Mayor Robert Garcia speaks about his vision for the Blue Line during a Metro town hall at MADE by Millworks Thursday evening. Photos by Jason Ruiz.
Mayor Robert Garcia has been at his post as a member of the Los Angeles County Metro Board of Directors for just over a month and Thursday night he took part in a town hall meeting to discuss his vision for public transportation in downtown Long Beach and how his presence on the board could help bring the city closer to accomplishing them.
The event, hosted by former Long Beach Post executive editor and current Longbeachize Editor Brian Addison, drew an overflow crowd to MADE by Millworks where residents got to hear Garcia’s intentions given his recent election to the Metro board, but also give input to issues that could be addressed to make Metro experiences better for riders.
Garcia said that investing money in freeways was probably not the best way to serve the area’s needs, instead saying that dollars should be put into improving pedestrian experiences, multi-modal transit and safety.
“A vast majority of our property that we own as taxpayers we have passed on to cars and to building these complex highways systems,” Garcia said.
With his new position, the mayor will represent a region that includes 26 cities, including Long Beach. He’s joined by other elected officials like Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and all five of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on the 14-member Metro body of which Long Beach hadn't been represented since former Vice Mayor Bonnie Lowenthal’s election to the board in May 2005.
There’s already an important vote that could impact Long Beach, and ridership on the Blue Line in particular, scheduled for Thursday when the Metro board will vote to approve contracts that would allow the Los Angeles and Long Beach police departments to assume control over their portions of the system.
The shift from LA County Sheriffs to LBPD officers could drastically reduce response times on calls for service and give the city an avenue to employ more officers without having to pay for them out of the general fund. However, the Blue Line suffers from a multitude of issues including safety and the sheer amount of time it takes to get from point A to point B.
Addison honed in on what he called the “elephant in the room” and posed to Garcia the double-edged sword of the line’s safety and the perception of how safe it is to ride.
“If we don't have people riding the Blue Line that’s going to automatically decrease safety,” Addison said. “But if people don't feel safe, they won't ride the Blue Line.”
Garcia said the average time for a deputy to arrive averages about 14 to 15 minutes, something that could be reduced to around four to five minutes if LBPD were allowed to respond and maintain a presence around the line. He acknowledged that the line is not as safe as it should be, but added the perception could be exacerbating that because fewer people are riding.
Another thing that could improve ridership is decreasing ride times. Addison referenced an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times this week that detailed the struggles of someone who uses the Blue Line to travel from Long Beach to Los Angeles every day.
Scott Wilson, a Long Beach resident and research librarian for the Times detailed the amount of times he was made late by Blue Line delays, noting that of the 30 trips he recorded start and end times for only seven ran on time. He also recounted listening to a fellow passenger plead with his boss not to fire him because he was going to be late again to work.
Garcia said that currently it can take someone over 20 minutes to make it from the Pacific Avenue Station, between 4th and 5th streets, to North Long Beach. That issue, combined with bottlenecks created once riders hit Los Angeles, has contributed to rides taking longer than expected, potentially pushing people with cars interested in using the Blue Line to drive instead.
With light synchronization—something that the public works department and Metro are currently collaborating on and could be completed in six months—that same trip from Pacific could be reduced by a minimum of five minutes, possibly 10. Garcia’s next announcement, that the more than 50 Blue Line rail cars were going to be replaced, drew a large applause from those in attendance.
“Between now and three years from now every single car will be replaced,” Garcia said. “We will have the newest cars in the rail system here on the Blue Line.”
If the line is sped up, made safer and has shiny new cars to carry passengers it will require an influx of riders to do that. Several members of the public asked the mayor to seek out innovative approaches to not only get more people riding the Blue Line and other modes of public transportation, but to make efforts to normalize its use.
“What about the youth?” asked one lifelong user of the Blue Line. “We’re trying to change the perception of who rides the train and how normal it is to use public transportation. So what is your opinion on how can we get more younger people and how can we incentivize organizations like Long Beach Unified School District to get more children using Long Beach Transit and the Metro, for free?”
Cal State Long Beach students can currently ride Long Beach Transit buses for a nominal charge attached to the cost of their student identification card but no other agreements are in place with others schools, something Garcia said he would like to change.
Long Beach Transit spokesman Kevin Lee said that a series of public outreach efforts are underway, ones that will continue over the next six months, as the agency undergoes a comprehensive operational analysis of its network. Lee said this was the first time it’s taken on such a task in the last decade. An online survey has been set up on its website and a series of community meetings are also scheduled.
If Long Beach is truly going to become a walkable city and have its transportation grid play into Garcia’s larger desires to create a sustainable city with less pollution and less cars on the road, it will take a combined effort between LBT and its newfound voice on the Metro board to coordinate resources to ensure better rider experiences.
The mayor called the notion that a bus ride from Bixby Knolls to Cal State Long Beach should take an hour “unacceptable”—and it is. While these issues will likely take some time to address and remedy, it will certainly be helpful the city now has a voice at the table advocating for Metro dollars to make their way to Long Beach and tweaks to projects that improve transit in and around the city.
“I feel like we’re in a unique moment for Long Beach with this Metro seat and transit and the folks that are on the transit board now to make some of these bigger jumps and changes to encourage better transit options for people,” Garcia said. “My hope is that Long Beach Transit can integrate better with Metro now so there’s better connections, better bus service and we’re all doing a better job.”