File photo

File photo

COLORADO AVE — When the Exposition Light Rail Line opens for business in 2015, tens of thousands of people are expected to hop on to get to work, run errands or hit the beach for some sun and surf.

Public transit officials are estimating as many as 64,000 daily riders by 2030 and believe the rail line will dramatically change how people get out and about.

How those riders will access Santa Monica’s three rail stations is still a work in progress, but city officials promise one thing: those who wish to ride will have plenty of options to choose from. Hopefully most will choose to leave their cars at home.

“The city is working to provide a variety of choices for how [people] can access the stations that truly connect all of the dots, whether that be the Big Blue Bus, bicycles or pedestrians, so that we give people an alternative to their car,” said Kate Vernez, deputy city manager in charge of special projects.

Many residents hope that with Expo those who drive in to work or play in the city by the sea will instead take public transit, and therefore cut down the amount of rush-hour traffic that has made a quick run to the grocery store nearly impossible in recent years. Those who must drive east in the mornings would also like a reliable and convenient alternative to taking Interstate 10 or one of the bustling thoroughfares like Wilshire, Santa Monica, Pico and Olympic boulevards.

“The key is creating convenient connections so Expo’s reach extends beyond Wilshire and Pico,” said John C. Smith, a former City Council candidate and active member of Mid-City Neighbors, a residents’ advocacy group. “[R]esidents who don’t currently ride the bus very often are more willing to ride faster, light rail service.”

Those who live close enough can obviously walk, but others will have to decide if they want to drive, bike or ride the Big Blue Bus, Santa Monica’s award-winning public bus company that currently serves 51 square miles of Los Angeles County and provides rides to more than 20 million people each year.

Proximity plays an important role.

“I rode the subway in Washington, D.C. for years when it was within a half-mile,” Smith said. “When I moved where the nearest station was a mile away, it became a challenge. The BBB, in a sense, must help shrink the city so Expo is a better option to more people.”

Transit officials are about to embark on a two-year planning process to realign Big Blue’s routes to better connect with Expo. A consultant is being brought on to help with that effort. They will study traffic patterns, demographics and density, along with land use decisions dictating where new housing and office space is projected to be built. Transit officials will also go out and talk with local businesses that employ dozens or more and collaborate on ways to get them to carpool or take other forms of transit.

“Right now a lot of our lines run parallel [to Expo’s right-of-way along Colorado Avenue and Olympic Boulevard] so clearly there will be some dramatic change,” said Suja Lowenthal, government and community relations manager with Big Blue Bus. “It’s a great time to look at our service as a whole .… We are going to align our service in a way where people can look to us as their local commute, their local shuttle.”

For the first phase of Expo, the Big Blue Bus launched a new service — Rapid 20 — to connect people from Downtown to the Culver City station via the 10 Freeway. BBB also created a Super 12 route to take passengers more quickly from Culver City’s Expo station, where phase one ends, to Westwood/UCLA, a major hub in the network.

“There’s only so much you can plan for and then opening day is the reality,” Lowenthal said. “We are trying to cover every bit of planning we can before opening day. We’ll be as prepared as we possibly can be, knowing full well we’ll have to adjust and evolve as needs change.

“We’re considering everything. Even possibly going to neighborhoods we haven’t before.”

While BBB develops its own plan, city planners are gearing up for collaboration with private developers to reimagine the neighborhoods around two stations — Bergamot Station/26th Street and Downtown. There transit-oriented developments are expected, possibly providing some shared-parking for those who wish to park and ride.

Currently only one station, at 17th Street and Colorado Avenue, has dedicated, free parking for Expo riders who choose to drive. There will be a total of 67 spaces available, officials with the Exposition Construction Authority said. That lot cost Expo just over $13 million to acquire and it did so only after an environmental impact report said it was necessary.

That station wouldn’t have been built at all if not for lobbying by City Hall, which spent $300,000 on a study that not only justified the station, but also moving Expo’s tracks to run mostly along Colorado Avenue instead of Olympic so that it could better connect with Downtown. City officials wanted a third station at 17th Street to make it more convenient for workers at Santa Monica’s two hospitals as well as students and faculty at nearby Santa Monica College, Vernez said.

City Hall also advocated for park and ride at Bergamot Station/26th Street, but officials with Expo said purchasing property there would not be cost effective, particularly since there will be 250 parking spaces at Bundy Drive.

At the Downtown station, which will be located at Fourth Street and Colorado Avenue, it was determined that enough parking currently existed in Downtown to accommodate need.  Parking rates may be adjusted in the future depending on demand. Cheaper parking exists further away from Downtown, a decision elected officials made to better disperse traffic and give drivers more options.

While free parking provides more of an incentive to use Expo by those who live too far to walk or can’t bike, sometimes it isn’t feasible. Not all parking facilities in the light rail network are free, but yet people still choose to use them, said Gabriela Collins, government and community relations manager for the Exposition Construction Authority, the entity in charge of building the rail line.

“The majority of Expo Line stations do not have parking, and as you can see from the ridership numbers for phase one, the line is very popular, so we anticipate high ridership at the Downtown Santa Monica station regardless,” Collins said.

As of April 2013, ridership was just under 26,000 daily riders for phase one, almost reaching 2020 estimates.

Still, there are those who are concerned that without free or cheap parking, people will still choose to drive.

“Bergamot should include an extensive underground parking structure,” Smith said. “Bottom line, most people still come here by car. … Bergamot parking that includes Expo access would divert some of that traffic from Downtown and better handle the crush of cars that already exit Cloverfield [Boulevard] every morning.”

While there will not be as much parking for cars as some would like, city officials promise plenty of bike parking, lockers and a bike-sharing program so those who don’t own one can rent one. City Hall already has the nation’s largest bike-sharing facility just two blocks from the Expo terminus that comes complete with lockers, showers and a bike repair shop. City officials have also secured grants for bike-sharing programs at the two other stations, as well as for enhanced bike lanes.

 

kevinh@smdp.com

 

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