Renovation project prompting 2019 Blue Line closure expected to change ‘perception’ of ‘unsafe’ rail

Shuttle service to be offered for Blue Line riders during shutdown

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Photo by Nicolette Aguirre
Sections of the Metro Blue Line will shut down beginning in January 2019 for a renovation project, dubbed “New Blue,” which will feature significant upgrades to the rail– that connects downtown Long Beach and downtown Los Angeles– in an effort to improve safety, reliability and efficiency, according to LA Metro officials. In lieu of the typical rail service, LA Metro will offer three levels of bus-shuttle service at all closed stations for transportation purposes to various stops along the Blue Line route. LA Metro officials said the shuttle rides are expected to take about an hour, roughly the time the Blue Line currently takes. Pictured is the Willow Street Blue Line Station.

Although seen as an inconvenience for frequent riders, the closure of the Metro Blue Line in January 2019– the start of an eight-month shutdown of the rail for a massive renovation project dubbed “New Blue”– will begin a campaign to change the reputation of what is perceived to be a crime-ridden rail, as stated recently by the Long Beach City Council and officials with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro).

The Blue Line’s closure early next year will be the first major shutdown of the rail since it first began operations in the early ‘90s, according to Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia at a recent city council meeting. Garcia, a member of the Metro Board of Directors, acknowledged the significance of the closure and the project at the Aug. 14 city council meeting at Long Beach City Hall.

“So, while the outcome is going to be excellent, and we’re going to end up with a better system and a good ridership and all of the things that we want, that shutdown is going to be very significant for thousands and thousands of people who use the Blue Line every day […],” he said. “We’re going to do everything we can to ensure that it’s the least impactful for the folks here in Long Beach.”

LA Metro is investing $350 million into the New Blue Improvement Project and will begin a series of construction and maintenance work on the Blue Line to enhance its safety, efficiency and technology, according to Anthony Crump, director of community and construction relations with LA Metro, at the Aug. 14 council meeting.

The project will be separated into two four-month closures, with the first portion from January 2019 to May 2019 featuring the suspension of rail service from Willowbrook/Rosa Parks Station to 1st Street Station. The second series of renovations will be from May 2019 to September 2019 from Willowbrook/Rosa Parks Station to 7th Street Station/Metro Center.

Crump said Metro is specifically looking at improvements with the train-control and signal system, rail tracks and overhead power.

The train-control improvements will feature the construction of four additional crossover tracks and switches to reduce service interruptions. There will also be an upgrade of existing train-control signals systemwide.

The track improvements will include the inspection and replacement of tracks in certain segments of the rail. The overhead-power improvements will upgrade and replace the power system for all of the 22 miles of the Blue Line.

The Regional Connector is also a major project that’s underway in downtown Los Angeles, Crump said.

“We are adding three new stations, but, more importantly, we are actually connecting the Metro Blue Line to the Metro Expo Line to the Metro Gold Line, and this will actually allow you to have a one-seat ride that goes from downtown Long Beach all the way out to Azusa.”

During the closure, Metro will provide three levels of bus-shuttle service to its patrons for transportation to various stops along the Blue Line:

• The free Blue Line Local Shuttle, which will serve all closed stations that operate during normal Blue Line hours
• The Blue Line Select Shuttle, priced at $1.75 with free bus transfers for those with a TAP card, that will serve select closed stations Monday through Friday during peak hours from 6am to 9am and 3pm to 7pm
• The Blue Line Express Shuttle, priced at $1.75 with free bus transfers for those with a TAP card, that has direct express stops Monday through Friday during peak hours from 6am to 9am and 3pm to 7pm
The above graph shows a map of the Metro Blue Line in its entirety, highlighting the various shuttle services that will be available along the Blue Line route during the closure of the southern portion of the rail– from 1st Street Station to Willowbrook/Rosa Parks Station– from January 2019 to May 2019.

In the last few years, Metro has made numerous improvements to the Blue Line rail, according to Crump, including the implementation of: new canopies; new paint; new LED lighting; additional CCTV cameras; tile repair and replacement; and landscaping replacement and irrigation upgrades. Metro has also added new walkways and accessible routes for those with disabilities. Moreover, there are 46 new trains and 38 overhauled trains.

