel?  Certainly the $5.5B light rail line (concept #5).

So, after some analysis, I bring you the Sepulveda Corridor Congestion Reduction Plan.  The plan is a public-private partnership that leverages immediate, private investment in the early years in order to bring bring near term relief to automobile and bus commuters, while providing a new source of funds to construct light rail between the San Fernando Valley and LAX by 2025.

Summary of The Sepulveda Corridor Congestion Reduction Plan:

  1. Construct direct access ramps to High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes on the 405;
  2. When the direct access ramps are complete, transition the HOV lane and one general purpose lane in each direction to High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes and add new express bus service through the corridor.
  3. Use HOT revenues to fund a light rail link between San Fernando and LAX with a deep bore tunnel under the Sepulveda Pass.

Map of I-405 Corridor Congestion Reduction Plan Projects

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A direct access ramp to an HOV lane in Bellevue, Washington. Photo: Flickr user WSDOT.

As with all plans at this stage, this is a proposal.  I stand by that the general structure works – Metro can use HOT revenues to generate significant funding for other projects that benefit the Sepulveda Corridor.  Direct access ramps, rail alignments, station locations, and funding for other projects are all subject to change based on the public’s input.

I like the plan because it effectively increases highway capacity without breaking the bank, and uses new revenues to fully fund a project that will bring commuters and other travelers additional relief.  I should note that it’s a well kept secret among transportation researchers that a free-flowing, managed HOT lane, can carry more cars and far more people per hour than a congested general lane.  It’s not that we try to keep this a secret — we tell everyone — it’s just that it seems very few people care to listen past the word “toll”.   The proposal will also create thousands of well-paid additional construction jobs for Angelenos within the next decade, while making Los Angeles much easier to get around without a car.

See the full Sepulveda Pass Corridor Congestion Reduction Plan

About the Author
Juan Matute is a board member of the nonprofit organization that operates LA Streetsblog.  He has an MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management and an MA in Urban Planning from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. He is currently a transportation researcher and consultant based at UCLA.

  • Cygni

    I sort of feel like if youre going to connect to the Purple line, and go through the expense of a deep bore tunnel under the Santa Monica mountains, you should probably do heavy rail just to future proof the system for higher capacity and to allow direct Purple line connection. Would also allow you to use the yards and current cars in operation for better RoI. Have the purple line curve right (or T junction for future Subway to the Sea expansion), and trains could run through to downtown. A heavy rail subway all the way to the airport might be too in fantasy land, but the portion under the mountains seems feasable.

  • Van Nuys Blvd. needs transit artery status a lot more than Sepulveda Blvd, at least until you hit Ventura Blvd. Get on a 233 at 12:30 in the morning, and you will be on an absolutely PACKED bus. I remember one night when a guy in a wheelchair was not able to be let on because there were two other wheelchairs already aboard. Van Nuys Blvd. was DESIGNED to have transit running along the median, for goodness sake! We need Van Nuys as a 24/7 transit artery. It is the second busiest street in LA City, next to Wilshire. Yes, you will have to turn onto Sepulveda for a little while to get to the Sylmar Metrolink Station. But Van Nuys is the street that has the most need for the most distance.

  • Dennis Hindman

    There would be no need to dig a tunnel underneath most of Sepulveda Blvd in the valley. Once you get just north of Chandler Blvd, the street is wide enough to accomodate a rail line on the surface. Subway heavy rail has a electrified third rail that would difficult to put on surface streets.

  • This article solves nothing.
    The only option that will work is Option 5.

    We need at least (!) the capacity of LRT to go along Van Nuys Blvd (Van Nuys is much-much heavier used by transit riders than Sepulveda), and then proceed south under Santa Monica Mountains.

    I don’t believe “there’s no money for it”. Quite pathetic, I must say. Other countries have been able to built whole subway lines while America is dragging its feet by the endless “EIR, plannings, and public meetings” while still giving no true mobility options to us. Yes, there is money. Plenty of it. The only thing our federal government has to do is take just 2-3 billion from its precious Highway fund and dedicated it towards our transit system, and – voila! Problem solved. The feds have been wasting 30-40 billion yearly on highways – to only further promote pollution of our air and creating even more congestion. So, out of those 35 billion – if you only take 3-4 billion towards transit, would solve the problem immediately.

    It’s pure baloney when I hear those pathetic claims “we have no money to build transit”. We have money. It’s just up to the government to invest it wisely.

  • Totally agree with you, Michelle.
    Great comment.
    And – not only should Van Nuys be selected (over Sepulveda), but the mode should be at least a Light-Rail line, with stations designed for at least (!) 3-car trains. The demand will be huge. And will skyrocket further if the line connects with Metrolink in the north, and Westside Subway in the south (or even LAX, if built further south).

