Last fall, San Bernardino County transportation officials pulled the plug on their part of the Los Angeles-to-Ontario Airport Gold Line light rail system after more than a decade of planning and the outlay of more than a billion dollars by Los Angeles County and the State of California to bring the tracks for the train as far east as Azusa, while another $803 million is being spent to extend the line to Pomona. Dismayed at what he perceives to be wrongheaded intransigence to regional cooperation intended to provide the foundation of what is to become the commuting methodology of the future, Assemblyman Chris Holden is sponsoring legislation to form a separate construction agency that will bypass the San Bernardino County Transportation Agency to extend the Gold Line to Ontario International Airport perhaps as early as 2032.
Historically, there was a light rail line that connected Los Angeles with San Bernardino County, extending as far east as Mentone. San Bernardino County was a participant in Pacific Electric’s Red Car Line, the privately owned mass transit system in Southern California that extended out from Los Angeles, consisting of electrically powered streetcars, and light rail that existed between 1901 and 1961. Ultimately, organized around the city centers of Los Angeles and San Bernardino, by the 1920s it was the largest electric railway system in the world.
In 1901, building upon the electric trolleys that first traveled in Los Angeles in 1887, the Pacific Electric Railroad was established by railroad executive Henry Huntington and banker Isaias W. Hellman after they had success developing a trolley system in San Francisco. Together, Huntington and Hellman purchased some existing rail lines in downtown Los Angeles, which they standardized and organized into one network called the Los Angeles Railway.
The San Bernardino line, Pomona branch, Temple City branch via Alhambra’s Main St., San Bernardino’s Mountain View local to 34th St., Santa Monica Blvd. via Beverly Hills, and all remaining Pasadena local service were cut in 1941. The last vestige of the Red Car system into San Bernardino County was the interurban railroad post office service operated by Pacific Electric on its San Bernardino Line. This was inaugurated comparatively late, on September 2, 1947. It left LA’s Union Station interurban yard on the west side of the terminal turning north onto Alameda Street at 12:45 pm and reached San Bernardino at 4:40 pm daily, taking nearly four hours for the trip. It did not operate on Sundays or holidays. This last railroad post office was pulled off May 6, 1950. Pacific Electric’s Red Car Line fell victim to an effort spearheaded by Arthur P. Sloan, the president and CEO of General Motors from 1923 until 1956, to close out public transportation systems, which greatly profited General Motors.
In 1992, the MetroLink commuter rail system was established between Union Station in Los Angeles and the City of San Bernardino on a long existing track originally designed for heavy engines pulling freight cars. MetroLink utilizes diesel engines to pull its passenger cars and features departures every half hour.
In 2003, the first link of the light passenger rail Gold Line was established between Union Station and Sierra Madre Villa. Consisting of two lines dedicated entirely to commuter conveyance, it has made steady progress expanding eastward ever since. At present it is a 31-mile 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 Pasadena 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 entering Duarte and the City of Hope. Crossing over the San Gabriel River, the Gold Line reaches Irwindale and continues to its Azusa Station. The Gold Line runs with significantly greater frequency than does MetroLink, with departures and arrivals every five to seven minutes during peak commuting hours and every 12 to 15 minutes during off-peak hours.
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 was previously slated 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, the extension of the line from north Pomona to Claremont will entail a cost of $450 million. Previously, the Gold Line Construction Authority in conjunction with the San Bernardino County Transportation Agency, which was previously known as San Bernardino Associated Governments (SANBAG), intended to continue the line from Claremont to Montclair, and then from Montclair to Ontario Airport.
Accordingy, the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority dedicated $39 million in Measure I dollars toward the Gold Line project and did a joint application with the Los Angeles 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 then-projected $80 million cost for the San Bernardino County portion 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 an earlier $73 million projection or the later $80 million estimate, but had escalated to $96 million.
In reaction to that projected cost overrun, San Bernardino County Transportation Authority Executive Director Ray Wolfe said toward the close of the September 4, 2019 meeting of the authority’s board, “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.”
