Thu, Oct

Earthquake Memo to Metro: Why a Subway - Not Light Rail - Belongs in the Sepulveda Pass

TRANSIT LA-In the glossy Metro pamphlet, there is the lead article: “Metro Board’s New Maverick Leader / Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts Brings a Practical Vision to Transit Agency.”

Well this is nice, but is it realistic, is it practical, and is this vision based on his own transit riding experiences and knowledge of bus and train operations? 

For me, that does not seem to be the case. The article states that Chairman Butts wants “. . .to consider an above ground train from the San Fernando Valley to LAX rather than a subway, which he argues, would be less costly and faster to build.” 

Faster and cheaper to build does not mean better.  

Metro is considering four concepts for the Sepulveda Pass Project: three underground and one above ground. Heavy rail used for subways travels up to 80mph and can carry more passengers per train than light rail which travels at 55mph.  

According to the Metro FAQ on the Sepulveda Pass Project: Travel times range “from 15 minutes to 26 minutes for travel between the Van Nuys Metrolink Station and the Expo Line for the four alternatives.” Clearly, underground heavy rail is faster and more efficient in carrying riders. 

If the Sepulveda Pass train is built above ground, there will be many problems. To climb the grade out of the San Fernando Valley, the rail line would have to be built very high in the air -- one estimate says that 50-foot high columns, or higher, will be needed to support the train climbing the steep grade out of the Valley.  

This raises very serious questions about how this structure could withstand the earthquakes we experience, let alone, “The Big One” which experts tell us is lurking out there, ready to strike and wreak havoc on a wide range scale.  

Subways have proven to be remarkably resilient against earthquakes. In the 1984 Mexico City earthquake there was a high death toll; buildings were leveled, but the city’s subway was not, and was even used as an emergency command center. 

In the 1989 Loma Prieta/San Francisco earthquake, the Bay Area Bridge was badly damaged. The Nimitz Freeway collapsed killing forty-two people. Yet, the subway, BART, was operational within a few days and served as a lifeline transit corridor.  

Freeways collapsed in the 1994 Sylmar earthquake, destroying overpasses, yet the newly built Metro Red Line was not damaged.  

A 2011 East Coast earthquake damaged buildings in New York City and Washington D.C., yet again, each city’s subways, including New York’s historic and extensive subway system, were back in operation within days. 

The Fukushima, Japan, Magnitude 8.9 earthquake of 2011 also struck Tokyo, but the Tokyo Metro re-opened the same day. 

The reliability of subways worldwide in earthquakes is stated in the Metro FAQ of the Sepulveda Pass Project

Why build a light rail over the 405 Freeway when it begs to be damaged in an earthquake, stopping ridership? And if the elevated rail line collapses onto the 405 Freeway, that too will be closed.  

During a major earthquake, the 405 Freeway itself could suffer rifts and splits, closing this immensely vital north-south transportation artery. But since subways seem better able to withstand the earth shaking, a subway under the Sepulveda Pass with a stop in UCLA would provide critical emergency transportation for medicines, supplies, ferrying the injured to the university’s hospitals and so forth.  

The importance of a subway station at UCLA is stated in the Metro FAQ:  

The Feasibility Study began with an analysis of travel patterns in the study area. That analysis identified UCLA as one of the largest destinations for trips in the Sepulveda corridor. Subsequent ridership forecasting confirmed the importance of serving the UCLA campus directly, as transit concepts that did not do so had substantially lower ridership. An aerial guideway in or adjacent to the I-405 right-of-way was ruled out south of the Getty Center because it would not be possible to serve the UCLA campus directly without crossing through residential neighborhoods or the National Cemetery.” 

The entire FAQ document can be found here.  

A subway to LAX could provide another crucial line of transportation from the airport to areas served by the subway. In times of emergency, air travel into the Los Angeles region will be vital, as will be moving out of LAX the emergency personnel, vehicles, products, food, medicine, and so forth. An operating subway out of LAX could serve the emergency needs of the region. 

With climate change and a heated planet, the Sepulveda Pass is now subject to frequent fires, which end up closing the 405 Freeway. If there is an elevated train in the pass, that too would be closed. But a subway would continue operations even as the fires on the ground are being fought. 

While it may be faster and cheaper to build light rail above ground, and while subways are expensive to build, they last a long time. The London subway first opened in 1863 and has been extended since then with the tubes still ferrying riders. The New York City subway opened in 1904, and those tunnels are still in use. After Super Storm Sandy flooded the tunnels, operations were back within days.            

Building a light rail above the Sepulveda Pass may initially be cheaper and faster than building a subway, but in the long run it could be very expensive. Suffering damage from earthquakes means closing the line and rebuilding at unknown expense since it would be assumed that other structures would be damaged. At such a time, building materials and construction equipment to work on restoring an above light rail would be competing with other projects and could be in short supply, furthering the time the line would be nonoperational.           

There are times when it is questionable whether the people making decisions for Metro actually read Metro’s own reports.


(Matthew Hetz is a Los Angeles native. He is a transit rider and advocate, a composer, music instructor, and member and president and executive director of the Culver City Symphony Orchestra. He is a CityWatch contributor.) Photo: Kent Nishimura / LA Times. Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.