As the Blue Line, the oldest line in Los Angeles’ modern rail network, nears its 27th anniversary of operations, Metro is redoubling its efforts to improve rail service between Los Angeles and Long Beach. According to a motion sponsored by Metro Directors Garcetti, Hahn, Garcia, and Dupont-Walker, rider satisfaction with the Blue Line has dropped in the years since the first phase of the Expo Line opened, while complaints have doubled. In order to address the issues the specific deterioration in quality of service that Blue Line riders have witnessed, the Board instructed staff to examine short and long term opportunities to make the Blue Line safer, faster, and more reliable.

The suite of possible solutions is wide-ranging. From signal preemption to grade separation to the creation of peak-hour express service to a route bypassing the Financial District, the directors clearly want their bases covered. During a presentation to the Executive Management Committee in March, staff indicated that it was their goal to reduce the overall trip time from Los Angeles to Long Beach from 57 minutes to 47 minutes. Cutting that 10 minutes may prove difficult, however. It will require Metro to figure out how to both get train speeds up and also to decrease the delays that have become commonplace on the line.

The sweeping changes propose targeting different portions of the 22-mile Blue Line. We’ll look at them sequentially, and try to determine where Metro might achieve time-savings, and which proposals might be the most impactful. In this post, however, we’ll just be looking at the shared track in DTLA. Fixing this section – and especially addressing the junction that connects the Blue and Expo Lines – is the sine qua non of achieving lasting improvements for either line, so it’s worth examining it in detail.

The 1.25-mile portion of the Blue and Expo Lines along Flower Street is heavily trafficked, and, as a result, provides an opportunity to impact a lot of riders. In their March presentation, Metro staff noted that there are 20,000 daily boardings at 7th St./Metro Center just for the two light rail lines. (There are another 27,000 boardings each day downstairs on the subway lines.) Once we account for Pico, and its 5,000 or so daily boardings, a quarter of all trips on the Blue and Expo Lines pass through some part of the Downtown L.A. section.

Due to the rapid growth of the Expo Line, Metro might actually be underselling the raw numbers of how busy the 7th Street terminus has become. The numbers they used are from Fiscal 2016, which ended in June of last year. However, with 48,000 average daily boardings in FY17 to date, ridership on Expo has increased nearly 50% over the previous year’s average, and it continues to surge. If each station has seen proportional growth, there may actually be 25,000 or more light rail boardings at 7th/Metro presently.

The takeaway is that Metro will be improving the commutes of a whole lot of people if they can speed trains up on Flower. For immediate relief, Metro staff are focusing first on making sure that trains get out of 7th/Metro on time. During the March meeting of the Executive Management Committee, they noted the difficulty at present headways of alighting passengers, turning trains around and departing within 3 minutes of arrival. Staff are focused on establishing procedures for accelerating boarding and alightings at the stations, creating an on-site command center for supervisory rail management staff, and training operators so that they will be able to operate either Blue Line or Expo Line trains as need dictates.

The directors also instructed staff to work with the city Department of Transportation to improve street-running operations, with signal priority, prioritization, left turn restrictions or even street closures. Seleta Reynolds, General Manager of the city Department of Transportation, previously had this to say about signal priority during a Q&A session on Reddit, “we are absolutely into prioritizing trains over private cars… If we prioritize trains over everything else, we might never be able to let people walking cross the streets. The balance is what we're after to get everyone to and from the trains as safely as possible.” Given that Metro will be increasing the number of trains running through Downtown by 20 percent when the Regional Connector opens, it seems reasonable to suggest that signal priority can’t be expected to remedy the situation on its own. Mayor Garcetti seems interested in closing some cross-streets on the Flower Street section to cars, but as Reynolds noted, pedestrians will still need to cross somewhere. And, even though some of these measures may speed up the trains, they are not likely to make them more reliable without directly addressing another issue: the wye junction at Flower and Washington.

