Expo Opens in May, Will It Change Everything?

Last Thursday, during my semi-intentional hiatus, Metro CEO Phil Washington announced that phase 2 of the Expo Line will begin revenue service on Friday, May 20th. Phase 2 extends the line from its current terminus at Venice Boulevard on the Culver City/Los Angeles border out to the city of Santa Monica, a short distance from the beach. The Expo Line has drawn a great deal of attention as compared with other Metro projects because, in addition to serving major job centers in Santa Monica, it will also become the first Metro Rail Line to provide direct access to the beach.

An end-to-end trip is expected to take 46 minutes, which is certainly favorable to driving on the 10 freeway at peak hours. Off-peak, it will likely take 10-15 minutes longer than driving to travel from Santa Monica to DTLA, and that’s without factoring in the possibility of 15 or 20 minute headways during evening hours. It remains to be seen if riders will opt to take Metro instead, but given the difficulty of driving in and around either city’s downtown, I imagine that Expo will also be popular outside of rush hour. The first phase of Expo, which is not quite 4 years old, has outperformed the initial ridership expectations that Metro set during the planning phase. Today, it’s averaging around 31,000 daily boardings and it will see a jump in ridership over the course of the next year. The Expo Line has the spotlight right now, and, fairly or not, it will likely be held as an indicator of the public’s overall enthusiasm to give Metro a try.

In the past few years, DTLA has become much more than the jumbo-sized office park that it was for a long time. Anecdotally, when I go downtown on a weekend these days, the streets are overflowing with tourists. Spots like Grand Central Market are booming in a way that would have been unfathomable even a short time ago. Expo will offer an easy connection between two of the largest tourist attractions in the county, and it is sure to be a hit among vacationers. Tourists have long been befuddled by their inability to get to the beach on L.A.’s rail system. It is after all, the asset we trumpet most loudly. Having to explain to confused college students on the Red Line that Vermont/Santa Monica station is not anywhere near the ocean, and then trying to get them onto a westbound 704 is a memory I treasure (their expressions!), but those days are soon to be ended. Starting this spring, it will be much easier for tourists staying in the beach to get to Downtown, Hollywood and back. For them, it is an all-around win.

Another development which was not planned for at the outset was the emergence of Los Angeles’ beachside tech hub. Clusters of high paying tech jobs have grown in the last decade in the communities of Santa Monica, Venice and Playa Vista. Though many of the major players in Santa Monica have recently decamped for Playa Vista, yet there remain many companies which will soon be within walking distance of an Expo Line stop. Bergamot Station in particular will allow many commuters direct access to their jobs. Theoretically, a commuter from Culver City to Bergamot station would be able to get to and from work in under 20 minutes. Short trips like these may end up being the greatest overall benefit of the Expo Line, and the Westside is still seeing a general influx of high wage earners and high wage paying jobs. In the near term, Expo may be responsible for directing where those workers decide to live, especially if it is comparatively faster to reach Santa Monica by train than it would be to drive up from somewhere like Westchester.

As to the question in the headline, the answer is a qualified “no.” The Expo Line may indeed be the beginning of a major new era in the history of Los Angeles transportation, time will tell. However, there will certainly be kinks to work out. The Expo Line can be expected to suffer the drawbacks of running at-grade through both Downtown Santa Monica and Downtown Los Angeles. In my experience, commuting from DTLA out to Culver City by Expo, the northbound segment along Flower St. was the worst: a seemingly-interminable series of jolting stops all the way to 7th St./Metro Center. The signalling in 7th/Metro’s Flower St. tunnel always seems especially bad, as though arrivals were deliberately timed to make transfers to the Red/Purple lines downtown impossible. There is no reason to expect much better from the at-grade segment along Colorado. Headways are expected to be 12 minutes at peak hours and possibly even less frequent during the evening hours. As has been the case for other Metro Rail lines, low service levels may well obliterate rail as an option for late-night party-going, or even getting dinner with friends.

Furthermore, in an arena where Metro has no direct authority, Santa Monica as a city is going through a major upheaval as it attempts to reconcile the arrival of Expo Line with the slow-growth politics it has typically espoused. Much like Los Angeles, Santa Monica is about to see a ballot measure aimed at severely restricting development. SaMo’s would entail putting projects up for individual approval, and presumably, most projects will therefore stall or be discarded if the ballot measure should pass. The histrionics are the result of the City Council’s attempts to allow buildings of up to 5 stories on the major boulevards, as proposed in 2010’s Land Use and Circulation Element. In a city that has seen population stagnate for decades while job numbers have continually increased, it is hard to see a means for Santa Monica to maximize the potential that Expo presents without allowing for at least some targeted growth. In a theme that I expect to become more and more prevalent, Santa Monica has expectations that they can stand pat and that the availability of rail will alleviate mobility concerns (or, ahem, “ease traffic”) for them. This is a certain fallacy. The Expo Line will not lack for destinations, but if it is to put even a dent in the infamous car traffic of the Westside, it is imperative that we start the conversation on how to get better transit access for more people.