Wolfe made good on that at the October 10, 2019 San Bernardino County Transportation Agency’s transit subcommittee meeting. That subcommittee is composed of representatives from the cities of Big Bear Lake, Chino Hills, Colton, Fontana, Highland, Montclair, Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga, Rialto, Yucaipa and the Third Supervisorial District.
Wolfe’s proposal is to dispense with constructing the new Gold Line Track into San Bernardino County altogether and to instead have Gold Line passengers heading eastward from Los Angeles or the San Gabriel Valley load onto another train at the Claremont Station which will run on the existing MetroLink track. That system will use so-called diesel multiple unit trains in what he said was a “hybrid” plan which he dubbed the “Gold Link.” Wolfe said San Bernardino County would return the $41 million State of California Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program grant that had been freed up to allow the county to overcome the gap between the $39 million in Measure I money put up to complete the Gold Line extension from Claremont to Montclair and the earlier projected cost of the 1.2-mile extension
According to Wolfe, the hybrid Gold Link concept combined the advantage of not entailing the cost of building another set of tracks and could be extended with relative ease eastward from Montclair to Upland, Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana and beyond. The converse holds true, Wolfe suggested, as westbound commuters could use the Gold Link all the way to Claremont, disembark there and then board MetroLink to Los Angeles or the Gold Line to the San Gabriel Foothill communities.
Ultimately, the transit committee backed Wolfe, with Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe and the representatives of the cities of Yucaipa, Highland, Rialto, Big Bear Lake, Colton, Fontana and Rancho Cucamonga supporting him. Only Montclair, Ontario and Chino Hills opposed his plan to scrub the county’s support of the Gold Line. That vote essentially killed San Bernardino County’s participation in extending the Gold Line into its jurisdiction.
For advocates of the Gold Line and its extension, however, Wolfe’s formula is lacking with regard to several crucial considerations.
On an immediate level, the low cost of the Gold Line fare and its continuity offers the best draw of commuters, its advocates maintain. Moreover, the frequency of arrivals and departures on the existing track now used by MetroLink cannot match that which the Gold Line will provide. Thus, in the relative short term, traffic will be diverted in greater numbers away from the freeway system if the Gold Line is extended than if the only option given to commuters is using a passenger service on the existing track used for MetroLink and freight hauling.
From a longer term context, according to the Gold Line’s promoters, Wolfe’s solution lacks a wider regional perspective. Inevitably, over the next several decades, they say, greater and greater gridlock will force commuters, whether they are favorably inclined to using rail service or not, to use passenger trains to get to and from Los Angeles. At that point, the ridership volume will outrun the capacity of the existing rail line used by MetroLink. Despite whatever cost inflation there has been on building the Gold Line extension so far, it is better to commit to making that extension now than postponing it, as the cost will continue to escalate, those recommending that San Bernardino County stand by its earlier commitment to the Gold Line say. In this way, they assert, Wolfe’s move to cut costs now will entail far greater future cost.
Among those who believe Wolfe has it all wrong is 41st District Assemblyman Chris Holden, who represents Altadena, Claremont, East Pasadena, La Verne, Monrovia, Pasadena, San Dimas, Sierra Madre and South Psadena in Los Angeles County and Rancho Cucamonga, San Antonio Heights and Upland in San Bernardino County.
Holden introduced a bill this week, Assembly Bill 2011, which would create the West San Bernardino County Rail Construction Authority, an entity to be dedicated to designing and building the six-mile span of track linking Montclair to Ontario.
The assumption is that if the funding for the continuation of the line from Montclair to Ontario is provided by the state, the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority will recommit to the previous effort to construct the Claremont to Montclair link. That is probably likely, given that San Bernardino County has already qualified for $41 million toward the project on its side of the boundary with Los Angeles County in the form of the State of California Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program grant, meaning the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority will need to come up with $47 million to see the line reach Ontario Airport, a figure that is realistic given the constant proceeds from Measure I that are incoming.
Holden took his inspiration for the bill from one authored by then-State Senator Adam Schiff in 1999, Senate Bill 1847. SB 1847 seized control over the fate of the Foothill Gold Line from the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, instead entrusting it to a newly-created Foothill Gold Line Construction Authority, which aggressively pushed forward with the project. The authority made a major breakthrough by completing the line to Pasadena in 2003. By 2016, it had been extended to Azusa.
