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LA Metro's Expo Line draws partiers downtown for growing social scene

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For the first time, the New Year's Eve crowd at L.A. Live will include partiers who rode in on the Metro Expo Line. Since the light rail line opened in April, it's pumped crowds into entertainment spots in downtown Los Angeles.

Many get off at the street-level platform of the Expo Line Pico Station, just a block from the restaurants, theaters and shops of L.A. Live. Every few minutes families, couples, groups of buddies step off the train, cross Figueroa Street and head in the direction of Staples Center.

A few days after Christmas, the crowd included Vanessa Pineda, who brought seven friends from El Monte. Their combined bus and train fare was about $30.

"We're gonna go ice skating," she said. "We took the Silver Line 910 from the El Monte Station all the way to the Expo Line from the train and we got off on Pico."

RELATED: LA Metro offers free rides for New Year's Eve revelers

They went to celebrate Carlos Venegas' 18th birthday. His friends carried bunches of blue and white balloons. Pineda said they don't have a car, and taking buses all the way would have required too many transfers. She said the Expo Line made their outing possible.

"Because it's really fast and just one train and it takes you exactly where you want to go," she said. Pineda often rides the $1.50 Expo Line to see her boyfriend in Culver City. She's one of many converts to rail's Westside expansion.

Ridership on the Expo Line averages about 22,000 people a day. Slightly more than half that number also use the Expo Line on weekends.

About 10 percent of USC football ticketholders arrived for home games on the Expo Line this season, said L.A. County Metro spokesman Marc Littman.

Exposition Park and the Endeavor space shuttle are a major draw on the Expo line, he said.

"You have the history museum, the science museums and the other museums there," Littman said. "People are going to L.A. Live and the Staples Center and the Convention Center. And to Culver City which is a major venue."

If you prefer to party in a big city, this is the year when critical factors converged to make L.A. that kind of place. Downtown's restaurant, arts and entertainment scene is building just as the unemployment rate is dropping and people seem to have a bit more money to spend on fun.

Warren Bowman of Venice and his friends used to drive downtown each year to see the Beatles tribute band the "Fab Faux" at the Orpheum Theater on Broadway. This time, they took the Expo Line from Culver City.

"The great thing was that we didn't have to drive, we didn't have to worry about parking, and we didn't have to worry about drinking and driving," he said. "It was a really nice relaxing ride."

They got a scenic bonus at the end of their ride home.

"The Expo Line station at Venice and Robertson is elevated and you get a great view of the city that you pretty much can't get from anywhere else," Bowman said.

Economist Lauren Schlau, who studies downtown for business groups and government agencies, said the hard numbers and demographic surveys don't yet prove the Expo Line's direct economic effect, but she's seeing anecdotal evidence that the new line is feeding the nightlife.

"Even I, who am downtown every day, can't keep up with the number of new restaurants and retail businesses that are opening along 7th and other parts of downtown that are affected by the volume on the Metro," Schlau said.

The Expo Line plays a critical part in downtown's growing role as an entertainment destination. Its eastern most stop is at the 7th and Metro station, just an escalator ride from a restaurant and retail row planned for 7th Street.

"Mobility is a form of economic development," Schlau said. "It allows people to go and do, in an efficient manner, the things that they need to do."

Metro plans to extend the Expo Line six more miles to Santa Monica in a few years, making it possible – if all stays on schedule, to spend New Year's Eve 2017 downtown with the crowds, then take a direct ride to the coast for a sunrise walk on the beach.

From 9 p.m. Monday until 2 a.m. Tuesday, Metro provides free rides on the Expo Line and its other trains and buses. All Metro light rail lines will operate overnight to take spectators to the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl game.

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