The Regional Connector will alleviate one major operational constraint – the need to turn trains around at 7th Street – but the at-grade junction will remain as a hindrance. With three-car trains passing through the intersection at Flower and Washington every 75 seconds during peak hours, from an operational perspective the situation will be fragile under the best conditions. Trains wait not only for traffic lights and cars, but also for each other. Blue Line trains are limited to 10 miles per hour through the intersection by the California Public Utilities Commission. Under these conditions, fixing traffic flow on Washington and Flower away from the wye is probably a recipe for train bunching. For Metro to operate its master east-west and north-south light rail lines as planned, it seems essential that less friction and greater speed through the junction will be ultimately necessary. And that means getting it off street level.

A full grade separation of the junction will work best as an extension of the Flower Street subway. Metro transitions between subway and at-grade configurations in 1,400 feet, and the Blue and Expo Lines reach grade level just at 12th Street, immediately north of Pico station. Elevating the Flower Street segment would either require relocating the Pico station further south, or reconstructing the existing tunnel south of 7th/Metro to begin surfacing trains closer to the station. Neither of these options is palatable: moving Pico station down toward Venice Boulevard would reduce its usefulness, and transitioning to an elevated structure north of Olympic would be expensive and unpopular in the Financial District. Assuming some favorable solution was found there, though, elevated tracks would also probably fail to win the support of the owners of the new hotel towers going in in South Park, and even that of Los Angeles Trade Tech, which occupies two corners at Flower and Washington.

Putting the junction underground, on the other hand, would require a subway extending from 7th/Metro Center south to Washington, and the full grade-separation of two existing stations: Pico and the Blue Line’s Grand station. The Expo 23rd Street station could remain at-grade, or could even potentially be consolidated with Grand in one station on the north side of Washington. The subway extension would be similar in length to the Regional Connector, which has a lifetime budget currently of $1.75 billion. With fewer stations and without interactions with rail lines and historic resources, this project should be somewhat cheaper on a per-mile basis.

But even if it is, there is no billion dollars lying around that could fund this project outright. As I have done previously, I will suggest that the city of Los Angeles needs to be more active in funds procurement here. I think it is reasonable to say that construction of this project could be funded through some combination of city bonds, a Mello-Roos tax district, and state or federal funding to the extent that either should be available. On its merits, this project should be exceedingly competitive. Many of the riders that will make use of the Regional Connector (estimated at 90,000 riders daily) will probably also ride through this section. Ability to secure outside funding aside, there are also direct ways that funding can be drummed up locally. Several years ago, the L.A. Times noted that Los Angeles has granted more than $500 million in tax breaks in order to get hotel rooms next to the convention center. With the resulting build spree continuing furiously apace, the time is probably right to gauge the possibility of a special tax assessment for the properties that will directly benefit from a Flower Street Subway.

Looking finally at time-savings, the timetable for the Blue Line lists a six-minute travel time between 7th/Metro and Grand station, which is quite slow at 14 miles per hour. Running in a subway alignment, we should expect to cut about 3 minutes off that time. In the overall picture of the Blue Line acceleration project, that means we still need to cut seven minutes or more elsewhere along the route. Given that the expense for the Flower Street Subway will be greater relative to the number of minutes saved than some of the other options, some officials will no doubt question whether it is worth it at all.

But while the raw time-savings may seem small, this project should be undertaken with an understanding that the Blue Line’s scheduled times are becoming more and more difficult to stick to. When I took the trip recently from 7th to Grand, I clocked it at eight minutes, or 10.5 miles per hour. I have no idea if that was a typical time or not, but I do know that there were no delays announced and no planned maintenance. I also know that, despite Metro’s (completely understandable) operational focus on turning trains around faster at 7th/Metro, these two minutes of added time were incurred during the trip. In fact, during the first mile of the trip. This project is about containing risk. If Metro manages to cut 10 minutes from the end-to-end trip between Los Angeles and Long Beach elsewhere, the Flower Street Subway is about making sure that those 10 minutes are not lost due to delay. In that way, it is the key to any major program of rider improvements for the Blue Line going forward.

Scott Frazier is a graduate student at Cal State University Los Angeles in Public Administration.  Follow him on Twitter @safrazie.