Clogged roads, like sunshine, are an immutable part of Los Angeles life, but local officials are considering an audacious fix for commuters on the city’s west side: a sleek, automated $6.1 billion monorail to whisk riders above soul-crushing freeway jams. It would be the biggest use of a technology for transit in the U.S. that’s often relegated to amusement parks, airports and zoos.
Los Angeles’s transportation authority decided on March 25 to award up to $63.6 million to LA Skyrail Express, a consortium led by Chinese battery and electric-vehicle maker BYD that’s aiming to build a 15-mile, eight-station monorail line over the 405 freeway. Those “pre-development agreement” funds cover a multiyear technical, architectural and operational assessment, not construction costs. A rival proposal for a $10.8 billion subway from a group led by construction giant Bechtel, running below the highway, also won PDA funds worth up to $69.9 million. A decision on which option to build is due by 2025, according to L.A. Metro.
“For this corridor there’s been a 40-year history of proposals for many different types of technologies, monorail being a couple of those,” says Tom Stone, senior adviser to the Skyrail team, which includes John Laing Group, a U.K.-based infrastructure investor, Swedish construction company Skanska and top-ranked U.S. architectural firm Gensler. “I’m almost glad it didn’t happen earlier because over the last 20 years the technology has advanced so much.”
Dozens of transit systems around the globe, notably in Germany and Japan, have long used monorails. New-generation systems have opened in China and are under construction in India; São Paulo and Bahia, Brazil; Cairo; and Bangkok. Construction of the L.A. project would mark a U.S. breakthrough other parts of the country might follow. Maryland transportation officials are also studying a monorail to run above the I-270 freeway in suburban Washington D.C.
BYD has built multiple monorail lines in China and is supplying technology for projects in Brazil and elsewhere. The company, 8.2% owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, has also forged ties to Los Angeles, locating its North American headquarters in the city and selling it electric buses built at a BYD factory about an hour north in Lancaster, California. The facility would build monorail cars for the Skyrail project. A preliminary review of the monorail proposal by the Los Angeles County Transportation Authority ranked it the top choice based on factors including cost and technical feasibility.
A speedy electric monorail is far from the most extreme proposal for the city. Tesla and SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk has proposed vacuum-tube hyperloop trains as the ultimate transit solution and a tunnel under the 405 with high-speed passenger pods. But his L.A.-based Boring Co. wasn’t a contender for county transit funds.
Long-time L.A. transportation guru Martin Wachs, professor emeritus at UCLA and University of California, Berkeley, and a RAND Corp. researcher, is skeptical but open to the possibility a monorail could work in L.A. He’s less supportive of Musk’s tube-train idea: “He says things like that. I don’t think he’ll deliver.”
The goal of the competing monorail and subway proposals is some relief for the Sepulveda Pass portion of the 405, one of the most congested stretches of highway in the United States. The pass is a low point in L.A.’s Santa Monica Mountains, snaking beneath foothills that are home to The Getty museum and luxury Bel Air and Brentwood enclaves, that has bedeviled transit planners and commuters for decades. The Skyrail line would run in the median, above the 405 freeway. Hundreds of thousands of vehicles per day drive up and down that section of freeway, and it often moves at a crawl even on weekends and non-rush hour periods. Traffic researcher INRIX ranked it the ninth-most congested U.S. highway segment in 2019. (Things eased in 2020 because of the pandemic, but volume is rebounding to pre-Covid-19 levels in 2021, INRIX tells Forbes.)
“It’s a lot like a bridge over a waterway. Traffic is funneled into that path, the way traffic is funneled onto the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge,” Wachs says. “There are few alternative routes.”
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