  • Anonymous

     Permanently eliminating traffic congestion “solves nothing”? Really?

  •  “We have no money” just depends on who “we” means.  The federal government certainly has enough money, but it’s hard to get them to designate $4 billion for LA when they’ve been talking about ending all direct designation of money for particular projects (aka, “earmarks”).  The author here is writing about the money that Metro and the city have, which is certainly much more limited.  I think we’d all like the feds to start allocating some of that highway money to more useful projects, but until we figure out how to change congressional politics, we need to look for other alternatives.

  • public trans through bel-air? good effin luck

  • Juan Matute

    We probably have enough money for anything we want; it’s a question of priorities – we don’t have enough money for everything we want.

  • Davistrain

    Using heavy rail cars at grade level isn’t that hard–Chicago used to have “L” cars with trolley poles for the outer reaches of some lines.  Boston’s Blue Line uses overhead wire and pantographs once it leaves the central area.  The only real drawback is longer trains clogging up street crossings, but it’s not in the same league with 100-car freight trains.
    eventually motor vehicle congestion will subside as fuel prices keep moving upwards, and then choosing the electric railway will be seen as “good thinking”.

  • Dennis Hindman

    Light rail needs space equivalent to 2 1/2 lanes. Van Nuys Blvd at Ventura Blvd has 7 lanes (parking and travel), while Sepulveda Blvd has 10. You also have to consider that there will be bike lanes installed on Van Nuys Blvd and Sepulveda Blvd. So, now your dealing with only 6 lanes on Van Nuys Blvd and 9 on Sepulveda Blvd. Take away 2 1/2 and you have 3 1/2 lanes on Van Nuys and 6 1/2 on Sepulveda Blvd. Its really unworkable to put light-rail down the middle of Van Nuys Blvd unless you want to reduce the options for motorized vehicles to one travel lane in one direction, perhaps two in the other, plus a turn lane.

  • Dennis Hindman

    If light-rail was put down the middle of Van Nuys Blvd, there would also have to be lanes taken away from Ventura Blvd as that is where the train would travel in order to reach Sepulveda Blvd. Much more difficult to fit in a light-rail down Van Nuys Blvd compared to Sepulveda Blvd.

  • Ecarr1

    Dennis is right.

    Sepulveda is a wide boulevard from the 101 to Rinaldi encompassing the entire valley North to South and would be the LEAST expensive route since it could be built at grade for the most part. Van Nuys is too narrow for most of its length and you would have to build a subway or elevate the trains and based on this expensive probably will never be built. It would shave some time off for those who need to use Van Nuys which is only a Mile to the East. It’s use also will be needed to connect to West LA.

  • MarkB

    Remember why light rail is called “light”: it doesn’t refer to weight but to passenger throughput. The potential ridership on the Sepulveda line screams for heavy rail with a Purple Line junction.

    It could be easily engineered not to need a catenary for surface use. Just end the third-rail where the tracks cross a roadway then resume third-rail service on the other side. Since the train is far longer than any intersection, and will likely be at speed during any crossing anyway, most of the train will always have power. In this sense, it’s no different than what happens now on any crossover track: part of the train loses power but is carried by the other cars that still have  electrical contact.

    Chicago and Metro North have exactly this setup (sorry, not sure how to do a fancy link):
    http://cs.trains.com/trn/f/742/p/175310/1924179.aspx#1924179

  • Anonymous

     “It’s just up to the federal government to invest it wisely.”

    It’s also up to the voters not to be so effin’ stupid. However, they can’t do even the simplest arithmetic, and my countrymen appear to be the most profoundly lazy creatures on Earth, so they will continue to sit in traffic, like idiots.

    Shame they have to ruin it for everyone else, though.

  • Kymberleigh Richards

    The “potential ridership” through the Sepulveda Pass may not be as high as you imagine.  Metro Line 761 (admittedly, a bus and not light rail) carries a daily average total of 17,000 passengers, which includes those who only travel between points on Van Nuys Blvd. 

    For comparison purposes, the Orange Line carries 22,000 per day.

  • Kymberleigh Richards

    You’re right, Alexander, and Dennis is wrong.

    If this is to work, it has to be on the high-ridership corridor of Van Nuys Blvd., not Sepulveda Blvd., which has less than half of that ridership.

    The “taking lanes away from Ventura Blvd.” argument is a straw man, because if we presume a tunnel under the Santa Monica Mountains it can start on a straight line with Van Nuys Blvd. and then move diagonally as it proceeds to the Westside.

    Or does it?

    Look on a regional map and UCLA is directly south of Sherman Oaks on a line drawn north-south from the intersection of Van Nuys and Ventura Blvds.

