The Orange Line’s Conversion to Rail Is on Track—Here’s How to Make It Worthwhile

A train line through the Valley will only work if the city’s suburban expanse adapts

The November passage of Measure M meant the green light for former pipe-dream projects, like a Santa Ana light rail and an underground train through West Hollywood. Another big-ticket plan is the conversion of the Orange Line busway into a light rail line, but even with the new tax dollars, construction on this wasn’t planned for decades. That was until a construction company pitched a public-private partnership to build the Orange Line light rail years ahead of schedule.

Metro is now reviewing the proposal, which if advanced, would mean Fluor Enterprises helps pay for planning and construction in exchange for either some of the fares or tax revenues.

Currently, the Orange Line is, by most standards, a success. When it opened on an abandoned rail right-of-way 12 years ago, it quickly exceeded ridership expectations. The workhorse busway now moves about 25,000 people a day between the North Hollywood subway stop and the Chatsworth commuter line station—it does this without competing with traffic, since it has its own exclusive lanes and adjacent bikeway. The Orange Line is far from perfect though, especially for those who utilize it every day.

While a light rail would help alleviate the bumpy ride that is typical with any bus trip, the current iteration is often stuck at traffic lights, which aren’t synched. This problem is typical with all the surface transit projects in the city, e.g. the Expo Line sitting at Vermont or Western while cars breeze by in the other direction. If the light rail is to be a success, Metro will have to address the Orange Line’s irksome crossings. The transit agency has recently said they’re evaluating intersections like Fulton/Burbank, Woodman/Oxnard, Van Nuys, Sepulveda, and Reseda to see if bridges can be built over them; this must be a part of the rail conversion.

There will likely be local opposition to unsightly bridges rising in the low-rise Valley, which is another concern. As Urbanize just pointed out, the Valley will have to move to a more dense future if the cost of conversion is to be worthwhile. New apartments, retail, and offices will need to go up along the line’s 18 stops so Metro, and taxpayers, get enough bang for their buck. The Gold Line extension in the San Gabriel Valley is another light rail line that runs through a suburban area, but its ridership is steady since it directly connects to major work and population centers like Pasadena and DTLA; the Orange Line will still require transfers to get to DTLA and the Westside.

Connections are also important. The Orange Line is lucky it connects to two rail stations—which feed the majority of its ridership, especially the NoHo station—but it misses important spots like Van Nuys Airport and Ventura Boulevard. The rail line may not be able to connect to those aforementioned destinations, but what about it extending it to downtown Burbank or the Burbank Airport? How about hard-to-reach studios like Disney, ABC, and Warner Bros.?

Another important consideration is how will the Orange Line function while the rail line is being built. Building sections at a time is an option, but if construction takes too long, commuters may just alter their travel patterns and never return.