"C'mon. Nobody's going to drive this lousy freeway when they can take the Red Car for a nickel."
"Oh, they'll drive. They'll have to." from the 1988 movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit"
LOS ANGELES It took more than a half-century, but this megalopolis that long ago turned its back on cheap street trolleys like the Red Car in favor of car-choked concrete superhighways is finally getting its rail mojo back.
Los Angeles has expanded its rail transit service over the past 22 years from a single light-rail corridor to Long Beach to its current 106-mile web of light-rail lines, subways and a dedicated busway that attracts 351,000 riders each weekday.
The cost has been substantial: Nearly $9 billion has been spent so far on those projects, and more will be ponied up for new ones if Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other rail enthusiasts have their way. It's clear to them, at least, that the world's car capital is turning from an individualistic to a more communal means of getting around.
"People are changing their habits," said Richard Katz, a former state assemblyman and current member of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority board. "It's a relatively small number considering there's 4 million people in this city. But we don't have to move huge numbers to make the system work."
Yet experts insist that even if the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's proposed rail lines magically appeared tomorrow, Angelenos would see only nominal improvements to the city's infamous gridlock.
"In terms of slaying the dragon of traffic congestion, it's not going to have a massive impact," said Eric Morris, a postdoctoral researcher at UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies.
The growth of Los Angeles' light-rail system has been impressive. It didn't exist a quarter-century ago, yet in 2010 it boasted the third-highest number of passenger boardings in the country, behind Boston and San Francisco's MUNI, according to the latest federal transit statistics. Sacramento was 11th.
The latest big step by the transportation authority known as "Metro" here was last month, when the light-rail Expo Line from downtown to Culver City opened. It was the first time since 1953 that those two parts of the Los Angeles basin were connected by rail passenger service, according to Metro.
"This is a ways from where I live," said Inessa Gelfenboym, a 24-year-old graduate student who was riding the Expo Line to USC recently. "It's a couple miles' walk (to the rail station). But it's still easier and more pleasant than the bus."
When the line finally reaches Santa Monica in 2016, the 15.2-mile project will have cost at least $2.4 billion or $158 million a mile.
Metro also hopes to build a light-rail line down Crenshaw Boulevard, some sort of transitway linking the San Fernando Valley with Los Angeles' west side, and an extension of the existing light-rail Gold Line to Azusa and, eventually, to the Ontario airport.
Villaraigosa, who also chairs Metro's board, is the leading force behind a 9-mile underground extension of the agency's only subway that will link Koreatown with UCLA, Interstate 405 and the veterans hospital.
Running mostly under Wilshire Boulevard, the extension is due to be completed in 2036 and will cost a heady $5.6 billion. Even at that price, transportation experts say that if there's one heavily trafficked corridor that rail transit really would help, it's along Wilshire.
The price tag could go higher if Beverly Hills authorities or residents sue Metro over its plan to tunnel underneath the local high school. A parents group recently foreshadowed a thumping battle by releasing a video envisioning a "mega-disaster" of huge student-consuming fireballs fueled by subterranean gases unleashed by Metro's tunnel-boring machines.
Financing Metro's future plans and operations may be another headache. Over the past three decades, a series of voter-approved half-cent sales tax hikes, as well as federal and state funds, built the current system. In 2009, Villaraigosa proposed greatly speeding up Metro's construction schedule by leveraging federal loans against future sales tax receipts.
But Congress appears unable to pass a comprehensive transportation bill containing Villaraigosa's idea. He now wants voters in November to approve an indefinite extension of the current half-cent sales tax known as Measure R beyond 2039. That, he argues, would allow the borrowing of $8 billion to accelerate highway and transit projects.
"What does this all mean? It means Angelenos will have more transit options," the mayor recently wrote in his blog. "It means that Angelenos will spend less time in their cars and more time doing the things that matter."
The mayor also has been talking to Chinese and Korean investors about alternate financing that will speed up construction, Katz said.
But transportation experts contend that Los Angeles, dispersed as it is and encompassing several mini-downtowns, will never be oriented toward mass transit like New York or Washington, D.C. And, they note, no one in Los Angeles is even whispering about congestion pricing à la central London which would make driving prohibitively expensive.
"There will be no congestion relief" resulting from Metro's rail projects, said Genevieve Giuliano, director of the METRANS Transportation Center at the University of Southern California. "As soon as we have some people who get out of their cars and get onto the train, that provides some space for somebody else, and somebody else is sure to take it."
What expanded rail lines and busways really do, she added, is provide an alternative for people who wouldn't otherwise drive because of an aversion to dense traffic.
Katz doesn't quibble with that assessment, noting that the region's population will keep growing as long as drivers can lower their convertible tops in January. "What we're doing, though, is providing options for people," he said.
At least some rail passengers are grateful for the option.
"I used to work downtown, and parking's a problem if you work downtown," 63-year-old Gerry Brace, an Angeleno of 30 years, said recently as he rolled eastward on the Expo Line. "This would have been great."