Metro Needs to Reconsider the Eastside Subway

Things are changing rapidly in the world of Metrorail these days. Specific project alternatives, such as the Green Line South Bay Extension, that have long held an air of presumed inevitability are being challenged by new, upstart proposals, like the potential “Florence to Torrance” LRT. Laws, like the one from the hysterical days of the early ’90s that prevented rail on the Chandler Right-of-Way, are being written out of existence. There are SCAG-funded studies, like those for the Harbor Subdivision and West Santa Ana Branch Rights-of-Way, that are being recognized as no longer reflective of the highest potential for Los Angeles’ rail system. So why are we still making decisions based on similarly obsolete data in other parts of the county? I’m talking here about the Purple Line, and the terrible mistake Metro will be subjecting Los Angeles to if it moves forward with its 2-branch Gold Line extension.

20 years ago, there was a plan to extend the incipient Red Line subway system out east toward Whittier along Whittier Boulevard. Anyone who wants a full blow-by-blow account of the sordid saga pick up Ethan Elkind’s phenomenal Railtown. Let it simply be said that, after years of political mischief and conflicts regarding everything from displacement to contract awards, the work on the Red Line Eastside Extension ended for good and all when, in 1998, Zev Yaroslavsky threw his political weight behind a successful ballot measure that halted the usage of Proposition A and C tax dollars on new subway construction. In so doing, the county lost a fully-cleared subway, half of which was to be funded by the Federal Government, when it was determined that local authorities could not piece together their portion of the funding. The New Subway prohibition remains in effect today, even though the overriding narrative of the rail system has become a fight to attract, rather than repel, Metrorail. The Gold Line eventually made it out east along a roughly similar route to the original path that the subway would have taken, but in a combination of grade alignments that changed the conversation regarding future eastward extensions of the line. In looking back, there is an identifiable pattern that the specific compromises made at each stage of this process have resulted in an overall diminishment of the utility of the end result at significantly increased cost.

Eastside phase 2
Image from Oct/09 Alternatives Analysis, Metro

The decision in the first phase of the Eastside Extension to locate the Atlantic station at Pomona/Atlantic rather than Beverly/Atlantic complicated the ability of the line to move in a southerly direction toward Whittier in the future. As a result, all 4 of the routes considered in the phase 2 alternatives analysis follow Pomona out to Garfield, at which point 3 of those take a geometrically hideous right turn in a zig-zagging attempt to follow ridership at the expense of travel time. The routes following Beverly and Whittier Blvds, which would have better served the city of Whittier, were bafflingly proposed to travel primarily at street level. This move, which further tanked the ridership and travel time numbers of those alternatives, also crafted the bulk of the community opposition to the routes. Despite the fact that the community feedback could have been mitigated by changes in grade (and that additional funding could have been found before the scheduled 2035 opening of the route), Metro instead opted to eliminate them entirely. With two routes remaining by the time of the DEIR for the Eastside Phase 2 extension, the conversation had evolved into a competition between the SR-60 coalition and the Washington Boulevard coalition of cities.

Measure R is slated to fund $1.3 billion (2008 dollars) for the Eastside Transit Corridor, which, on the current timeframe of a 2035 delivery, is not enough to fund either the SR-60 or the Washington alignments ($2.5 billion and $3.3 billion YOE respectively). By building it sooner, there is the potential to save a lot of money, but in the environment Metro has fostered, both coalitions look at this project as a zero-sum game. If one of them gets light rail, the other might not. Hence, the new plan which seeks to preserve both alternatives and run the Eastside gold line in a branch pattern along both routes. While this will please politicians at the outset, it will ultimately make riders miserable. And riders only stay miserable for so long before they stop riding altogether.

When you mire yourself in the step-by-step compromises like this, it’s easy to forget where you came from and where you intended to go. Indeed, just last week we discussed Metro’s desperate efforts to fix the broken Washington Blvd alignment by initiating studies into tunneling from Pomona Boulevard down to Washington or by moving the branch-off point further west and actually relocating the Atlantic station to Beverly. If these options are on the table, we should be walking our conception of this project back to the beginning. What was once going to be the heavy rail spine of the county’s transit system, capable of zipping large numbers of commuters from Whittier as far out as Santa Monica in about 60 minutes (based on projected Purple Line westside travel times), will now take about 100 minutes to travel to the same endpoint, missing most of the ridership generators along the way. That 100 minutes (I calculated by adding up end to end times for the Expo, Regional Connector, Eastside Phases 1 and 2), by the way, is a good, but not exactly jaw-dropping, improvement over the existing service offered by Metro’s current Rapid 720 bus, which travels from Commerce to Downtown Santa Monica in 115 minutes. When you factor in that frequencies to Whittier will be halved under the current branch plan, the service suffers even more.

