SBC Transit Czar’s Move To Kill Gold Line Not Sitting Well With Ontario Or Montclair

After nearly a decade of preparations and commitments toward extending the Gold Line light-rail commuter system eastward into San Bernardino County from the San Gabriel Mountain Foothill Region of Los Angeles County, senior staff with the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority early this month recommended that the authority’s board give serious consideration to withdrawing its support, funding and participation in the project altogether.
“Many of you have heard for many years now about the Gold Line and their efforts to build into our county,” San Bernardino County Transportation Authority Executive Director Ray Wolfe said toward the close of the September 4 meeting of the authority’s board. “An important connection is being made. The costs of the project when they opened bids and finally awarded the contract were significantly higher than the funding available to build to Montclair, and so they are building to Pomona as the initial phase. They have in their contract a firm two-year bid requirement to build from Pomona North to Montclair. That’s a $550 million cost to build 3.3 miles because they have to tear out the MetroLink tracks, move them to the south side of the corridor to make room for the Gold Line tracks. So I’m going to come back to you through committee next month and hopefully to the board in November with a recommendation that we throw in the towel. There’s another alternative that is much more cost effective and will allow us to take the funds that are identified for the Gold Line right now. There’s $80 million identified in our county. We’re short $15 million at this point. Those funds can be used for other priorities in this county. And so, look for a conversation at transit committee next month, and hopefully that conversation will carry forward to the board. I think it’s time for us to start making some tough decisions on a project that has been a challenge for many years. The recommendation that we’ll bring forward will look to solve the problem that the Gold Line has purported that they can only solve. We can do it a different way.”
Formerly known as the San Bernardino Association of Governments or SANBAG, the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority has a governing board consisting of a council member or mayor from each of the county’s 24 incorporated cities as well as all five of the members of the county board of supervisors. Wolfe’s signal at the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority’s September 4 meeting that he believes county officials would do well to seek an alternative to the extension of the light rail system, the first of its kind in San Bernardino County since the Red Line was abandoned nearly 70 years ago, did not sit well with city government officials on the county’s west side.
The San Bernardino County Transportation Authority functions as the steward of Measure I funds.  Measure I was a San Bernardino County funding initiative that imposed a half-cent sales tax collected throughout San Bernardino County for transportation improvements. Measure I was first approved by San Bernardino County voters in 1989 and was extended by a second vote in 2004 to remain in place through 2040.
It was noted that 65 percent of the county’s Measure I revenue is generated within the seven cities at the west end of San Bernardino County, and that the Gold Line is a major project as part of the strategy for alleviating traffic gridlock in that region. With the extension of the Gold Line into Western San Bernardino County on the drawing boards for over a decade with vaguer plans for it to extend as far east as San Bernardino, Redlands or Yucaipa by the middle of the current century, the cities on the west side of San Bernardino County have in part shaped their planning to provide for transit districts – consisting of higher density residential units surrounding the rail corridor – in their jurisdictions. They consider the Gold Line to be an intrinsic element of the character of their respective cities’ futures, and they were miffed with what they considered to be Wolfe’s cavalier reversal with regard to a planning process that has been years in the making and refining.
“He doesn’t believe in or totally understand the success of the Gold Line and what it has done for the people who utilize it,” Ontario Mayor Paul Leon said of Wolfe. “To throw in the towel now, without a study and without asking the people what they want, would be a travesty to the voters and the hundreds of thousands of those who are stuck on a freeway that does not move in either direction twice a day for long periods of time.”
Instead of flinching at the cost, Leon added, “SBCTA [the San Bernardino County Transportation Agency] needs to fully understand and appreciate the project, so it can explain to the residents of this county what the benefit is of seamlessly connecting the Gold Line into San Bernardino County as an affordable option into and out of Los Angeles, where many of our residents work.”
Montclair Mayor John Dutrey, who was at the September 4 meeting, reacted immediately to what Wolfe had said.
“I support the Gold Line coming to Montclair,” Dutrey said, just prior to the meeting being adjourned. He too said the inflation of the cost should not dissuade San Bernardino County officials from allowing the project to proceed. “I know when the bids came out the numbers were much higher,” Dutrey acknowledged, but he said funding augmentations would not come out of the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority’s coffers. “There’s not a commitment for this agency to pay more into the Gold Line,” Dutrey said. “The movement is to seek the $465 million for it. I think it’s wrong for us to throw in the towel. I don’t think you and I have had that discussion. You told me about your option B if indeed the funding for Gold Line is not there in the next two years. I’m a little disappointed to hear this, Ray. I just want to state that I support, and I think this region needs to support, the Gold Line to Montclair when this agency’s not being asked to pay any more money into it.”
