40 Years Ago This Week: Groundbreaking For El Monte Busway — California’s First Multi-Modal System & The World’s First Bus Rapid Transit Station

(Click to enlarge)

January 21st marks the anniversary of groundbreaking for the 11-mile long El Monte Busway and planning for what was billed as the “world’s first bus rapid transit station.”

U.S. Transportation Secretary John A. Volpe officiated at ceremonies marking commencement of construction for California’s first express busway.

They were joined by Southern California Rapid Transit District President Norman Topping and State Secretary of Business and Transportation Frank J. Walton representing Governor Ronald Reagan, with SCRTD General Manager Jack R. Gilstrap serving as Master of Ceremonies.

The El Monte Busway was conceived as a way to move commuters out of their personal vehicles and onto mass transit while still using the same freeway infrastructure.  (The last of the region’s streetcars had disappeared less than a decade earlier).

The Secretary’s comments echoed that goal.  At the ceremonies, Walton noted that:

“This project is the first attempt to wean the driver away from his automobile and at the same time provide him with the mobility that only rubber-tired transit can make available.”

Dr. Topping asked those in attendance:

“Visualize, if you will, Business Flyers operating in their own right-of-way, moving at 60 miles an hour and faster, bypassing four lanes of commuters’ automobiles stalled in bumper to bumper morning and evening traffic.”

The busway, in the railroad right-of-way north of and in the median of the San Bernardino Freeway, still extends from Mission Road near the Santa Ana Freeway to Santa Anita Avenue in El Monte.

After leaving El Monte, buses stopped only at California State College, Los Angeles (now CSULA) and Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center before arriving in downtown Los Angeles.

Pacific Electric streetcar track removal for busway construction, early 1972 (Click to enlarge)

Trip time for the entire length of the busway was estimated to take 18 minutes, versus 35-45 minutes by auto during peak traffic periods.

The project, made possible through federal, state and SCRTD funding, aimed to determine the feasibility of new concepts of joint highway-bus operations and to increase the overall people-carrying capacity of freeway corridors with the least possible adverse impact on communities and the environment.

A 1,200 car parking lot allowed passengers to drive directly to the station in addition to taking feeder bus lines.  Bicycle parking and “kiss and ride” temporary parking areas were also on the drawing boards.

The busway was first conceived in 1969 and was California’s first example of a multi-modal transportation system at a cost of $53 million.

The project’s draft environmental impact statement weighed in at only 17 pages.

Inspecting the proposed El Monte Transit Station (Click to enlarge)

At the El Monte end of the line, a new $945,000 terminal was planned which was then described as the world’s first bus rapid transit station was also in the planning stages.

It was described as having a “21st Century look” and “space age” design, stemming from its unique circular shape billed as providing easy access for buses from both directions.

The station’s opening was scheduled to coincide with that of the busway, but was not dedicated until July, 1973.

In 1976, the busway was opened up to three-person carpools to further reduce congestion on the freeway.

However, a brief experiment with two-person carpools in 2000 was soon cancelled after speeds on the busway plunged from 65 mph to 20mph and travel times increased by 20-30 minutes.

El Monte Busway coach cruising passed freeway traffic (Click to enlarge)

In 1975, the El Monte Buway carried 12,000 passengers per day.

By 2006, that number had mushroomed to 40,000 via 1,100 bus trips per day, making it the busiest bus station west of Chicago.

Reconstruction on the El Monte Station began last year, with plans to replace it with a new two-level terminal twice the size of the “space age” facility.

More bus bays, green technology, a large public plaza, a bike station and a modern regional transit store are just some of the features planned for the increase in ridership.

The new $45 million station will serve Metro, Foothill Transit, El Monte Transit, Greyhound Buses, and Metrolink Shuttle services.

The project is part of the Congestion Reduction Demonstration Program known as ExpressLanes and is funded by a $210 million federal grant by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Metro and Caltrans District 7, along with Foothill Transit, Gardena Transit, LADOT, Metrolink and Torrance Transit are partnerning in a one-year demonstration project during which existing carpool lanes on the I-10 El Monte Busway and the I-110 Harbor Transitway will be converted to High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes called “ExpressLanes.”

Proposed transway station planned for Patsaouras Transit Plaza at East Portal of Union Station (Click to enlarge)

Today, the El Monte Busway, along with the Harbor Transitway, forms the Silver Line.

It remains one of the most successful high-occupancy vehicle facilities in the United States.

At the downtown end of the busway, another new station is on the drawing boards.

A transway station at the downtown Patsaouras Transit Plaza will accomodate the expected increase in daily ridership from 22,000 to 40,000 passengers.

More information on the groundbreaking and historic images can be found in the RTD Flyer employee newsmagazine.