The Red Line

by Tony Chavira

Some people see the Red Line, which runs from Union Station through Koreatown to Hollywood and eventually North Hollywood, to be a sort of entertainment backbone transit line for Los Angeles. There’s access to Olvera Street and the Gold Line at Union Station, Bunker Hill and (eventually) LA Live downtown, delicious restaurants and cool bars through Koreatown and Los Feliz, the touristy Hollywood spots, Universal Studios, and (eventually) the North Hollywood Arts District. There, I’ve met my “Ride Metro” quota for this article early.

But unlike other transit lines in the Southland, it’s a subway, and that comes with a certain stigma. This stigma (if you haven’t lived in southern California long enough) derives from our completely rational fear of earthquakes and the ambient awareness of the foundational instability in everything we’ve ever constructed. Of course, it didn’t help when Hollywood Boulevard sunk due to construction in 1995. But hey, when you’re paving concrete over sand, stuff’s going to shift around. We’re in a desert, after all.

Red Line map

The subway comes with its own set of perks and drawbacks. The biggest perk, I’d say, is the speed of transit compared to other lines which (in some cases) need to wait for traffic to pass before proceeding (cough cough Blue Line). I made it from North Hollywood to Union Station in a little less than 30 minutes; that’s got to say something. The biggest drawback? The cost, and I don’t mean the $5 all-day fare. Building the Red Line cost the city an average of $322 million per mile, whereas the Blue Line cost about $40 million a mile. This doesn’t include the full cost of fees and payoffs from multiple lawsuits that Metro and the builders had to deal with from angry local business owners who literally watched their property sink.

It’s no surprise then that a proposal to extend the Red Line subway to Santa Monica is met with everything but apathy. L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky backed down to the NIMBY community and halted any new tunneling back in 98, but Mayor Villaraigosa spoke to LA Weekly in 2005 and said that an extension to Santa Monica would be “the most cost-effective public-transportation project in America.” Verbatim. To blatantly stress the point here, the Blue Line is currently the second most used light rail in America and cost an average of $40 million per mile. Cost-effective.

So where are we going to get this tunneling/paving/lawsuit-paying money? I have a copy of the Long Range Transportation Plan next to me right now, and “Step 5” of “The Process” is to “Evaluate Potential New Projects.” How, you ask? Well, right underneath the graphic is says that new projects will be evaluated by “performance criteria and funding availability.” It is projected that between the years 2005 and 2030, Metro will have a total budget of $152 billion dollars. Roughly 7% of that is from a non-government source: our daily fare. If we wanted to pave a 10-mile tunnel from Downtown to Santa Monica, it would cost about $32 billion (back in the 80s and 90s, when things were cheap). That’s practically 20% of the 30-year budget spent on an investment that will NEVER pay off. Ever.

subway ad

Seems pretty grim to me because I really want a Red Line extension to Santa Monica (I have a parking space downtown). So let me suggest something really commonplace that the super-liberal people around me will probably cringe to read: LA Metro should SELL THE HELL OUT! If you’ve ever been on a subway in a major city other than L.A., you’d notice advertisements everywhere you look. Their rates are very similar to rates for magazine ads, and the Metro absolutely has market research ready to provide to potential advertisers who are wary of the exposure benefits. Metro knows exactly how many views the ads would receive, and they know targeted audience very well, mostly due to that fact that they’re in a city where you actually need to advertise to get people to use public transit. It’s a damn shame.

Let’s just say that one full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times would run you about $70,000 and the LA Times has about 907,000 daily readers; 907,000 pair of open eyeballs. The Red Line (including Purple Line) has about 128,000 daily riders. Subway systems in London are wall-to-wall advertising. Does the Metro Board somehow not know this?

IF only 40 different advertisements ran for two weeks at a flat rate of $30,000 per ad in 20 locations throughout the Red Line (which is a great deal for advertisers, I might add), that’s $2.4 million per month of extra revenue for Metro projects. In a year, that’s $28 million. There are currently five separate light rail lines in Los Angeles, amounting to $140 million a year. After thirty years (not accounting for inflation, growth of ridership OR an increase in advertising rates), that’s 4.2 billion bucks. The entire Blue Line was $877 million. The Green Line over the 105 freeway was $718 million total. At this rate, you can pay for a new above-ground light rail in Los Angeles about every 6 or 7 years

Then we can devote as much money as we like to a Red Line extension to Santa Monica and not sacrifice the Expo Line, the Yellow Line, or the Silver Line.

What do you think?

Tony Chavira is the President of FourStory, a nonprofit organization that promotes fairness and social justice through strong writing and storytelling. He is also the Program Developer at RACAIA Architecture, writes and posts comics at Minefield Wonderland, and teaches Business Report Writing at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
tony@fourstory.org

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