The Gold Line is a 31-mile light rail line running from Atlantic in Los Angeles west along 3rd Street to Indiana Street to 1st Street west to Little Tokyo through a tunnel under Boyle Heights with two underground stations there, from which it continues on to Alameda Street in Little Tokyo, where the line turns north and crosses over the Hollywood Freeway with a stop at Union Station. From Union Station, the Gold Line heads north on an elevated rail to Chinatown and then crosses the Los Angeles River adjacent to the Interstate 5, continuing north/northeast, running through Lincoln Heights, Mount Washington and Highland Park. Just north of Highland Park, the route crosses over the Arroyo Seco Parkway at the 110 Freeway and continues through South Psadena and then downtown Pasadena, Old Pasadena and then enters the median of the 210 Freeway, east to Sierra Madre Villa, where east of Pasadena the route crosses over the eastbound lanes of the Foothill Freeway (Interstate 210) west of Santa Anita Avenue, with stops in Arcadia and then Monrovia, thereafter reaching Duarte and the City of Hope. Crossing over the San Gabriel River, the Gold Line reaches Irwindale and thereafter continues to its Azusa Station.
The Gold Line Construction Authority right now is in the first stages toward a nine-mile, $806 million extension of the light rail line from Azusa to northern Pomona. The track will reach Pomona by late 2025. Thereafter, the line is to be extended another 3.3 miles from Pomona through Claremont to Montclair at that city’s existing Montclair Transit Center. According to the Gold Line Construction Authority, to extend the line from north Pomona to Claremont will entail a cost of $450 million. The extension from Claremont to Montclair will run roughly $96 million.
If the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority Board follows Wolfe’s recommendation, the funding for the extension beyond Claremont will be cut off.
It is Wolfe’s contention that there are more cost efficient ways of providing commuter rail service bridging Los Angeles County with San Bernardino County, according to both Otis Greer and Tim Watkins, who oversee the San Bernardino County Transportation Agency’s legislative and public affairs division.
Specifically, Greer and Watkins maintain, constructing another set of tracks to accommodate the Gold Line exclusively would entail a squandering of most of the $96 million it would cost. Greer and Watkins say that Wolf instead proposes using the existing tracks on which the MetroLink train runs from Claremont through San Bernardino County for another form of light rail, using passenger cars pulled by what they called a “hybrid” engine.
The existing MetroLink track, which was originally established by the Southern Pacific Railroad, accommodates the Los Angeles to San Bernardino MetroLink trains, which run every half hour, as well as accommodating five freight trains over the track on a daily basis.
Wolf’s proposal to apply a version of the light rail concept, using the hybrid engines identical to what is being proposed for a light rail system now under construction in Redlands, will reduce unnecessary redundancy and save a substantial amount of money, according to Greer and Watkins.
Unlike MetroLink, which features departures every half hour, the Gold Line runs with greater frequency, meaning every five to seven minutes during peak commuting hours and every 12 to 15 minutes during off-peak hours. Wolfe believes the existing line running through San Bernardino County can accommodate all of the various trains – MetroLink, the five daily freight trains and the hybrid-drawn rail cars he intends as a replacement for the proposed Gold Line.
A primary issue, according to Wolf is the expense.
According to Greer, in constructing the Gold Line within the same rail line right-of-way where the MetroLink tracks are now placed, what occurs is that over a short span along that right-of-way, a temporary line to accommodate MetroLink trains is constructed. Once that span of temporary track is completed, it is connected to the existing track used by the MetroLink trains. Thereafter, the MetroLink track is demolished and what is then laid down in its place is a new MetroLink track and another track for the Gold Line. Thereafter, the temporary track is removed.
The creation of the temporary track entails tremendous expense and remains serviceable only for the time the other two tracks are being laid down, Greer said.
There has been an escalation in the costs of the Claremont to Montclair extension that is forbidding, Greer said. “Early on in process before bids came in, our understanding was the total cost to San Bernardino County was to be $73 million,” Greer said. Over time, while the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority remained committed to the project, Greer said, “We saw the cost going up. We were told it was going to be closer to $80 million.”
At that point, the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority had dedicated $39 million in Measure I dollars toward the project and did a joint application with the Los Angles Metro Transit Agency for a State of California Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program grant. That application was successful and it brought in $250 million on the Los Angeles County side, which made a significant but not complete inroad on the $850 funding deficit that jurisdiction had, and provided another $41 million of the San Bernardino County portion of the funding gap, covering the entirety of the projected expense on the eastern side of the Los Angeles County/San Bernardino County border in terms of getting the line to Montclair.
