Mystery of the Green Line to not-quite-LAX

Gene Maddaus at the Breeze delves into the decision long ago to spend $700 million building the Green Line light rail for 20 miles from Norwalk to Redondo Beach, then stop it two miles short of the terminals at Los Angeles International Airport. Conspiracy by the taxi and shuttle operators? Nah, they claim to win if fewer people drive, regardless of why. LAX managers protective of parking fees? They say their best revenue security is efficient movement of passengers. Says former L.A. councilwoman Ruth Galanter: "I used to believe in conspiracies, until I discovered incompetence."

The actual explanation for the route is much more complicated.

The first thing to understand is that the Green Line was not built on its own merits, but as a condition for the construction of the Century Freeway.

Planning started in the 1970s, with the thought that the 105 Freeway could relieve traffic congestion along Century, Manchester, and Firestone boulevards and Imperial Highway. But there was fierce opposition from the community because the project would destroy homes and slice up neighborhoods, many of them housing low-income residents.

Lawsuits were filed, resulting in a 1979 federal consent decree that allowed transportation officials to move forward with the project. However, they had to provide affordable housing near the freeway, along with a mass-transit line that would be built along the freeway median to minimize its disruption to the community.

The Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, the precursor to today's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, began the process of planning the route.

At the western end of the Century Freeway, the line could either go north to LAX, which employed about 35,000 people, or south to El Segundo, home to about 90,000 aerospace workers.

"It was a clear decision it would be better to go into the El Segundo employment area," said Richard Stanger, who was the commission's director of rail planning. "The models and everything indicated it was much better to go into El Segundo and focus on the needs of the everyday worker."

But the models could not predict the collapse of the Soviet Union and, with it, the aerospace industry. By 1993, El Segundo had lost 45,000 jobs.

By that point, however, construction of the Green Line was well under way.

So transportation planners studied ways to build a "northern extension" connecting the Green Line to LAX. However, the concept was beset by problems, most of which still exist.

At the time, LAWA was working on a modernization plan that included a "people mover" - a monorail that would serve all the terminals and deposit passengers at an off-site location. Clearly, the train should go there - but where would that be?

(Fifteen years later, the modernization plan is progressing, with improvements to runways and separate terminals. However, the off-site element has been taken off the table.)

The Federal Aviation Administration also worried that a rail line would interfere with navigational equipment at the end of the runways and that overhead electric wires would intrude into flight paths. To solve that issue, the line would likely have to go underground, greatly increasing its cost.

Although LAWA officially supported the Green Line link, the transit panel felt the support didn't go very deep. Members speculated that LAWA didn't want to give the county control over its property, didn't think people would use the train or believed the project was simply a pipe dream.

Whatever the case, the Transportation Commission didn't press the matter very hard.

More by Kevin Roderick:
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Recent Mobility stories on LA Observed:
Riding the Expo Line to USC 'just magical'
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