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How L.A. is trying to avoid being "eaten alive by congestion"

Los Angeles streetcars were taken out of service in 1963, during the boom in car ownership, but now many people in L.A. and across the country are giving up their cars for trains
Los Angeles' light rail extension runs parallel to congested freeways 03:46

Southern California is seeing a return to the golden age of public transportation.

On Friday, riders will start using a new light-rail line between the downtown area and the beach in Santa Monica. Los Angeles streetcars were taken out of service in 1963, during the boom in car ownership, but now many people in L.A. and across the country are giving up their cars for trains, reports CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy.

But when you think of L.A., you probably think of traffic, not trains whizzing by.

"It's pretty amazing that people think there's no public transportation here," said Phil Washington, CEO of Los Angeles Metro, L.A. County's transportation agency.

He took CBS News for a ride on the new train to Santa Monica that's been dubbed the "subway to the sea." It runs parallel to one of the city's most congested freeways.

"You know the [Interstate] 10 is right there. There is a certain satisfaction you get from sitting here knowing other people are sitting in their cars," Tracy observed from the train.

"You're zooming by and they are in the one vehicle -- you know, looking straight ahead," Washington said.

In the past 25 years, L.A. County's rail system has grown from zero to 106 miles of track. It's color-coded lines extending in all directions. But having spent $1.5 billion on the 6.6 mile-extension to Santa Monica, will the estimated 48,000 weekday riders metro projects actually show up?

"We believe we're going to blow those ridership projections out the window," Washington said.

"Why are you so confident?" Tracy asked.

"Because the culture is changing. People are riding trains and all over the country," Washington said.

In 2014, Americans took 10.8 billion trips on all forms of public transportation, the highest ridership in 58 years, driven in part by the millennial generation.

"We know that millennials and young people like this are waiting longer to get their driver's license," Washington said.

"It's so much wasted time that we are in our cars," said Lauren Courtney, a 28-year-old who takes the train to get to her job in L.A. She got rid of her car which she found to be more of a burden than a benefit.

"I do think the trend is that you have a population of people in this city that are choosing to live places where there are metro stops," Courtney said.

It's not just this city. In the past decade, more than 200 miles of rail have opened in cities where cars have long been king -- from Salt Lake to Seattle, Dallas to Denver. In most cases, voters have agreed to raise taxes to pay for transit.

Denver's 23-mile-long rail line from the city's airport to downtown is the first part of a planned 122-mile system. Its revitalized Union Station has spurred nearly $2 billion in development with new restaurants, retail, housing and a hotel. Portland just built a bridge over the Willamette River that is open to anything but cars.

In Los Angeles, Washington expects the rail system to triple in size in the next 25 years.

"Do people like public transportation or do they just really hate traffic?" Tracy asked.

"I'll take both, I'll take both," Washington responded. "Let me put it this way -- if we don't do anything, we're going to be eaten alive by congestion."

He knows prying Angelenos from their cars may be a tough sell, but he's betting many will eventually get on board.

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