With regard to Assembly Bill 2011, Holden said it would lay the groundwork to extend the Metro Gold Line all the way to Ontario Airport.
“Light-rail is playing a critical role in reducing our carbon footprint, improving air quality, and connecting communities throughout the region,” Holden said “These benefits will expand into San Bernardino County once the Metro Gold Line Extension to Montclair is completed, and have a greater impact if extended to Ontario Airport.”
Holden said he is banking on the train line reaching Montclair, which he described as “six short miles” from Ontario International Airport, which he characterized as a “critical airport and economic driver for San Bernardino, Riverside, and parts of Los Angeles counties.”
Holden was joined by 52nd District Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez, who said, “Ontario International Airport is a convenient and rapidly expanding traveling option for many residents across San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties. Though we have seen significant progress in the extension of the Foothill Gold Line, which is planned to terminate in the transit center in the City of Montclair, there is no definitive plan to connect passengers from the transit center to the airport. Creating a nexus between Montclair’s transit center and the Ontario airport is a monumental endeavor, and will require a dedicated construction authority whose sole purpose is constructing a connection that will best serve both San Bernardino and Los Angeles County residents.”
“Electric light rail is the proven solution for dependable public transportation throughout the world,” said Ontario Mayor Paul Leon. “We can no longer have the belief that bigger freeways are better for the environment, travelers, or commuters. It is time to give people the option of using reliable, seamless public transportation instead of driving their cars.”
Holden’s proposal would create the West San Bernardino County Rail Construction Authority that would be responsible for designing and building the extension from Montclair to the airport. The new construction authority would include representation from the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Ontario International Airport Authority, and the cities of Montclair, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga, and Ontario.
Holden is currently chair of the Select Committee on Regional Transportation Solutions. This committee explores solutions to improve multi-modal interconnectivity between communities, establish sustainable transportation infrastructure, and relieve traffic congestion.
At an informational hearing relating to the creation of the authority held in Ontario this morning, Wolfe appeared to back away from his earlier stance to terminate the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority’s support of the Gold Line project.
Holden already submitted a budget request to Governor Gavin Newsom for LA Metro to study the feasibility of an extension to the Hollywood Burbank Airport.
Holden’s history with the Gold Line spans over 30 years. Prior to his election to the Pasadena City Council, Holden served on the Pasadena Light Rail Alignment Task Force established in 1985 to identify the light rail route alternatives in Pasadena. He is a former board president of the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority where he served as a commissioner for 20 years.
“As a former city council member and mayor of Pasadena, I championed early efforts to establish the Metro Gold Line, which turned out to be more successful than anyone anticipated, just like the recent extension to Azusa,” said Holden. “Extending the Gold Line to Ontario Airport will propel both San Bernardino County and Los Angeles County into our new transportation future.”
Holden’s effort appears to be on a collision course with that of Grand Terrace Mayor Darcy McNaboe, who is currently the president of the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority. McNaboe has gone on record as saying the Gold Line extension to the airport and therefore to Montclair is “unnecessary and too costly” and will take too much time to complete.
Holden took the high road, looking beyond McNaboe’s pronouncements. “As we begin this process, I look forward to working with stakeholders at the local, regional and state level including San Bernardino County Transportation Authority President Darcy McNaboe, Senator Connie Leyva, and Assemblymember Freddie Rodriguez,” he said.
Ontario Mayor Leon said he hopes that those formerly opposing the Gold Line concept “will soften their positions as this bill moves toward becoming law. Light rail needs to get built. The San Bernardino County Transportation Authority needs to stop dragging its feet. The Gold Line is the first choice of commuters on the other side of the San Bernardino County/Los Angeles County line. We have to make sure we do not alienate people with harsher judgments, but at the same time we have to make people realize there needs to be a future connection between Los Angeles and Ontario Airport, and the Gold Line is logically it.” He called upon McNaboe to end her opposition to the extension of the Gold Line to Montclair.