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IT'S BACK TO the future for smoggy, traffic-choked Los Angeles, where electric trolleys rolled again Saturday for the first time in 30 years.

"Thirty years after the last Red Car served this community, today we launch the beginning of the new Blue Line," declared Mayor Tom Bradley in a ceremony at the light-rail mass transit line's downtown Pico Station.The 22-mile, $877 million Metro Blue Line runs along an old Pacific Electric Red Car route from downtown to Long Beach. It is the first operating segment of a 150-mile, $10 billion rail grid planned for completion in the next century.

President Bush sent a message saying the construction "demonstrated civic co-operation . . . and the kind of local commitment necessary."

Completed in five years, the Blue Line is an overhead-powered trolley system financed by a half-cent county sales tax voters approved in 1980.

The old Red Car system was built 90 years ago and dismantled in 1961 in favor of cars, buses and freeways. That decision also produced some of the worst air pollution in the nation and chronic traffic congestion.

Los Angeles' trolley bus lines and last five streetcar lines lasted until March 1963 when they, too, gave way to buses.

"When 12,000 passengers (per day) ride this Blue Line next year, it will reduce smog problems," said Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy.

Cheers went up as the politicians clanged a silver bell and one of the red, white and blue $1 million trolleys rounded a bend sounding its horn.

"I was 8 years old when the Red Car stopped running," said Corey Smith, a security guard waiting to take a trolley to work at the Long Beach Transit Plaza. "I have good memories. My grandfather worked as a motorman."

Smith, who collects Red Car memorabilia, believes the Blue Line will be a success.

"I'm going to take it on a regular basis," he said. "It will take a while for some people to get used to it, but once used to it they will probably leave their cars."

After the civic leaders and reporters headed south down the line for ceremonies at some of the other 21 stations, the Blue Line began offering free rides for the weekend. A $1.10 fare goes into effect Monday.

Eric Jacobson, 35, waited in the 90-degree heat to be among the first to ride. His father had taken him on the last Red Line commute in 1961.

"It was the end of meaningful mass transit," he said. "Now we've come to our senses a little bit. Hopefully this is the start of a viable mass transit system in the L.A. area."

A dozen Guardian Angels, the self-styled community crime fighters, stood by in their red berets for the Blue Line's debut. A familiar sight on transit lines in the East, they came from San Francisco and San Jose to ride the Los Angeles trolleys.

"The general game plan is to ride from 5 p.m. until it shuts down. That's when most crimes are committed. We'll be a visual deterrent," said Trey Scharlin, who is organizing Angels for the Blue Line, which ran until 8 p.m.

Concerns have been voiced about the safety of the line, which travels through territory that is home to an estimated 15,000 gang members.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has been contracted to provide 118 deputies as security for the Blue Line and its riders.

Reinstituting rail transit is a big gamble in Los Angeles County, most experts agree. But county transit officials believe that many motorists areso fed up with freeway gridlock they will take the train.

Passenger security is the major worry, officials say, because the 19-mile line traverses gang turf and high crime sections of Los Angeles.

Traffic safety concerns also have been raised by the union representing the train engineers who fear that the trains will collide with cars at ungated street crossings.

And skeptics question whether the "honor system" for buying tickets and boarding trains will work, or whether cheating will become widespread, resulting in lost revenue.

Rail critics predict that motorists will not leave their cars and will be afraid to ride the trains.

Commission officials acknowledge that daily ridership will be low initially - roughly 5,000 - because portions of the line in downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach will not be completed for a year.

The trains will travel at speeds up to 55 mph and will take about an hour to travel the route, officials said.

The line will attract up to 35,000 riders a day by summer of 1991, transit experts predict. A decade from now, when the Blue Line is linked to the other subway and light-rail projects now under construction, the line should be carrying 54,000 passengers a day, they say.

During the first few years of operation, the line is expected to lose money and will require heavy subsidies.

Officials say fares - set at $1.10 each way - will bring in only $1.5 million or about 5 percent of the $33 million first year operating budget set by the Southern California Rapid Transit District, which runs the line. By comparison, fares charged on the RTD bus system - one of the largest in the nation - return about 40 percent of the operating costs.

Major promotional efforts also have been mounted to draw passengers. The RTD spent $250,000 to make and distribute a videotape called "Operation Blue Line" starring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It demonstrates how to buy tickets from the automatic vending machines and ride the train.