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Metro hoping riders will heed call to board $1.5 billion Santa Monica Expo train

The new Expo Line extension connects Culver City to downtown Santa Monica. The line opens to the public on Friday.
The new Expo Line extension connects Culver City to downtown Santa Monica. The line opens to the public on Friday.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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The new Expo Line light rail extension to Santa Monica that gets chugging at noon Friday may prove to be one of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's surest bets on a transit line.

The extension between downtown Los Angeles and the beach city cost $1.5 billion and took about nine years to build. Metro predicts ridership will more than double in the next 15 years — from about 29,000 to 64,000 rides per day.

It has a lot going for it — there's excitement about trying out the train and large crowds are expected this weekend when the public gets to ride for free.

But once the novelty fades and the sand settles on the new line, will it all be worth the $1.5 billion price tag?

"It’s definitely not true that every rail investment is worth it," said Ethan Elkind, University of California, Berkeley professor and author of "Rail Town," a book on the history and future of L.A.'s trains.

Metro's return on investment comes down to ridership, to both offset the cost of the train line and spread the benefit of public spending to the biggest group possible.

"It's really dependent on something that sounds really straight-forward but is hard to achieve in reality, which is that you have to have enough concentration of people and jobs within a half mile of stations," he said.

Right now, fares from riders make up just 23 percent of Metro’s operating budget — about half of that for more established systems like San Francisco and New York. And things are getting worse: ridership has fallen on buses and trains across L.A. county over the last year and a half despite billions of dollars in investment.

The new beach train could help turn the tide or at least positively contribute to ridership.

William Yu, UCLA economics professor, said where jobs are concerned, the new train looks very promising. It connects the burgeoning tech industries of the beach cities and downtown, runs near UCLA and USC, two of the biggest employers in the county and hits major entertainment centers like Sony Pictures.

But getting car-accustomed Angelenos out from behind the wheel could be tough.

Lexus technician David Sheehan works just a couple of blocks from the new Santa Monica station and loathes the parking and traffic there, but he isn't convinced the train would be any faster or cheaper than his car.

He lives a few miles from the nearest stop, so he'd have to drive and park at Culver City, which will cost $2 daily. Add on the train fare, and he said: "I'm almost saving money just driving my car. I'm just hurting the environment more."

The new rail has parking at just three of its seven stations. While expanding parking could make the train accessible to more Westsiders, the large expense of building lots would likely negate any ridership gains.

Elkind said the county needs to brings more people closer to the train line.

"The best thing you can do is put affordable housing – that type of investment is really critical to create that type of thriving, compact neighborhood," he said. 

More buildings could be a tough sell on the Westside, where development is a hot button issue. Both in Santa Monica and Los Angeles, voter-led efforts to limit new buildings have drawn tens of thousands of signatures in support. Fears of increased traffic and loss of neighborhood character have driven the anti-development sentiment.

The new train extension has its avid fans. Sixteen-year-old Kenny Uong is one of them.

"I love to go onto the sand and look at the Pacific Ocean and enjoy the view," said Kenny, a veritable public transit nerd. "I have a nickname for myself — it’s the Metro Kid."

He came to our interview wearing a Metro cap, shirt and tote bag. From his home in Glendale, he takes Metro everywhere, frequently photographing and tweeting his journeys, but he said none of them will compare to the one he’s preparing for this week.

He can't ride the new train Friday because of school, but plans to make a day of it on Saturday, hitting all the station parties and capping it off with a dip of his toes in the ocean.

But Metro needs to convince more than dedicated transit fans to get behind its plans; the authority will need to sell taxpayers in November on its proposal for additional sales taxes to fund $120 billion in transit projects over 40 years.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti believes the newly opened rail lines can usher in an era for Los Angeles as a modern-day rail town.

"It takes a couple of years for the network to come together and this is an incredibly spread-out city. But I think in the next decade you’re going to see not only the options to never get into a car but to get where you want to go on transit," the mayor said.

The Expo Line completion comes on the heels of the Gold Line opening to Azusa. The Crenshaw LAX line is halfway done, and tunneling will soon begin on the downtown regional connector.

The projects are all part of a future young Kenny Uong, at least, is ready to embrace.

"I really love to ride public transit. My friends, some are learning to drive, but I’m trying to persuade them to use public transportation. It’s efficient, it's safer and it’s cheap." 

Whether the new Expo Line will convince more Angelenos like Uong to get on board, well, that’s the $1.5 billion question.