Let’s talk Purple Line, people. Why have we convinced ourselves that the Eastside subway extension is dead and not merely dormant? After all, this project is officially known as the Eastside Transit Corridor, and heavy rail fits the bill as well as light rail. We’ve lost the funding from Propositions A and C, but we’ve gained it in Measure R and we’re in the process of seeking out more. The San Gabriel Valley and the Gateway Cities subregions have signaled a willingness to contribute $1.1 billion out of a Measure R2 to fund the Gold Line Eastside extension. And, to be clear, this project as proposed is not going to meet the federal standards for cost-effectiveness that have allowed the Purple Line’s Westside extension, for example, to begin its 1st phase with $2 billion in federal funding out of a total $2.8 billion cost. Are we willing to spend $2.5 billion out of pocket to receive a branched rail line that is optimistically projected to receive 36,000 total daily riders? Better question: How far could we get on the Purple Line Eastside extension with that money instead? Metro is putting up just $800 million dollars for the first 4-mile segment of the Purple Line extending from Wilshire/Western to Wilshire/La Cienega. It is being considered for further federal funding that makes it possible that Metro will begin construction on all three phases of the Westside extension simultaneously, expediting delivery and saving taxpayer dollars. All this because it follows the sensible route, the route with ridership, and it focuses on efficiency rather than short-term financial expediency. All this because it has what Eastside residents were robbed of in the 90s: a dedicated source of local matching funds.

Purple Line Complete

Above is one possibility (and that’s all it is, so don’t read too much into the specific length or terminus) for a full-length Purple Line route extending from 4th/Wilshire to Whittier/Painter. Other than the central curve from the DTLA financial district to the network’s regional hub at Union Station, it maintains a generally straight alignment along highly-trafficked corridors for its entirety. It would have the highest ridership of any line in the network. It would revolutionize how Angelenos envision mobility across their city. None of which can be said of the Gold Line Extensions currently plodding their way toward the finish line. This is not a rhetorical exercise. We should ask ourselves how many of the 12 miles from downtown to Whittier could be financed with leverage equivalent to the $2.5 billion that we are considering spending on two bad projects.

I’m not going to say that this would be easy. It would represent a major upheaval, which, in the staid world of local bureaucracy is often enough to reject it out of hand. It is not the opinion of this blog that heavy rail fully below-grade is an expense that must be sprung for everywhere, but where it makes sense to put high capacity rapid transit, we are doing ourselves a disservice by not making the most of the opportunity. And we have things working in our favor. We have entered a new funding reality. We don’t need to be beholden to decisions of the recent past made by a more transit-averse electorate. We know that Metro is considering extending subway service into the Arts District along track that trains already travel every single day. From the potential station at 4th or 6th, trains would continue underground along Whittier Boulevard into the heart of Whittier. Now that Metro is doubling back and considering refinements to the Washington Boulevard Alternative, some of which fall outside the original scope of the Eastside Transit Corridor, they should also be willing to reconsider the best alternative. The cities of the SR-60 coalition have been built up to feel like if they don’t get the Gold Line, then they don’t get anything. Though the Gold Line would offer them nominal access to the rail network, it would never be heavily-used because it would always be hamstrung both by its location and its headways (and if Metro opts for weighted headways, the SR-60 is sure to receive the less frequent service). Rather than fighting over a low ridership quasi-commuter route so that they can tell their constituents that they got something, they should put their money into funding a more rider-friendly line, like the proposed (but generally not spoken of) Silver Line LRT further north. As one commenter on this site pointed out, such a line, along Garvey or Valley,  would offer more meaningful service to each of the coalition’s cities without the sacrifice in service that would come with the Gold Line option.

Can we make this happen? I don’t know, but we have nothing to lose in trying. With a proposed revenue start date of 2035, there is plenty of time before construction begins to redo environmental documents and find the funding to do the thing right. Hell, there’s even plenty of time to repeal the measure preventing Propositions A and C from being used to fund below-grade rail transit. Once construction on this flawed project starts, the opportunity to give the Eastside the transit it deserves may be lost forever.

The ghosts of the Pacific Electric Railway, most of whose routes have been abandoned for 80 years or more, continue to haunt Los Angeles, shaping its growth and subliminally steering its future. How can we act now, cognizant as we are of the decrepitude of the proposed alternatives for Los Angeles’ Eastside, as though we are unaware that we too will steer the future? When we adopt these inferior works, we thereby eliminate from future consideration better, more sensible options. We are sowing the inequities of the future and asking the Eastside to continue to abide. These are matters of potential, of looking forward and determining which option will join itself to the fabric of the community and become progressively more integral as time passes. We should know by now that when it comes to capital investments, there is more than dollars and cents at stake.

Measure “R2”: A Primer

Readers who follow local transit issues are likely familiar with the Measure R raft of funding and probably are also aware that Metro is pursuing a similarly structured measure to appear on November’s ballot. Nonetheless, I’m going to attempt to provide a somewhat comprehensive background of the current ballot measure under consideration (and what it could mean for Los Angeles), as a reference point for anyone who is just joining us over the course of what is bound to be a very eventful year. I will make every effort to keep this post updated as more information appears.

First things first, what was Measure R?

