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Congested L.A. Looks to Light Rail

The eyes of transportation planners nationwide are focused on Los Angeles programs. CALIFORNIA TRANSPORTATION

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ONE of Josie Gay's fondest memories growing up in Watts was riding the ``red car'' trolley to school. Now, nearly a half century later, she is glad her grandchildren will be able to experience something similar - riding the ``blue line'' train that will begin operation in her neighborhood tomorrow. Light-rail service is returning to Los Angeles in what may become the country's premier test of whether people can be induced to ride instead of drive.

For the first time in 29 years, trolleys will begin running along a 22-mile stretch between Long Beach and Los Angeles on Saturday. It is the first leg of what is planned to be a 150-mile web of rails across the region, the second largest in the country.

The success or failure of the ``blue line'' will help determine the level of political support for the rest of the rail network here, which includes a costly and controversial subway under construction downtown. It will also be closely watched across the nation.

At least 10 cities are building or considering light-rail systems. If Los Angeles, the cradle of car culture, can attract riders and keep them safe on a train that traverses tough gang territory, it will become a powerful argument to those pushing trains as a form of mass transit.

Failure will give rail critics - of which there are plenty - new conviction in their belief that there are cheaper antidotes to traffic congestion in America.

``A lot will ride on the success or failure of the Long Beach line,'' says Kenneth Orski, president of Urban Mobility Corporation, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm.

The $877 million line will open tomorrow to huzzahs from politicians and bands and bunting at community festivals along the route. Residents will be allowed to ride the electric street cars free over the weekend. Monday, it will become a paying railroad, with fares being a flat $1.10 rate anywhere a passenger gets on.

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