Subsequently, however, when the project went out to bid, it turned out the cost of building the line from Claremont to Montclair would not contain itself to the once-hoped $73 million or even $80 million, but had escalated to $96 million.
According to the advocates of the Gold Line, certain elements of the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority, including Wolfe, are leery of the Gold Line because of its user cost. A one-way Gold Line ticket from its east end to its west end costs $1.75. Riding the MetroLink from San Bernardino to Union Station costs $13.25 round trip. Upon the Gold Line making its way to Montclair, some San Bernardino County Transportation Authority officials fear, riders will abandon MetroLink in droves in favor of transportation that costs a little more than a fourth of what it requires to use MetroLink.
Greer insisted that the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority and Wolfe are simply seeking to be responsible stewards of public money.
“Starting from the perspective of ‘What is the objective?’ I think what the county and City of Montclair want is a high quality transit system,” Greer said. “How do you provide that? We think that we can do that, save $50 million or $60 million and deliver it sooner versus waiting another nine years to deliver it.”
Greer said, “One thing missed in the argument is MetroLink has secured a substantial amount of money from the state. MetroLink wants to see an increase in its service frequency all the way to Union Station. What we are proposing is having the entire service line improved, and not just in segments. What we are proposing to do with the hybrid between Claremont and Montclair will be a pilot program to see how that service can be delivered. Right now we have service every thirty minutes. If the Gold Line is completed to Montclair, it will not be running at full capacity. With the hybrid program, we can start with one or two cars and add capacity to trains to accommodate the increase in demand. As the demand increases, the service level offered by the hybrid can increase with it.”
Greer continued. “It is the escalating costs that have driven this,” he said. “Our goal is not to remove high frequency commuting opportunities from Montclair. Our intent is to have a really serious conversation about being able to provide that service economically. Our board has an expectation of that service being provided. That [the Gold Line] is the plan that was promised. What we want to offer is a way we can provide a similar service for far less money. He [Wolfe] is asking the board to take a look at it and consider it,  but the decision is up to the board. They can reject it. He is just doing what he is paid to do, which is to provide the board with information for them to make an informed decision.”
Montclair City Manager Ed Starr said he did not want to prejudge what Wolfe’s position is before hearing from him directly.
“On Monday [September 23] I have a meeting with SBCTA to go over the conceptual plan,” Starr said. “I can speak with you in more comprehensive detail then.”
In regard to the proposal to simply dispense with the plan to extend the Gold Line into San Bernardino County, Starr said, “The city is preparing a position and we will have a position. The Gold Line is central to our effort to revive north Montclair. It is crucial not only to our transit corridor and general plan but the specific plan we have for Montclair Place. We are trying to create a transit district that is to appeal to well-educated Millennials employed in the greater Los Angeles workforce who are attracted to living in an upscale, high-density community who want to use transit to commute to their jobs in Los Angeles and the West San Gabriel Valley and Pasadena. Those are the types of Millennials with decent wages we want living in our transit corridor who are interested in using alternatives to the freeway to get to their jobs and workplaces. We want to recreate north Montclair into a suburban urban environment. We’re still a suburban area but we want to offer a lot of urban features that have appeal to an educated and sophisticated population, such as a mixed use high density commercial living environment, accompanied by high density residential, high-end rental office space. We also want to attract employment opportunities to the area, as well as a full range of transit options. Our position all along has been that our effort to reinvent north Montclair is highly dependent on transit. We already have bus service and MetroLink and ride hailing services that operate out of the Montclair Transit Center, which is one of the largest transit centers along the MetroLink and intended Gold Line corridors. It makes perfect sense that we want to add transit options and opportunities. The Gold Line is the key component. Though we have MetroLink and bus service, in all of that there is nothing penetrating into the Foothill Cities of the San Gabriel Valley. The Gold Line also will give us a less expensive commuting option. While fare on the MetroLink runs riders at least $8, a one-way ticket on the Gold Line costs $1.75.”