Measure R, passed by the voters of LA County in 2008, is a half-cent sales tax which will generate revenue for Metro until 2039. With a life-of-tax revenue estimated at $40 billion, the passage of Measure R marked a major change in fortune for Metro and allowed them to be much more aggressive in pursuing the projects in their Long Range Transportation Plan. Today, two rail extensions are on the verge of opening to the public and an additional three are under construction. This is a far cry from where the agency was at the beginning of the century, when there was a $20 billion funding shortfall for the agency’s top priority projects.

Los Angeles County had not passed a sales tax for the transit since the 1990s when the 66.7% supermajority requirement to approve new local taxes began to apply to the Transportation Authority. Measure R was not expected to succeed. That it survived long enough to make the ballot is creditable in large part to the group Move LA, which coordinated a winning coalition of regional politicians, business and labor interests to voice support for additional transportation dollars. In November of 2008, as we know, Measure R did pass, with 67.22% of voters approving. As stipulated by the expenditure plan, 35% of its proceeds will be budgeted for new transit project construction, 20% for highway construction, 25% for bus and rail operations, 10% for Metrolink and Metrorail Operations and Maintenance, and 15% to be returned as grants to the cities of LA County on a per capita basis. 12 major transit projects are being funded in total or in part by the tax over a 30 year time frame.

Whoa, 30 years is a long time to wait!

That’s true, and it’s exactly what former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa thought. The city, county and Metro worked hard after Measure R to determine how it could clip the extended wait for certain projects. These included support for a Federal program of low interest infrastructure loans and the first Measure R update, Measure J. Low interest loans from the Federal Government allow Metro to build now and begin operations on capital projects that they already have a dedicated funding stream for, but for which the money may not be available for years or decades. These loans are in play already for Metro’s under construction projects, but not at a level which would have allowed for the acceleration of planned second and third decade Measure R projects. Measure J was another means of accomplishing the same end. Doubling the length of the Measure R tax to last until 2069, it would have given the Transportation Authority additional leverage to finance expedited completion of the most expensive Measure R projects. However, in 2012, with a backbreaking 66.11% of voters in approval, Measure J failed to meet the incredibly high bar of passage for a sales tax at the ballot box. There are reasons, and legal precedents, to consider the 2/3 supermajority an unreasonable standard. Nonetheless, that standard is likely to remain in play for the foreseeable future.

So what’s happening now? And what is Measure “R2”?

Measure J demonstrated to local officials that there was essentially no margin for error in future attempts at establishing funding streams for rail expansion. J’s oft-cited fatal flaw was that it did not fund any new projects, giving it a deja vu sensation for voters who had just approved funding to these same projects 4 years earlier. Perhaps equally important was voter turnout. The Nays picked up just .8% more votes for Measure J than they had for Measure R, whereas the Yeas diminished in number by over 7% from R to J and fewer ballots were cast overall. The loss, such as it was, did not dissuade local officials from believing that there existed enough support countywide to get the right measure passed. J just wasn’t that measure. The intervening 3 years have seen a variety of groups come together to determine how to craft a measure that would fund not only the timely completion of Measure R projects, but a variety of other items on Metro’s wishlist as the agency works toward developing the newest iteration of its Long Range Transportation Plan. Measure “R2” still does not have a formal identifier, but it is very much conceived as a sequel to the original broad coalition approach that got Measure R across the finish line. Like all sequels, Measure “R2” is eager, maybe even overeager, to give the people what they want. Although, it still hasn’t been formally adopted for the November ballot, a draft expenditure plan for the ballot measure will likely be released at the beginning of March.

At the moment, Measure “R2” is envision as an “extend and augment” tax which would add an extra 18 years to the life of R the First and implement an additional half-cent sales tax with a 30 year life. This tax, Metro believes, could generate in excess of $120 billion.

What can I expect Measure “R2” to fund?

Well, first things first you can expect it to be overly deferential to the car owners of Los Angeles. Whatever progress L.A. County may have made, Metro has shown no stomach whatsoever for bringing the gospel of transit-for-its-own-sake to the people. This is a fine line to walk: some concessions to the pro-car lobby may be necessary to reach 66.7% of the vote, but too many concessions could and should be considered counterproductive and enough to possibly turn a good tax into a bad one. Los Angeles does not need more freeways, it does not need more roads. But it does badly need funds for bus and rail transit. Los Angeles, as Jessica Meaney from local nonprofit Investing in Place has pointed out, generates about 3/4 of the funds it spends on transportation locally. Voters have been extremely generous with their tax dollars, and they should expect Metro to craft a ballot measure in such a way that it funds the best and most badly needed projects with as little excess as possible.

Having said all that, several Measure R capital projects were not funded at a level that could get them fully operational. Existing projects which stand to benefit are: The East San Fernando Valley Corridor (which is currently being pushed as a Light Rail line along Van Nuys Boulevard), LRT along the West Santa Ana Branch of the old Pacific Electric Railway, LRT through the Sepulveda Pass connecting the SFV to Westwood, The Eastside Gold Line extension in two branches to South El Monte and Whittier, the Green Line South Bay extension, and the Airport-Metro Connector. Some of these projects are more deserving than others, but it is a safe bet that all will be funded to levels sufficient to get them finished so that Metro can fulfill the promise that it made voters in 2008.

