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Metro Board to Vote on Vermont Transit Environmental Studies – Proposals Include Center-Running BRT and Rail

Two Vermont Avenue BRT options – from Metro staff report

This story sponsored by Los Angeles Metro to remind readers of traffic pattern changes resulting from Purple Line Construction. Unless noted in the story, Metro is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content.

Under a motion being considered this week, Metro would further study Vermont Avenue rail options to allow for earlier construction of rail there "if additional funding materializes." Metro is already studying options for Bus Rapid Transit upgrades for Vermont, which is one of the busiest bus corridors in the United States.

Buses on Vermont currently see 40,500+ weekday boardings; this is a close second to Metro's highest bus corridor on Wilshire Boulevard, which currently sees 41,000+ weekday boardings. Metro estimates that ridership would rise to 60-70,000 with higher quality transit on the Vermont corridor.

Metro is planning to upgrade existing Vermont bus service to a version of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). The initial BRT upgrades have $522 million dollars in earmarked funding, including $425,000 specified in Measure M. The longer-term Vermont Avenue rail is not yet funded. Measure M specifies that Vermont BRT would break ground in 2024 and open around 2028. The BRT project is included in Metro's 28 by 2028 projects anticipated to be completed for the 2028 Olympics.

Metro's Vermont Corridor project would extend 12.4 miles on Vermont from 120th Street in South Los Angeles to Hollywood Boulevard in Los Feliz. It would connect with Metro's Green, Purple, Expo, and Red Lines.

Median household income in Los Angeles with Vermont Corridor highlighted. Map by Scott Frazier via Investing in Place
Median household income in Los Angeles with Vermont Corridor highlighted. Map by Scott Frazier via Investing in Place
Median household income in Los Angeles with Vermont Corridor highlighted. Map by Scott Frazier via Investing in Place

The Vermont corridor is home to a high concentration of low-income households, which contribute to high ridership.

In 2018, Metro hosted early workshops, sharing BRT and some rail concepts for the corridor. Metro is generally looking to mostly bus-only lanes, with possible limited center-running BRT in the four-mile stretch south of Gage Avenue, where there are wide center median islands that used to carry streetcars. Early on, Metro appeared to have ruled out fully-separated center-running BRT because, per Metro staff, the agency prefers its fleet to be all passenger-side door buses that would be inter-operable on all Metro lines. This possibility is back on the table now - see below.

Center-running BRT would also necessitate the somewhat politically difficult task of taking lanes away from low-occupancy cars and dedicating them to high-occupancy buses. It would dramatically improve bus speeds. Side-running BRT would remove some parking. Side-running bus-only lanes are worthwhile, but have been problematic in L.A., hampered by ubiquitous scofflaw drivers delaying buses.

Chart comparing Vermont Corridor transit options - via Metro staff report
Chart comparing Vermont Corridor transit options - via Metro staff report
Chart comparing Vermont Corridor transit options - via Metro staff report

This is a rare project where Metro has too much money for the watered-down versions of BRT planned. Side-running BRT is estimated to only cost roughly $300 million. Adding four miles of center-running BRT below Gage brings the cost up only very slightly.

Rail is an order of magnitude more than BRT; Metro estimates a heavy rail subway would cost $6-8 billion and partially at-grade light rail would cost $4-5 billion. In Metro's analysis, one of the biggest obstacles to rail would be the siting of a new maintenance yard.

In between the side-BRT and rail options, and likely close to Metro's half-billion-dollar budget, would be a robust center-running BRT - by far the most effective option for truly prioritizing bus riders. Though this option was not part of the options explored to date, Metro staff are now recommending it for further study.

Last week, the Metro board Planning and Programming Committee approved staff recommendations to move the Vermont Corridor project from the early planning into the environmental clearance phase, and to study "center-running - or similarly high performing" - BRT. Including more robust BRT in Metro staff recommendations is a bold step in an important direction. If only watered-down versions of BRT are considered for very high ridership corridors like Vermont, then bus riders are not being taken seriously. High quality BRT could exceed the $522 million in hand, but not by much. In any case, BRT would be an order of magnitude less expensive than rail. The majority (eight+ miles north of Gage) of a center-running BRT facility would have to remove parking and/or car traffic lanes, so the political cost might be a bigger obstacle than the construction cost.

At the planning committee, boardmember Jacquelyn Dupont-Walker introduced a motion that would keep rail alternatives in current environmental studies. The motion calls for Metro to:

    • keep "technically feasible rail concepts" in the environmental review "to preserve the ability to deliver rail transit if additional funding materializes;"
    • further study "extending the Vermont Transit Corridor to the South Bay Silver Line Pacific Coast Highway transitway station to ensure regional connectivity via Minimum Operable Segments, including identification of potential maintenance facility sites"
    • report back to the board in July, 2019, with a "Public Private Partnership business case approach for each Minimum Operable Segment."

There is popular opinion and ridership data that show that, in the long run, the higher capacity of rail is needed for the Vermont Corridor. Rail, whether light or heavy, would very need significant additional funding, including federal funds (more likely after a Trump presidency ends), state funds (including cap-and-trade and/or S.B. 1 - Low Carbon Transit Operations, Transit and Intercity Rail Capital, Local Partnership and/or Congested Corridors), or additional local funds (possibly 110 Freeway ExpressLanes revenue). With an overheated construction market increasing costs and other projects, prominently Crenshaw North, also pushing for accelerated timelines, funding Vermont rail will not be simple. On the other hand, the 2028 Olympics present a big opportunity, and the Vermont line would serve Olympic destinations in the Exposition Park/USC area.

Dupont-Walker's motion proposes extending the Vermont Transit project an additional ten miles to the Pacific Coast Highway Silver Line BRT station. This would run through L.A. city South L.A. neighborhoods including Harbor City North and Harbor City, as well as unincorporated communities of West Athens and West Carson, and the city of Gardena. Nearly doubling the project mileage would, of course, roughly double the cost. This extension feels like one way to pad the budget for a side-running BRT, though it would serve additional low income communities. It may also bring the rail line closer to industrial sites that could serve as a maintenance yard.

Metro Vermont corridor heavy rail concept map - via Metro feasibility study
Metro Vermont corridor heavy rail concept map - via Metro feasibility study
Metro Vermont corridor heavy rail concept map - via Metro feasibility study

Though some discussions have focused on rail vs. bus/BRT, there is a strong case to be made for both together. High-quality BRT and rail could complement each other the same way that local and express/rapid buses do. Different modes would serve different distance trips. Surface BRT would serve perhaps roughly 17 stations as Metro has identified, with local bus service serving in-between destinations. With a great bus service on the surface, underground rail might be built less expensively with fewer stations. Metro's heavy rail concept map shows just Wilshire, Pico, Exposition, Slauson, Manchester, and Green Line.

The full Metro board will discuss and decide these Vermont Corridor items at its meeting this Thursday. Whatever they approve, Vermont corridor improvements are likely at least a half-dozen years away.

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