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The total projected cost of both phases of the construction of the line is $2.43 billion. At that rate, it will take 34.7 years for the train to collect enough revenue to pay for the cost of construction. And that math only works if the train carries 64,000 full-fare passengers beginning right now rather than in 2030. The Expo Line has been under development since 1990, but the MTA now hopes that it can be paid for with a half-cent sales tax [pdf] approved by voters (for all traffic-relief purposes, not just the Expo Line) in 2008. This tax is expected to raise $30 billion over its 30-year life.
The train's economics do not appear to be promising. How about its performance as a vehicle?
Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne pans the Expo Line’s design, accusing it of lacking a Big Metaphorical Idea. This appears to be related to the “empathy” concept expounded by transit seer Darrin Nordahl, who holds that the purpose of mass transit is to provide its users with a sense of meaning.
But Expo riders seemed generally happy with the train, which boasts broad, tall windows and rides quietly.
Nathaniel Cleveland, seen here traveling westbound through the increasingly empty city, has an eight-block walk to the station at Pico Boulevard, but the Expo Line delivers him directly to his job at L.A. County’s Museum of Natural History. He says he would be unable to make such a direct trip taking buses.
Cleveland confirms that he has not at any time been in need of a Big Metaphorical Idea and found the Expo Line unable to supply it.
Gerald Hinkson calls the Expo Line a “good value” that “beats the bus.” He would like to see the line complete its second phase.
“I’d have to wait a half hour to 45 minutes for the bus,” Hinkson says. “The train comes every 12 minutes or so.”
One train rider we spoke with was traveling along the sort of very indirect route MTA authorities hope many Los Angeles travelers can be made to accept. Starting from the station at the corner of La Brea and Jefferson Boulevards, student Dean Olivera was traveling due east to Downtown L.A., then transferring to the Red Line subway to take him along a Northwesterly route to Hollywood.
There already is direct north-south bus service between Olivera’s two destinations, on the 212/312 line [pdf] that runs up La Brea Boulevard to the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. But Olivera, who is studying to be a sound engineer, says he dislikes crowded buses.
Most of the riders we spoke with had already taken the Expo Line a few times.
During a rush-hour breakdown, one of us (Shackford) experienced a less enthusiastic crowd. Passengers were stuck for more than 30 minutes, in both a sealed car and at the platform, due to what has been reported as a combination of a relay switch malfunction and a stalled train. The mishap was even noticed by the Los Angeles Times, which called the delay “brief.” In the end, the trip the length of the line took almost exactly an hour. (Without delays, the Expo Line seems to complete the trip from La Cienega to 7th in about half an hour.)
At no time did we observe any train carrying more than 50 passengers, nor did any train either of us rode carry more than 50 people over the length of its journey.