After nearly a decade of construction, Los Angeles transit riders will have a direct route to Long Beach and Santa Monica, rectifying a gap in service for commuters traveling through the downtown area.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Regional Connector project will open its 1.9 miles of new light rail line to riders on Friday. The new track will condense three lines into two and add three underground stations throughout the city.

“It’s a very important 1.9 miles for the regional transit network,” said Juan Matute, deputy director, UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies.

Over the years, Los Angeles has developed a reputation for being a city where a car is all but necessary to get around. Los Angeles County has about 9.7 million residents according to the US Census Bureau, with only about 900,000 daily weekday boardings on both bus and rail. To be sure, LA Metro, the agency that’s spearheading this new effort, reports weekday ridership is back to about 75% of pre-pandemic levels.

“The regional connector essentially makes it much more feasible to not just head downtown — but to cross the city, cross the region and be able to connect between neighborhoods in ways that were not possible before,” said Yonah Freemark, senior research associate at the Urban Institute. 

The long-awaited $1.8 billion project kicked off in 2013. At the groundbreaking in 2014, the project was expected to cost $1.42 billion and was forecast to be completed in 2020. But pandemic and other logistical delays sidelined the project. 

Lengthy durations of infrastructure projects are common in US construction. Late last year in Washington, the DC region’s transit operator, The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, opened an extension of its Silver Line, a project that was 60 years in the making. 

For the size of LA’s population and its standing as a major global destination, Freemark said the new light rail is not as fast as many counterparts in European and Asian cities.

It would take a passenger a little over an hour to travel the 21 miles from East LA to Santa Monica on the new light rail service, according to Metro projections. That compares with about 35 minutes from Cascais, Portugal, to Lisbon, Portugal, which is approximately the same distance.

“It’s just pretty remarkable the degree by which the US has floundered new construction,” Freemark said. “I think Los Angeles, to its credit, is building new lines but the scale of investment in the US is pretty minimal compared to what you see in other large metropolitan areas around the world.”