    In the meantime, since this isn’t likely to happen for more than a decade, the Metro San Fernando Valley and Metro Westside/Central Service Councils are pressing for a faster express bus through the Sepulveda Pass once the HOV lanes are completed late next year.  I should think that those who are interested in providing an interim improvement would want to attend one of the two Council meetings, this Wednesday the 3rd (for SFV) or next Wednesday the 10th (for W/C).  Metro’s website gives meeting locations and transit directions:
    http://www.metro.net/about/board/agenda/

  • Anonymous

    I agree that the potential ridership on this line may call for heavy rail. We don’t want to end up in a Blue Line type situation in 10-15 years where the light rail is maxed out. I also think Sepulveda might make more sense than Van Nuys in the valley.

    I might also argue for more stops in the valley – maybe at Chandler, Sherman, Roscoe, and Laurel Canyon if the route were on Van Nuys. If the route were Sepulveda, I would say stops at Ventura, Magnolia, Oxnard (Orange Line), Sherman, Roscoe, Nordhoff, Lassen, SF Mission, downtown San Fernando, a stop or two along SF, and then a nice intermodal w/ a park and ride at the junction of the 5 and the 210.

    To the south, why bother cutting over to Century/Aviation, just because that’s where you could connect to the Green Line and the Crenshaw Line? The real attraction there is LAX, so why not just stay under Sepulveda, and have a station at Sepulveda/Century to connect to the people mover? Then swing over and connect/transfer w/ Green at Mariposa. That would set you up to continue the line south on the PCH in the future – you could swing back over to Sepulveda south of El Segundo. 

  • Anonymous

    I doubt the ridership on the rapid 761 is representative of what a grade-separated facility would carry. The rapid 761 sits in the same traffic as your car.

    Third rail would be a very tough sell for any facility other than a completely separated ROW. Metro and the engineer of record would face major liability if someone walked onto the tracks and got electrocuted. MNR, CTA, LIRR, etc have this setup because it’s a legacy system installed about 100 years ago. If you’re doing a surface installation, catenary is the way to go. Not sure how the costs compare, but it might be cheaper too.

  • Ecarr1

    Folks who want rail in the valley will need to make a possibly hard decision, a Van Nuys build which will be Extremely Expensive (and probably its doom) or Sepulveda Blvd.

    The LA city DASH runs buses through the pass, and once this line is built, the Expo and Purple lines should be completed. The consolidation of all commuter bus lines plus the conversion of drivers who travel on the 405 should make this a very popular line and it should be Heavy rail.

    Hopefully they can plan a connection with the Purple line so that they could run trains on that route as well.

    The Boston Blue line has both third rail and catenary so such a system has been engineered and could be used for this route.

  • I would tweak the alignment and run the line on Sepulveda/Brand north of Parenthia to San Fernando to make use of the existing median, I’d put a station near Brand Park in the neighborhood that’s surrounded by the 118, 405, 5. I’d also add stations to Van Owen and Mongolia for more local access. 

  • Magnolia * :

  • KRS

    Whether you do a light rail or a heavy rail, it should use the same trains as either Expo (for light) or Wilshire for heavy.  Probably the best way to go would be light that connected Van Nuys Blvd. with Westwood, then ran to Century City, then connected onto the Expo line in Culver City.  Having a direct connection (without a transfer) from the Valley to both Westwood and Century City, and also having a north/south link between the Wilshire Line in Century City and the Expo line in Culver City would give you a lot of ridership, especially if that same train connected onto the Crenshaw line, which could take you to the airport. 

    As to the route through the Santa Monica mountains, you could save a lot of money by building something at grade through the currently undevelped and very deep Moraga Canyon (which runs between Sepulveda Cyn and Stone Cyn).  You would need to dig a deep bore tunnel under the Sherman Oaks slope of the Santa Monica’s and then under Mulholland, but not too far south of Mulholland you could emerge into Moraga Cyn where you could run at grade for a few miles.    

  • Dennis Hindman

    Tunnelling for a rail line starting from the south side of the Santa Monica mountains all the way to Pacoima would be very expensive.

    Again, a light-rail or BRT line needs the equivalent of 2 1/2 traffic lanes to go down the middle of either Van Nuys Blvd or Sepulveda Blvd, plus there needs to be at least ten feet allocated towards bike lanes. That is 3 1/2 lanes worth of width and Van Nuys Blvd only has 7 lanes where it meets Ventura Blvd. So, that would leave, at most, 4 travel lanes on Van Nuys Blvd if a light-rail or BRT line runs down the middle of it. A much tighter squeeze than using the ten-lane width of Sepulveda Blvd.