Other projects that appear to have some traction are: The continuation of the Foothill Gold Line from Azusa to Montclair in San Bernardino County, a Northward extension of the Crenshaw line through Mid-City and up to Hollywood, a possible (though questionably reasoned) conversion of the Orange Line to LRT, and Bus Rapid Transit projects on Vermont, Lincoln, and connecting North Hollywood to Pasadena.

Metro has been collecting comments from stakeholders throughout the county and is preparing a draft expenditure plan for release in the next several weeks. This marks the culmination of a years-long process. Although the Metro Board will not make the final decision on the ballot measure until the Summer, we’re talking about a potentially titanic sum of money that is going to set off major battles among the County’s subregions and interest groups. There is much left to be decided, and nothing has yet been finalized. In the coming weeks though we will get our first real idea of the what, when and how of the things that Metro believes it can get done with Measure “R2”. In the intervening time, we’ll be talking some more about which projects have the most potential, and what I think transit riders and advocates should expect of a successful Measure “R2”.

If you have any questions, please comment them here and I’ll do my best to answer.

“L.A. Lost”: Bullet Train to arrive at Diridon Before Burbank

The San Jose Mercury News broke the story yesterday that the California High Speed Rail Authority has officially shifted the focus of the initial operating segment for the state’s under-construction bullet train project. Whereas the 500-mile, era-defining project was initially intended to begin its operations from Merced to Burbank in 2022, it will now instead be aiming to get trains up and running between Bakersfield and San Jose by 2025. When the initial operating segment begins service, a trip between Fresno and Downtown San Jose is expected to take just 51 minutes, potentially easing some of the state’s most horrific commutes and overheated real estate markets. Politicians and high speed rail proponents in Silicon Valley hailed the news of the train’s early arrival as a win for the Bay Area, but it was also, as Diridon Station namesake Rod Diridon Sr. pointed out, a loss for L.A. In January, the heads of the Authority reassured Californians that no part of the state would be left behind regardless of what the first operable segment happened to be, and yet for Southern California, where over 50% of state residents live, it still feels a bit like being left behind.

Section 1
The New Initial Operating Segment

The new business plan, a draft of which was obtained by the Mercury News, is a response to the challenges that the agency believes it would have faced in maintaining the original timetable for the southern portion of the route. While there was some of the obligatory hand wringing and town-hall storming regarding the train’s path through the San Fernando Valley, it was no more imposing than the resistance that moneyed interests put up on the San Francisco Peninsula. The deciding factor was the complex tunnel routes through Southern California’s Tehachapis and San Gabriel Mountain ranges, which pose a significant, though not insurmountable, obstacle to the best alignment for the train as it makes its way to the Los Angeles basin. As tough as it is to hear that we must wait even longer before the start of passenger service, the traversal of the San Gabriels is perhaps the most important section of the route in Southern California. The 15 minute trip from Burbank to Lancaster that is expected once the trains are running through the mountains obliterates the travel time by car even under the most favorable conditions. It is undoubtedly worth waiting for.

hsr
Potential HSR routes vs. the existing highway corridor. Image from scvnews.com

Despite the consternation that is surely being felt across the Southland, heading North instead of South allows for two important things to happen. First, because of the reduced cost of the segment (an estimated $20 billion versus a previously estimated $31 billion YOE for Merced to Burbank), CHSRA will be able to get a further with the revenue streams that they have in place. Given that the state legislature, even dominated as it is by the Democratic Party, has not always been enthusiastic in its support of the project, much has rested on the ability of Governor Jerry Brown to continue pressing it forward. By ensuring more track is laid  during the governor’s remaining time in office, it is as a result much more likely that enough momentum will have been built to carry the initial segment forward to an identified start date. At least one notable early candidate to succeed Brown, former San Francisco mayor and current Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, has made his disapproval of the project known. People have a tendency to get nervous when they’re seeing massive projects through to completion. Priorities shift, and there will always be calls to scrap the whole thing in favor of one project or another. Without a steady and authoritative figure to guide the process, it is likely that the project, pulled in various directions by California’s countless constituencies, would fall to pieces forever. Fortunately, we do have Brown for a few more years, and probably for long enough to establish High Speed Rail as a reality and never look back.

The second important thing that will be achieved by the shift in focus is that it will give the Authority an extended timeline to begin tunneling through the mountains. With the Southern California segment now bumped to second priority, the “do-or-die” pressure of a task filled with unknowns is alleviated, at least a little. If the Authority coordinates its efforts well, it could begin its most difficult segment and its simplest segment more or less simultaneously, and then play catch up with the tracks in the Antelope and San Fernando Valleys after the fact. Much still depends on funding and support from the Federal Government, which has been in short supply for many years. Even though it may mean a years-longer wait for a region desperate for increased mobility, it seems that there is no better way to ensure the long term survival of California High Speed Rail than to go North and leave L.A. behind for now.

