Page content written by Danny Seplow
The Crenshaw Corridor, one of the highest population density regions in Los Angeles, has been a candidate route for mass transit for decades. In the early 20th Century, the corridor was well served by the streetcar system.
The corridor was served by Los Angeles Railway back to at least the 1920s, and later, Los Angeles Transit Lines.
When Los Angeles County’s earliest freeway plans were being developed in the early 1940s, the Crenshaw Corridor was tagged as a primary artery in the region’s burgeoning “parkway” plans. The proposed Crenshaw Parkway, Inglewood Parkway, and Sepulveda Parkway roughly followed the same route as the proposed Crenshaw Line and its northern extension, both proposed more than half a century later.
Yet there were still proposals for improving rail by implementing “rapid transit.” The 1948 Rail Rapid Transit Now! campaign, spearheaded by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, argued that their plans could reduce travel time between Manchester & Market (Inglewood) and downtown Los Angeles from 57 minutes to only 19 minutes.
However, transit accessibility decreased as streetcars were gradually replaced with a less robust bus network in the mid-20th Century. Nevertheless, the need for modern transit in the region has remained. Government officials gave particular focus to the corridor after the 1992 LA Riots.
Planners hoped that transit could act as an economic catalyst for the area, bringing it some long overdue equity. The Crenshaw Corridor, since its modern inception in the 1990s, has always been unique from other LA Metro transit projects. The focus on economic revitalization and racial equity have been consistent themes of the planning of the rail line for the last three decades.
The first segment of the Crenshaw (K) Line begins operations in October, 2022 along the Crenshaw Corridor.
1967 Preliminary Report
The Southern California Rapid Transit District (SCRTD) was created in 1964 and functioned as the Greater Los Angeles area’s public transit agency until it was replaced by LA Metro in 1993. During the RTD’s first few years of operation, they studied numerous possible rail corridors. Their 1967 Preliminary Report included early ideas for a line that would connect LAX to Downtown LA.
The proposed line, called the Airport-Southwest Corridor, resembled what became the K Line over half a century later. Like the other proposed rail lines in SCRTD’s Preliminary Report, the Airport-Southwest Corridor never saw the light of day during SCRTD’s lifetime. No new rapid transit rail lines would begin construction in Los Angeles until the 1980s.
1992 Long Range Transportation Plan
The Crenshaw Corridor, as it was now called, was proposed again in the 1992 Long Range Transportation Plan put out by SCRTD only a year before its merger into LA Metro.
The Crenshaw Corridor was part of the Extended Plan, meaning that it was unfunded through current revenue streams but they hoped to tackle it sometime in the non-immediate future. However, after the 1992 LA Riots, the project took on new urgency. Policymakers saw that transit could function as an economic catalyst to elevate the entire region.
Moreover, it was an ideal region to construct a new transit project because it was predominantly lower income, had a low rate of automobile ownership, and was reliant on the sparse pre-existing public transportation. A new rail line would see heavy use and greatly benefit local communities.
The Metro Era: 1990s
In 1993, the first year of the new LA Metro’s operations, a Preliminary Planning Study was created to analyze potential transit methods and routes.
The study was created in large part as a reaction to the 1992 LA Riots. It highlighted the power of transit to revitalize neighborhoods and serve as an economic catalyst. The study went as far as to say that “A major emphasis of the Crenshaw/Prairie Transportation Corridor Preliminary Planning Study is to improve the quality of life of people living in the area.
While transportation is the focus, an equally significant role is that of a catalyst in the development process. As such, the definition of transportation alternatives was closely tied to development choices and goals made by the community.” This theme of transit as an economic catalyst would continue to be a major aspect of the planning process over the next three decades.
The Preliminary Planning Study did not select a preferred route or type of transit, instead only providing resources and information to better define the project and aid further study.
It found that there were no suitable pre-existing rail rights-of-way, so the route would be dependent on the width of streets that they could build over or under.
The study also incorporated feedback from local residents through a public outreach program that included public forums. These public forums would be used in every step of the planning process over the next few decades.
Additionally, the study investigated six possible alternative transit plans, of which three were chosen for further consideration. All three proposals would start at or near the planned Red Line station at Pico/San Vicente. These three were an aerial light rail transit (LRT) that would end at Hawthorne Plaza, a subway that would follow the same route, and a surface-level LRT that would connect to LAX.
Of these options, the study found the subway and aerial LRT to initially be the best options but highlighted the need for further study before any definitive conclusions were made. It also proposed the consideration of a hybrid aerial and subway alternative in future studies.
Depending on the specifics of the plan, the study projected total costs between $800 million and $2.5 billion (in 1993 dollars) on construction, not including additional service costs. The subway was projected to cost twice that. The study also anticipated spending $2-13 million on art for the line. Art would be vital aspects of the project throughout the planning and construction process.
Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas and other supporters urged LA Metro to keep studying the Crenshaw Corridor. They acknowledged the lack of local funds for the project but were optimistic that by completing further studies, they would be able to apply for federal funding from the Departments of Housing and Commerce due to the economic revitalization efforts of the project.
Route Refinement Study
By the late 1990s, the need for a transit solution in the Crenshaw Corridor was clear, but Metro still lacked the funds.
In 1999, the Major Investment Study (MIS) was deferred in favor of a Route Refinement Study (RRS) because it would have a longer shelf life in order to wait for the funds to become available.
While the RRS did not make any massive changes to the previous studies about the Crenshaw Corridor, it did investigate an LRT route to Century Plaza and an LRT forked route to both LAX and Century Plaza.
The RRS eliminated the Century Plaza route from further study because it did not reach all the desired locations, required buses for connections, and had too many curves limiting operating speed. The RRS supported further study for both minimized at-grade LRT and maximized at-grade LRT. Like the previous study, the RRS used many local community outreach meetings and workshops to hear and address local concerns over visual impact, economic impact, environmental impact, crime, eminent domain, and funding.
Similar to the Preliminary Planning Study before it, the RRS emphasized the need for transit solutions to act as economic catalysts. It laid out five local goals for the corridor that Metro hoped to achieve:
- Improve mobility within the Corridor
- Improve regional connections to and from the Corridor
- Act as a catalyst for economic development in the Corridor
- Stimulate revitalization of neighborhoods around station sites
Nevertheless, Metro emphasized that transit alone would not be enough to help these communities. They needed public and private investment and planning as well.
Beyond helping revitalize the community, the RRS outlined the reasons why the Crenshaw Corridor would be an effective allocation of resources. It found that the corridor would have above-average transit use due to high population density, high employment density, a high number of low-income households, a high number of households without an automobile, and existing street congestion. The RRS projected all of these to continue or increase in the future, furthering the need for improved transit solutions.
The early 2000s saw the completion of the Major Investment Study (MIS), written in several parts over several years, and another step towards eventual completion:
- Metro Crenshaw-Prairie Final Mobility Problem and Statement of Purpose and Need (July 18, 2001)
- Metro Crenshaw-Prairie Final Initial Screening Report (January, 2002)
- Crenshaw-Prairie Corridor Major Investment Study Draft Final Report: Burlington Northern / Santa Fe Railroad Right-of-Way Evaluation of Passenger Rail Service (January 2003)
There were several major developments that occurred in the years between the RRS and the MIS.
The first of which is that the Red Line no longer planned to go to Venice/San Vincente, causing a need to alter the terminus of previous Crenshaw Corridor plans.
The other major developments were the introduction of Metro Rapid Bus service from Santa Monica to DTLA and the initiation of a new MIS to look into transit along Wilshire and Exposition, intersecting with the Crenshaw Corridor.
All of these developments reshaped the constraints and opportunities of the Crenshaw Corridor.
Like the previous studies, the MIS emphasized the need for transit as an economic catalyst. It cites three major economic issues facing the region:
- Poor accessibility to and from destinations both within and beyond the Corridor
- Loss of employment opportunities
- Leakage of retail activity
There were four alternatives considered in the study: improving local buses, introducing Metro Rapid service, constructing an LRT system, and constructing a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system.
BRTs are buses that (often but not always) drive in dedicated lanes. There was no BRT in Los Angeles at the time of this MIS but two lines have subsequently been opened, the G Line (Orange) and the J Line (Silver).
The MIS found no modal method should be eliminated from further study at that time but did find several necessary route adjustments in the existing plans. The MIS employed numerous local community forums to hear feedback from locals who would be affected by the construction and operation of any new transit system.
Few comments were received about the BRT system, which the study acknowledges was probably due to confusion between that and Metro Rapid. The few comments that the community gave about BRT were that it would increase traffic and reduce street parking.
The preferred choice among the public was the LRT system. Planners, however, had to preclude at-grade operations due to tight rights-of-way, impact on parking, and noise and visual pollution.
A subway was also precluded due to subsurface hydrogen sulfites, the same issue that had previously prevented the Red Line from going past Crenshaw.
Questions About the Harbor Subdivision
The MIS also investigated the feasibility of passenger rail on the Harbor Subdivision.
This was a piece of track from the Burlington North/Santa Fe Railroad (BN/SF Railroad) which Metro’s predecessor agency had purchased the rights to provide passenger service on in 1992.
Metro was interested in a segment between Crenshaw Boulevard and the Metro Green Line Aviation Station. The Harbor Subdivision would be an ideal track to use because it was pre-existing and well maintained but scarcely used.
The track would however require several improvements, before operations began, such as upgrading parts to allow speeds above 30 miles per hour.
The other major improvement required would be improving the safety of many at-grade crossings, most of which were in residential areas. Another hurdle would be that the Harbor Subdivision was only single-tracked, making two-way operations difficult unless passing tracks were built.
