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Photo by Jonathan Olivares

Photo by Jonathan Olivares

This year, the Metro Gold Line’s Eastside Extension will celebrate five years in Boyle Heights. Along with it came promises of safer travel and seamless access to the entire Metro network.

While it has changed nearby businesses, transportation options and housing development, many people still question whether its goals have been met and whether some of the changes are positive or negative.

The Metro Gold Line is a different transit option for a bus-dependent community. The Eastside Extension is the second newest completed rail project in L.A. County. With it came the opportunity for Boyle Heights residents to move around the city in another way.

José Ubaldo, a communications manager at Metro, says one of the main goals of the Metro Gold Line is to connect Boyle Heights to the rest of the rail network.

“The rail is a safe, comfortable ride that is always on time,” Ubaldo says. “With the traffic here in the county, the option to use [rail] transit is the best option for the future.”

That’s been the experience for new Metro riders like Sylvia Obregón, who recently started a new job. The Boyle Heights resident now uses the Gold Line daily to get to work.

“It’s like you get out of the house, you get on a train, and there you are,” Obregón says. It “saves all the traffic and parking, and it is very convenient.”

While the new rail system has brought some benefits to the community, not everybody has welcomed all the changes. With the Gold Line came schedule cuts and the re-routing of some of the bus lines that served Boyle Heights.

Fanny Ortiz, a Boyle Heights resident, says some of the bus line changes were supposed to make travel more convenient, but have had the opposite effect. “The Gold Line does not accommodate everybody,” she says.

Complaints about frequency

Ortiz was referring to the rerouting of Line 30, which previously passed through César Chávez Street; the elimination of Line 31; and schedule cuts to Line 620, which covers a large part of Boyle Heights. She feels the lack of frequent service has hurt the community.

The East LA Community Corporation (ELACC) shares this concern. Rey Fukuda, the community organizer for ELACC’s Metro Campaign, says, “The Gold Line is fixed, and it cannot be re-routed, but buses can be.”

She says buses are often more convenient for neighborhoods like Boyle Heights, whose residents tend to take shorter trips and need to get close to specific points, rather than walk from a train station.

James Rojas, an urban planner who specializes in Latino urbanism, which analyzes how Latinos interact with urban environments, agrees that Latinos use public transportation differently than people from other cultures. In general, he says, “Latinos use public transportation at higher rates and see it as a necessity,” while for people from other cultures, public transportation is “a desire.”

“Boyle Heights is a transportation-rich community with bus lines on every major street,” he says. ”People will take what’s more convenient.”

Metro found this in one of its own studies regarding ridership strategies in Montebello, a community with many similarities to Boyle Heights. The 2012 study found the primary reasons residents were using the Montebello Bus Line over the Gold Line was because they viewed it as cheaper, faster, and more convenient, taking them closer to their destinations.

Even so, Laura Cornejo, Metro’s director of transportation and countywide planning, says Gold Line ridership is already much higher than expected.

She says Metro had anticipated 16,000 riders per day on the Gold Line by 2020, but ridership is already at 14,000 per day. “This is 85 to 90 percent of what we projected,” Cornejo says, “well ahead of our schedule.”

According to Metro officials, average weekday boardings in January at the Boyle Heights stations of Indiana, Soto, Mariachi Plaza and Pico/Aliso were just more than 5,000 passengers.

Passengers are not the only people who have been impacted by the Gold Line. Businesses around Boyle Heights have mixed reactions.

“Business has been affected because of the train” according to Araceli Soto, Liliana’s Tamales’ manager. “They were supposed to bring in people from different areas, however, Metro commuters do not use the train to come for business

Columbia Gasca, of La Placita del DF, a restaurant near Mariachi Plaza, disagrees. “What has affected them is like other businesses, there is no parking available’, says Gasca. “Nevertheless, I think that once it is complete, it will be very nice”.

Construction along First Street. Photo By David Galindo

Construction along First Street. Photo By David Galindo

Gasca is referring to the continuing construction surrounding the Metro project, which includes the Eastside Access Project, an effort by Metro to make street improvements in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles, including the sidewalks on First Street and reconstruction at Fifth and Cummings.

Because the Eastside Extension opened in 2009 during the economic recession, it was initially hard to measure its economic effects. But Metro’s Cornejo says it has had a positive impact.

Better sidewalks, more trees

Cornejo says community improvements like the Eastside Access Project, which include sidewalk improvements, pedestrian lighting and additional trees, are sequential and take a lot of time. She says she is especially proud of the street improvements that continue around the Gold Line.

“Rarely do you see $30 million going into a community to improve basic amenities and activity,” says Cornejo.

Both Ortiz and Fukuda say they have seen progress with the Eastside Access Project, but they believe the priorities are wrong. “Southern areas of Boyle Heights have been neglected for many years, and improvements were denied,” Fukuda says.

Gazca remains hopeful about the Gold Line’s long-term benefits. She says because of the construction improvements, East Los Angeles is looking better every day.

“It is true that there is some impact, but when the work is completed and they leave, then automatically business returns to normal”, Gazsa says.

Ubaldo also remains optimistic. “The rail system is growing, and every time it grows, the opportunities are bigger for everybody, especially communities where the transit is very important for them,” she says.

While the Gold Line may not solve everyone’s transportation issues, Rojas says, “It’s needed for the community. It’s brought money, developers and housing opportunities. But it’s not the silver bullet for transportation.”

Despite some of the issues she has with the Gold Line, Fukuda also remains hopeful about the Gold Line’s benefits for the community. But she sees a need for a balanced transit system that doesn’t ignore buses.

“I just want Metro to see the importance in combining uses of transportation,” she says.

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