Inside Jill Stewart’s One Percenter Bubble

Yesterday, the Planning Report posted an interview with Jill Stewart, former editor of the LA Weekly, on her new project heading a ballot initiative for the Coalition to Preserve LA. The so-called Neighborhood Integrity Initiative proposes to halt any development in the city that would require a zone change for a period of up to 2 years. In the interview, Stewart takes aim at transit, transit-oriented development and any attempts to rectify historical inequities in the wider realm of Southern California land use and transportation policy. Moreover, she does so in the name of the people that she is actively seeking to disenfranchise. She and her universally-beloved financial backers at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation portray themselves as crusading heroes for the little people of a city swiftly marching into a dystopian future, all thanks to corrupt local officials and greedy developers. While I will leave it to others who are better informed than I to tackle the nuances of land use and local politics, I found it impossible to sit idly by while listening to this wealthy elite promulgate their hideous ideals of social injustice. And so, I hope you’ll join me as I wade into the morass.

What exactly does the Coalition want? What do they hope to achieve by preserving LA like a fly in amber? All we can do is read between the lines. As with any con job, there is a small kernel of truth which is intended to misdirect the attention of the mark. There is a dire lack of affordable housing in Los Angeles, and it is easy to see that the city has not done nearly enough to keep the pressure on developers to provide Below Market Rate housing. Stewart begins with a premise that even I find myself agreeing with: namely, that “spot zoning” or approving specific projects and adjusting the zoning code permit a specific project is not an effective way to plan a city’s growth. Absent from her commentary, however, is any mention of the lawsuits (such as the one that scrapped the Hollywood Community Plan, which was explicitly couched in the rhetoric of protecting the views of wealthy Hollywood Hills landowners) that have made the prospect of updating General Plans to reflect the reality of a growing Los Angeles something of a Sisyphean task. With that sensible path barred by activists like Stewart, the Council took the route which remained to them.

Los Angeles is not a hunk of petrified wood. It is a growing and changing city. The only group that could ever hope to achieve its goals by dragging its heels and calling for an absolute fossilization of the city at any given point is the group that has all and wants to share none. This is ultimately the same story of haves and have-nots that has been playing out in California at least since the era of The Grapes of Wrath. The Coalition’s utter lack of real proposed governance strategies and the absence of even a potential mechanism to bring the General Plan up-to-date (“We’ll see who decides it’s of interest, jumps in, and wants to do it.” Stewart offers in one casual aside) put the lie to the suggestion that her group is interested in any meaningful reform. Rather the Coalition would like to see new housing development simply stopped in its tracks.

Are we to presume, like Stewart, that everything is grand in L.A. and if we stick to the letter of the law, things will be fine and dandy? Well, not so fast. The shortage of not just affordable housing but of all housing stock has tremendous impacts on Southern California and especially on its poor and minority communities. These impacts reach far beyond Stewart’s petulant and patronizing observation of East Hollywood that it is filled with “older”, “not gorgeous” apartments. I happen to be a resident of East Hollywood. My 90029 zipcode is the 87th most crowded in the entire U.S., with 20.2% of housing units having at least 1 person per livable room. Multiple families and 3 or more generations of families share one bedroom apartments in my “affordable” neighborhood. Los Angeles and Orange County combined have 9 of the top 10 most crowded zip codes in the country. Overall one third of the top 1% most crowded zip codes are in Southern California. And that’s today, with residential housing creation rates below where they need to be to keep pace with population growth, but far above where they would be if this moratorium were to take effect.

The concerns of my community and those of the working-class neighborhoods of Los Angeles are distinct from the agenda of wealthy obstructionists, but unfortunately they are easy for the latter group to conflate. After all, the Coalition might say, anti-displacement activists in San Francisco’s Mission District just tried and failed to pass a moratorium on new development in their neighborhood. Surely, then, they are representing a struggle to help the oppressed fight gentrification. Stewart essentially casts herself in this mold when she claims that the evils of transit-oriented development are opposed across class lines. But the Mission moratorium measure was the desperate last act of a community facing an unprecedented churn of population, wealth, and political power. However bad things may be here, the pressures of San Francisco, and especially the miniscule 1.865 square miles of the Mission, are a world apart from those of the sprawling 469 square miles of the city of Los Angeles. It is true that, just like the Mission, some neighborhoods in Los Angeles have suffered more than their fair share of displacement. But it is disingenuous for wealthy Westside and Valley communities to pretend that this is a communal struggle when it is their staunch refusal to accommodate any of the region’s new residents that has disproportionately shifted those newcomers to the south and east. Historically, it has been easy for people like Stewart with malign intentions to hide the fact that the rising tide of gentrification creeping ever further inland is a direct result of their own obstructionist tactics. Just because you don’t create new housing to prepare for population growth, that doesn’t stop people from coming. It will, however, increase pressures that force lower-income residents further and further outward from regional centers. Los Angeles in 2016 is a testament to the cliche that failing to plan is planning to fail.