However, even if all of those obstacles were overcome, there was no immediate guarantee that the Harbor Subdivision could be used for passenger traffic. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regulates what types of trains can share tracks, and has strict rules about passenger rail sharing a track with freight. Self-Powered Light Rail Transit (SPLRT), which many Metro lines use, was non-FRA compliant.
The MIS found that Metro would have had to use a Self-Powered Multiple Unit (SPMU), essentially a self-contained railroad train, to be FRA compliant. However, Metro attempted to get around this restriction with special approval from both the FRA and the Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
There was no precedent for this in 2003 and Metro expected a long wait before they would hear a verdict.
Harbor Subdivision Transit Analysis
The final outcome of the Harbor Subdivision would require years of further study. In 2006, Metro hired Wilbur Smith Associates to conduct a study of potential transit in the Harbor Subdivision. The study investigated FRA Compliant Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU), Non-FRA Compliant DMU, LRT, and BRT.
The study found that the Harbor Subdivision was only a Class 1 Track, meaning freight was limited to 10 miles per hour and passenger rail to 15 miles per hour.
Many portions of the track, however, probably could handle up to 20 miles per hour operations. The study also precluded heavy rail due to thin rights-of-way and high construction costs.
Despite this, only minor rights-of-way acquisitions would be necessary to double-track the whole subdivision for LRT or DMU. It proposed ways to avoid double tracking the whole subdivision by using switches, timings, and other tricks to avoid collisions.
Nevertheless, every modal possibility would require at least some amount of construction for tracks, stations, and increased safety at street crossings.
The study concluded that LRT would have the highest projected ridership but also the highest costs. DMUs would have the lowest ridership and the lowest costs. However, each transit alternative would have to overcome a few hurdles. FRA Compliant DMUs would require a new connecting track from the Harbor Subdivision to LA Union Station (LAUS). Non-FRA Compliant DMUs, LRT, and BRT would all require BNSF operations to be limited to late night and early morning when Metro is not operating.
This meant these alternatives were reliant on future discussions with BNSF. LRT would need to build a trench due to FAA regulations for LRT east of LAX runways on account of the LRT overhead contact (catenary) system possibly disrupting the electronics of planes. While the study did not affirmatively conclude which transit method, if any, should be built on the Harbor Subdivision, it helped further progress on the planning.
Environmental Impact Statement / Environmental Impact Report
By the time the Draft Environmental Impact Statement/Environmental Impact Report (DEIS/DEIR) was written in 2009, the project was taking final shape.
While the economic future of the Crenshaw Corridor was still a major theme of the project, it was also now accompanied by regional accessibility, sustainability, and the environment.
The DEIS/DEIR studied four possible alternatives: no building, an expansion of Metro Rapid, BRT, and LRT. However, most of the DEIS/DEIR focused on possible LRT route and station configurations, with a mix of above-grade, below-grade, and at-grade segments. The LRT planned to use the Harbor Subdivision, despite some as-of-then unresolved questions about freight on the rails.
As with almost every other step of the process, the EIS/EIR used public forums to hear feedback from locals. Most local stakeholders preferred LRT but urged it to be grade-separated. They also feared that development might lead to a loss of minority and locally owned businesses in the region.
In 2009 LA Metro also published their study of the feasibility of extending the Crenshaw Corridor to connect to the Wilshire Corridor. All stations for the extension would be below grade. However, Metro concluded that the extension was not cost-effective until the Westside Extension was built.
In early 2012, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) gave approval for LRT along the Crenshaw Corridor based on the EIS/EIR.
The line will open in two phases. The first section opens in October, 2022 and stretches from the E Line (Expo) to Northern Westchester, comprising 6.5 miles of the 8.5 miles total length.
Art & Culture
From early in the project’s conception, art and visual design were given special attention by planners. They were keenly aware of how art, function, and environment were all intertwined when it came to public transit. Even in the Preliminary Planning Study from 1993, art was factored into the total costs of the project for the various alternatives.
University of Southern California Architecture Students
In 1997 the USC School of Architecture partnered with LA Metro to have a group of students create designs and models of possible future stations along the Crenshaw Corridor.
The study they released, titled The Architecture of Light Rail Transit Systems: Stations as a Catalyst for Economic Development, envisioned mixed-use spaces that blended art, transit, culture, entertainment, and shopping.
Students thought about how to incorporate new transit stations into existing communities while minimizing negative impacts. Like the MTA, the students focused on how these stations would serve as economic catalysts to revitalize communities. These designs were exhibited in the California African-American Museum.
While the USC student’s stations never progressed past the modeling stage, art and culture would make it to the construction stage.
Destination Crenshaw is a 1.3-mile-long open-air museum dedicated to African American art and culture. Destination Crenshaw also includes the creation of numerous public parks, creating green spaces along the K Line. The project has created local jobs, invested in local businesses, and funded commissions for countless African American artists.