Starr pointed out that the downside to the Gold Line user traveling to downtown Los Angeles is that it will take an extra 15 to 20 minutes to reach that destination. Still, he said, the Gold Line offers more trips into the heart of the megalopolis than MetroLink. “The Gold Line runs more frequently during peak hours, leaving every five to seven minutes,” Starr said. “In the off-peak hours it runs every 12 to 15 minutes. The MetroLink runs every half hour. There are a lot of reason why we want the Gold Line extended to Montclair. It will provide a mix of transit services. The Gold Line falls more in the line of light rail. SBCTA is heavily invested in MetroLink and Mr. Wolfe feels there would be a decline in ridership on MetroLink if the Gold Line becomes operational and that is why the senior staff of SBCTA is resistant to promoting the extension of the Gold Line to Montclair. We believe what we are doing with regard to the buildup of north Montclair and the increase in the concentration of high density housing there will create not only a demand but a requirement for both of these services [the Gold Line and MetroLink] to carry the increased ridership that will create. The projection is that upon completion of the Gold Line there will be ridership of 5,600 per day from eastern San Bernardino County departing from the Montclair Transit Center. There will be a significant number of riders from the east end of the county arriving at the Montclair Transit Center who will transfer to the Gold Line. We will have need for both of those units in Montclair, Metrolink and the Gold Line, to carry that transit load. An argument they [Wolfe and his staff] made was that when the Gold Line reached Azusa there was a 25 percent decline in ridership from the Covina MetroLink. It is true that the residents in Azusa who were previously using MetroLink in Covina gravitated to using the Gold Line in Azusa, but in the time since then the Metrolink ridership has climbed back to its historic levels.”
Starr said the future is arriving faster than anyone can prepare for. He said that reality is reflected in the consideration that the ridership levels projected for the Gold Line in 2035 have already been reached. He said that as those using the freeway become more disenchanted with traffic snarls and three hour commuting times, and as they become aware of the other options they have, such as MetroLink and the Gold Line, they will abandon their cars in favor of traveling to work by rail.
“People who use the transit system are looking for a savings in cost, what is more convenient and what is most accessible, and what will get them to their destination quickly,” Starr said. “Those things are completely compatible with bringing the Gold Line to Pomona, Claremont and Montclair. More importantly the Gold Line is necessary to what we are doing in north Montclair. We have demonstrated to builders that we are interested in a revamped community and that we believe the transit district is attractive to the type of projects they are constructing.”
There is a synergy to having a public transportation system that offers a multiplicity of transit modes featuring through-routes to a comprehensive set of destinations, Starr said.
“We want to get a connection to Ontario International Airport,” Starr said. “To get that connection, we need an increase in ridership. If we are to get that, we need to tap into those who are traveling with one of their destinations being the San Gabriel Valley and the foothill cities.”
Establishing those transportation connections to Pasadena, La Canada/Flintridge, San Marino, Burbank, Arcadia and Sierra Madre will provide a long term economic benefit to San Bernardino County, Starr said. “The people in those communities have higher incomes than in the communities south of there, along the 10 Freeway corridor,” Starr said. “The Montclair Transit center is two blocks from the 10 Freeway. With the express lanes that are scheduled along the 10, you are talking about a seven minute trip from the Montclair Transit Center to Ontario Airport on a shuttle bus. That is a convenient service and a service that in my mind would be important to increasing airline traffic out of Ontario. This would involve those elements of the San Gabriel Valley and especially its foothill communities bringing money into this area and spending in San Bernardino County.”
Ontario Mayor Paul Leon said the future need for rail transport between San Bernardino County and Los Angeles County will increase going forward and will eventually exceed the capacity of a single rail line. The time to establish the second track is now, before the costs escalate further or things occur that will prohibit building a new set of tracks, he said.
Moreover, Leon said, the light rail solution is a newer one with a far longer life potential than the mode of transportation the MetroLink system, with its diesel engines, represents.
“I have heard those conversations about the hybrid,” Leon said, dismissively. “They are talking about a technology that will become defunct before it comes to be operational. They are reliant on fossil fuels. In California, why would you want to use a diesel train when you can move to renewable energy-fueled engines like the Gold Line?”
Leon continued, “Ray Wolfe keeps misinforming his board. He wants to spend money in Needles. We need to alleviate heavy traffic here, at the nexus of San Bernardino County and Los Angles County, one of the most heavily traveled commuting corridors in the world. We need to give people who live here an affordable way to get to work. How dumb is it not to build a straight line all the way to the airport? This will benefit not only our city but the entire region. People can use all of the parking we have at the airport and then you would have all of those people not contributing to the gridlock on the freeway. Instead they will board a train and virtually fly into Los Angeles or Pasadena or any of the San Gabriel Foothill cities, either working on their computers or getting an extra half hour or 45 minutes of sleep instead of crashing and killing one another.”
The objections that are being raised about a funding gap and using that as the basis for shutting down the project is penny wise and pound foolish, Leon said.
“The federal funds will come,” Leon said. “If you offer a transportation mode and you are one mile or less from a freeway, that triggers the availability of federal funds. [Congresswoman] Norma Torres told me, ‘Get it ready and I’ll find you the money.’”
-Mark Gutglueck

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