There is another narrative which Stewart has conveniently neglected, and which those of a libertarian “what’s mine is mine” bent seem especially prone to forgetting. The map of population and demographic dispersal in Los Angeles does not look the way it does by chance. It is not the result of some grand game of musical chairs, where everyone had an equal opportunity to be one of the lucky few with seat at the end. No, no, no. Governments in the 20th century engaged in explicitly racist policies designed to protect the preeminence of wealthy whites at the expense of all others. The growing awareness of what is now known as social justice stems from an understanding that “place matters.” This is perhaps why environmental and affordable housing groups understand what Jill Stewart cannot seem to fathom: that the ballot measure she is proposing will have nothing less than a cataclysmic impact on minority, POC, and low-income communities throughout the Southern California region.

What can you expect if this ballot measure passes? Purchase and rental prices will grow with increasing speed. Ellis Act evictions, already on the upswing in Los Angeles, will skyrocket. Entire communities will be priced out of the city, and, having lost their rent-stabilized apartments, will likely be unable to buy their way back into the market. Because Stewart is also, to put it mildly, skeptical of transit, the workers of the city will be stuck in a higher volume of traffic coming from further out, sacrificing years of their lives and suffering the deleterious health effects of spending hours each day getting to work. Stewart has actually saved many of her most outrageously venomous barbs for transit. She clearly believes herself to be a singular voice of reason on the issue, with the rest of us being blinded by politically correct idealism. As she puts it: “People who can afford to own cars continue to drive their cars. This is true in Paris, in London, and every other city with a lot of transit. No amount of discussion will get people to give up that freedom. It’s a fantastic thing, to be able to drive your car.” Which of course is why 34% of commuters in London and just 9% in Paris travel to work by way of their fantastic automobiles. Apparently, she does not think that those numbers are worth fighting for, even for a city like Los Angeles where more than 3/4 of commuters travel by private automobile. Stewart additionally cites a major drop in Metro ridership, which is a reference to the much-discussed Los Angeles Times article which has been criticized by transit experts for picking arbitrary comparison points and for extrapolating a trend that may or may not exist in order to craft a favorable narrative. Finally, at the end of the interview, Stewart bares the naked ambition of her ilk in proposing a tax credit for those who “agree” to work from home. Setting aside the unconditional surrender to reduced mobility which she apparently desires, this proposal is ultimately class warfare. It rewards the few who can opt to work from home with a tax rebate, while everyone else suffers the burdens (social, environmental, financial) of driving. How many maids do you know who can “agree” to work from home? Waiters?  The truth is that this suggestion is the equivalent of a bullet point from a tax plan by Ted Cruz. Designed by the wealthy, for the wealthy.

There are issues, a great many of them, in the housing politics of Los Angeles city and county. But the Coalition to Preserve LA addresses itself to only one: the privation of a healthy and socially robust life by a wealthy elite. I am sure that many advocates in Los Angeles fighting gentrification and displacement honestly will continue to do the great work that they have done in working to provide affordable housing to all Angelenos. For all our sake, we can only hope that siren song to self-destruction goes unheeded.

Metro’s New Ad Campaign Keeps Focus in the Wrong Place

If you have used the Metro smartphone app recently, you have probably seen this ad for the soon-to-open Foothill Extension of the Gold Line:FullSizeRender

Presumably, with a ballot measure follow-up to 2008’s Measure R currently being focus grouped and prepared for its big day in November, Metro feels some need to reassure drivers that they too will benefit by agreeing to bless the local Transportation Authority with yet another long term half-cent sales tax. And here we have it: the essentially Los Angeles scene of a transit agency heralding the opening of its newest rail corridor as a boon to the region’s non-transit users.

Due to the Foothill Extension’s suburban and quasi-commuter rail routing (which adds 6 stations over 11 miles), there is an argument to be made that the intent of the campaign is to cast rail as a favorable alternative for drivers fed up with the 210 through the western San Gabriel Valley. But in terms of the new ad, it’s a weak argument. After all, assuming we accept the premise to begin with, for whom is traffic actually being eased? The drivers, of course. And that’s what’s being broadcast here. If anything, Metro is telling drivers that it’s OK to stay on the 210 because someone else will ride the Gold Line. I find it tough to look at the other “Metro Eases Traffic” images and think that the agency is even considering drivers as potential transit users.

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Personally, I believe that the Gold Line extension will beat the relatively paltry 10,100 weekday riders that the FEIR predicted back in 2007 before long. But this ad campaign really speaks to the heart of a deeper issue for bus and rail riders in Los Angeles. The quality of the transit projects and the quality of transit service that can be achieved through this driver-first mindset is always going to be second rate. The projects suffer because there is an overemphasis on the potential for rail to alleviate the pressure that exists at some specific location in the road network. This emphasis, which Metro has played no small part in crafting, leads to a widespread ignorance of the fact that, as UCLA Professor Brian Taylor points out, freeways and rail lines are different technologies with disparate needs and effects. Service, which is at least as important as the infrastructure you build, suffers because the mandate to extend transit is of a secondary importance to the mobility of personal automobiles. As a result, even the heavy rail backbone of the Metrorail system sinks to abysmal frequencies of 1 train every 20+ minutes on weekday evenings immediately after rush hour ends. Metro’s buses, which we’ll discuss more in a future post, have suffered even more acutely from this mindset.

