The New Blue Line: $1.2B Overhaul Over Next Six Years

After nearly a quarter of a century in operation, Los Angeles County’s oldest and most popular light-rail line—Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro)’s Blue Line—will see a six-year, $1.2B overhaul.

The massive capital project will be funded through Measure R, the $40B, half-cent sales tax initiative overwhelmingly passed by Angelino County voters in 2008 in order to relieve traffic issues and upgrade transportation efforts across the span of thirty years. This comes at a perfect time: Metro currently faces an operating deficit of some $36.8M over the next two years, which has prompted the possibility of several fare increases.

Even more, the upgrades are severely needed in what is one of the nation’s most heavily used light-rails: 90,000 people board it every day as it passes along its 22-mile stretch between Downtown Long Beach and Downtown LA—and largely, it services areas which are deeply concentrated with folk who depend on transit. As noted by current mayoral candidate and Vice Mayor Robert Garcia, Long Beach has been “aggressively advocating for change and improvements along the Blue Line for years.”

The overhaul follows the $260M already spent by Metro on the Blue Line in regard to upgrading crossings, signal lights, and lights on the trains themselves.

“The thing that people are going to immediately notice is new painting and brand new cars,” said Paul Gonzales, Senior Media Relations Officer for Metro. “We’re going to be spending upwards of $739M on new cars and upgrades to existing cars.”

The upgrades to existing cars will involve an entire stripping—inside and out with some even stripped down to their chassis—ultimately resulting in new painting, new floors, and new interiors, or what Gonzales described as “essentially brand-new remodeled cars” in addition to the newly purchased cars.

The first of the new cars will arrive in August of 2015 and continue to be added through 2019.

In regard to direct infrastructure, i.e. the track itself and the catenary lines, the major changes will be in the Long Beach area. Tracks stretching from Willow to the Downtown Long Beach transit mall will be replaced entirely due to corrosion on the tracks that has been building up over the decades. Catenary lines in both Downtown Long Beach and Downtown LA will be replaced.

“This is going to take place over the next six years,” Gonzales said. “So there is obviously going to be periodic service interruptions. We will most certainly try to minimize those interruptions by having the work done in non-peak hours—weekends and nighttimes—but because of the scope and nature of the project, some work has to be done in the daytime hours.”

To fight the possible congestion and/or closing of stations, Metro will be providing bus shuttles to transfer people to the nearest stations.

As for traffic light synchronization in Long Beach—it is the only stretch of the Blue Line that doesn’t have a signal preemption system, providing favor to the passing train rather than cars—is still up in the air. 32 signals paralleling the Blue Line in Long Beach often add exorbitant times to commutes, diffusing the purpose of using the light-rail: efficient, speedy transfers from Long Beach to LA.

“That is nothing Metro can do unilaterally,” Gonzales said. “One of the issues that faces the City of Long Beach is how to keep their own traffic moving”—echoing City Traffic Engineer Dave Roseman—“so this is always an issue where compromise is paramount. And as more people move from cars to transit—as many are—then perhaps these issues will become easier to solve.”

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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food to politics to urban transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 12 nominations and an additional win for Best Political Commentary. Born in Big Bear, he has lived in Long Beach since college. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.