    If Van Nuys Blvd transit users want to take the light-rail line on Sepulveda Blvd, then they could take a bus trip one-mile west to connect to it. The MTA has already presented this idea at previous community meetings about their considerations on which street to choose for major transit improvement.

  • Dennis Hindman

    One of the reasons Van Nuys Blvd is much more popular for transit use compared to Sepulveda Blvd is that you can get on a bus all along Van Nuys Blvd that will take you over the Sepulveda Pass. The only point you can do that for Sepulveda Blvd is to stand on Ventura Blvd a few feet east of Sepulveda Blvd. Put a light-rail down the middle of Sepulveda Blvd that will take you to the westside and you will draw transit users away from Van Nuys Blvd and onto Sepulveda Blvd. Similiar examples of this have happened time and time again when rail lines have been constructed in the LA area. 

  • what LA needs is a light rail that runs along Mullholland….wouldnt that be FUN!!!

  • Davistrain

    Viewing this whole discussion from the vantage point of the San Gabriel Valley, I see the dilemma between Sepulveda and Van Nuys Blvds. as a choice between “easier to build” and “where more people are”.  Regarding the “light vs. heavy” choice, that would be a tossup.  Third rail is marginally better for tunnels (although Boston’s Green Line and San
    Francisco’s Muni Metro have been using trolley wire in tunnels for decades).  If it comes down to street space on Van Nuys Blvd., “light rail” cars are somewhat narrower.  It probably depends on just how Metro wants to structure the routes.  Fitting subway cars with pantographs, if Metro wants to run trains from the Purple Line to Van Nuys, is not “rocket science”; the Orange Empire Railway Museum has a Key System “bridge unit” from the Bay area that used third rail on the Bay Bridge and trolley wire in Oakland and Berkeley until 1958.

  • Chance

    “potential ridership” is everything one would expect. Orange line is just another bus so if anything, double the number to get close to rail ridership (it’s also at over 24k right now).

    Also, sepulveda pass is the worst traffic in America carrying between 300k and 400k cars a day. Why this wasn’t made rail from the start is a testament to the political weakness of the valley.

    HRT maxes out at about 100k riders per hour per mile. If sepulveda is HRT, I would expect to see it maxed out in my lifetime. If it’s just another bus route (as planned and budgeted for) than I’d expect to see it maxed out before its first birthday with practically no benefit to the hour plus commutes that people see each day on the corridor.

  • Juan Matute

    I’ve seen a lot of references to Moraga Canyon as a money-saving opportunity to reduce TBM miles.  A CEQA analysis of this alternative is likely to yield more significant environmental impacts than a deep bore tunnel to Westwood. The canyon option might be studied in the alternatives analysis and draft environmental documents, but I suspect there will be construction and operation impacts that can’t be mitigated, and would require a statement of overriding considerations.  With a deep bore tunnel to Westwood as an option, and an engaged neighborhood, it will be hard for the Metro Board to issue the SOC.

  • KRS

    In reply to Juan below . . . Good point about CEQA.  There would be an environmental issue with construction, but the post-construction issues could be mitigated by buidling it in a bit of a trench, putting a roof over it, and then throwing a bunch of dirt on the roof and letting the chaparral grow back on top of the roof.  Once construction ended, neither the residents in Bel Air Crest or on Linda Flora, nor the local animals, would even know it was there . . .
    Would be way cheaper than the billions it would cost to bore a tunnel under the mountains.  A simple solution, but one that hopefully the folks who are studying this would consider. 

  • Kymberleigh Richards

    Not that this is likely to change those who think ridership through the Pass will be significantly higher for a rail line than the present Line 761 service, but new numbers were released at Wednesday’s Service Council meeting, and average weekday ridership for the whole line has dropped to 12,000 (including those who only ride between points on Van Nuys Blvd.).

    Of that, only about 3,400 ride to/from points between Sherman Oaks and Westwood.

    You would need EIGHT TIMES that ridership just to equal the Orange Line, which is presently at 27,500 average weekday boardings.

    Even if you can somehow prove a projection that high, it’s still not high enough to justify the expense of tunnels, be it for light rail or heavy rail …

  • Kymberleigh Richards

    Not that this is likely to change those who think ridership through the Pass will be significantly higher for a rail line than the present Line 761 service, but new numbers were released at Wednesday’s Service Council meeting, and average weekday ridership for the whole line has dropped to 12,000 (including those who only ride between points on Van Nuys Blvd.).

    Of that, only about 3,400 ride to/from points between Sherman Oaks and Westwood.

    You would need EIGHT TIMES that ridership just to equal the Orange Line, which is presently at 27,500 average weekday boardings.

    Even if you can somehow prove a projection that high, it’s still not high enough to justify the expense of tunnels, be it for light rail or heavy rail …

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