The Blue Line, connecting those from downtown Long Beach to downtown Los Angeles, has had an infamous reputation of having high crime rates, as acknowledged by some of the Long Beach City Council and Metro officials at the council’s Aug. 14 meeting, where Metro representatives gave a presentation about the closure. However, since the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) began patrolling local portions of the rail last summer, crime has significantly reduced, according to Alex Wiggins, chief systems security and law-enforcement officer with LA Metro.

“We want to get to the point where every one of our employees, every single patron, can be anywhere in our system and 100 percent of the time ride without fear,” Wiggins said during the meeting. “If anyone knows about the Blue Line, you know we have work to do in that area, and that partnership with the Long Beach Police Department is really getting us on that path of creating a very positive ridership experience.”

Per Metro’s on-board customer-satisfaction survey, Wiggins said that 90 percent of its passengers feel safe while riding the bus and 79 percent feel safe while riding the rail.

“So, the idea is to get that 10 percent from the bus system and that 21 percent from the rail system,” he said. “These numbers need to be 100 percent.”

As of last summer, the LBPD patrols the eight Blue Line stations within the city. Metro and the LBPD agreed to add, in Fiscal Year 2019 (FY ‘19), two “quality of life” officers to the deployment schedule. Wiggins said the officers will direct their efforts to connecting homeless people to social-service resources. One detective position will also be added in FY ‘19 to assist with transit-related caseloads.

In a phone interview Thursday afternoon, Wiggins said Metro has “literally” quadrupled the number of resources for homeless people in regard to outreach. LA Metro has eight outreach teams– five people per team, making up a total of 40 individuals– who patrol the rails to provide support for those experiencing homelessness and mental-health issues.

Wiggins said the goal is to get individuals the help they need instead of simply removing them from the train.

“Homelessness is not just a problem that we can arrest our way out of,” he told the Signal Tribune, “so we have to partner with social-services agencies– and the ‘quality of life’ officers will be doing just that.”

Wiggins said the recruitment process has started in Long Beach to get the new officers, and they should be implemented into the Metro system in the next several months or “definitely” by the end of the year.

In his presentation, Long Beach was shown to have significant percentage decreases in crime from July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018. “Part 1” crimes are down 50 percent, and “Part 2” crimes are down 80 percent, according to Wiggins.

“The first year was really about taking control of some of the more serious crime on the system,” he said. “And, now that we’re beginning to see numbers that would be considered average across the country, we’re going to spend more time focusing on code-of-conduct issues, vending, loud music, things of that nature.”

Wiggins told the Signal Tribune that offenders who violate the code-of-conduct, such as taking up two seats or playing loud music, will first receive a warning and a pocketbook of Metro guidelines. A repeated violation will result in a citation or removal from the vehicle.

During the public-comment portion of the Metro agenda item that Tuesday, 1st-district resident Karen Reside, who takes the bus every day and has not driven in 15 years, commended the police department for its service on the Blue Line.

“It’s been a huge improvement on the nefarious activity around the train station since they’ve taken over the patrolling of the system,” she said.

Second District Councilmember Jeannine Pearce, a frequent Blue Line rider for many years, felt that the Metro rail’s challenge has always been “perception.” Although she has always felt safe on the train system, she understands that the public generally sees the rail as dangerous.

A resident in Pearce’s district also provided his thoughts on the same issue of perception during public comment, adding that, since the time he has been a passenger on Metro, the Blue Line has become considerably safer.

“The Blue Line has a long reputation of not being very safe,” said Andrew Caroll, a 2nd-district resident. “But, some studies show that it is safer to be on the Metro than it is to be in some of the surrounding communities that the Metro passes through. […] So, I would like to see more money being spent on changing the perception of the Blue Line, and also public transportation generally.”

In response to Caroll, Garcia said part of the focus next year will be to restructure the identity of the Blue Line.

“When we re-open the system, there is going to be a major push to kind of hit ‘refresh,’” Garcia said. “I think you’re going to see it by the way the stations look, the landscaping, the kind of computer systems that are going to be installed at the stations, the fact that all of the trains will be new, that the technology will be modernized and the marketing and collective push to kind of have that fresh start and let people know that, ‘Yes, this is a safe system,’ and that we want folks to ride the Blue Line.”