Once the expectation has been set that “traffic easing” is an acceptable basis which to judge the success of transit, it is an inevitability that headlines like this will pop up. There is an inherent risk to continuing to court voter support along these lines. Public confidence is not a function of what an agency promises, but of what it shows itself capable of delivering. It is a difficult capital to rebuild. So is Metro really serving itself by suggesting that the mere presence of a rail line running parallel to the 210 is going to cause a world of difference for car commuters in the west SGV? I tend to doubt it. In reality, the only way to achieve the goal of an easier commute is not by pandering to the whims of drivers, but by creating an efficient and well-served transit network focused on creating and empowering riders.

 

Underground Connector Proposed for Eastside Gold Line

Washington BlvdOn Wednesday, Metro’s Planning and Programming Committee will receive refined options for the proposed Washington Blvd. alignment of the Eastside Gold Line extension. Original plans in the Draft Environmental Impact Report called for the light rail line to follow an aerial tracking along Garfield between Washington and the 60, but the route met with community opposition in Montebello, where dozens of businesses and 9 homes could have been taken out by construction. After initially labeling the community impact “adverse but not significant,” Metro agreed to seek out a more palatable connection to Washington as part of a larger technical study which, when completed later this year, will also report on the feasibility of building both LRT build alternatives from the DEIR: to South El Monte via the 60 ROW and to Whittier via Washington Boulevard. (Edit: The timeframe for delivery on the full technical study has been extended to the second quarter of 2017 to allow for increased time to discuss with stakeholders).

Of the four new proposed routes, the most eye-catching is Alternative 3, which would replace the above-grade section of the route through Montebello with an underground tunnel spanning approximately 1.3 miles to Whittier Boulevard where there would be a new station. From there, it would rejoin the original DEIR path just beyond the Montebello city limits in an aerial alignment down to Washington. The straight shot below-grade option would likely represent a time savings compared to the DEIR path, which skirted the edge of the Montebello Municipal Golf Course along a particularly circuitous portion of Garfield. A major and still unknown consideration would be the additional cost of such a tunnel and the accompanying station, but the impact could be significant for a project already expected to cost up to $3.2888 billion dollars in Year-of-Expenditure dollars. One obvious flaw is the total lack of connectivity between the Montebello/Commerce Metrolink station and the new LRT line, which otherwise could help boost the former’s sagging ridership. Metro should make efforts to consider extending this below grade option between the Whittier/Garfield and Washington/Greenwood stations, with an intermediary below-grade stop underneath the Metrolink Montebello station. This extra 1.5 miles of tunnel would replace another slow section of curvy track with a straightened alignment, and provide vast improvements in terms of regional connectivity. But regardless, this alternative seems to be the one to beat.

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A refinement to Alternative 3 that would vastly improve regional mobility.

The remaining three alternatives haven’t been fleshed out much, but in their half-finished state there are some glaring issues that would be difficult to overcome. The Atlantic Blvd. alignment would require the existing at-grade Atlantic station to be moved from Pomona Blvd. to Beverly, either significantly complicating or eliminating completely the potential to run LRT along both the 60 and Washington routes. Because the South El Monte route runs primarily through the San Gabriel Valley COG and the Whittier line runs through the Gateway Cities COG, any alternative that doesn’t permit the construction of both is probably dead on arrival. There can be no doubt that Metro, deep in the middle of its campaign to sell a follow-up sales tax to build upon Measure R, does not want to be put in the position of picking between the two options. In order to meet an onerous 66.7% voter approval threshold to raise tax dollars, local transit officials would do nearly anything to avoid discord between the various regions of the county. But we’ll get back to that later.

The Arizona Ave. alignments prominently feature an impossible route geometry, whose hairpin turn from 3rd to Mednik would be dubious even if the East LA Civic Center station were not 300 feet east of Mednik. Indeed, alternatives 1A and 1B would seem more plausible from a geometry standpoint as a southeasterly extension of the designed-to-fail 710 North LRT option than as a branch of the Gold Line.

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To have any credibility as a Gold Line option, Alternatives 1A and B would likely have to ditch Arizona altogether, maybe in favor of a .9 mile below-grade section from 3rd to Alt. 2’s Whittier/Atlantic station.

To be frank, none of the alternatives considered are likely to make transit advocates forget about the Whittier Boulevard Red Line extension that might have been, but it is good at least to see Metro considering mitigation measures that might increase ridership rather than hampering it. The Eastside Gold Line suffers from poor stop spacing(Maravilla, East LA Civic Center and Atlantic are all within one .75 mile stretch) and questionable neighborhood connectivity, both of which have hopefully yielded important lessons for phase 2 moving forward.

In the near future, we’ll be discussing the potential for branch service in southeast LA county to help regional mobility and possible light rail connectors between the Gold Line and the West Santa Ana Branch, as we await the full release of the technical study.