Covering transportation issues affecting the city and county of Los Angeles
Author: Red Line Reader
Red Line Reader covers issues of transit and transportation affecting the city and county of Los Angeles. This site is dedicated to the fight for good and equitable transit, and to preserving for future generations a quality of life that we would be proud to enjoy today.
The Daily News and KPCC reported earlier this week that California State University Northridge (CSUN) is set to make a push for a package of transit improvements to its campus. CSUN occupies a central place in the San Fernando Valley and state Senator Robert M. Hertzberg was on campus Monday to make the case that it should occupy a central place in the SFV’s transit plans as well. With 3800+ employees and upwards of 40,000 students, CSUN is one of the largest employment centers in Los Angeles and the largest university in the 23-campus Cal State system. Hertzberg is one among a growing number of Valley politicians calling for an increase in funding share for their subregion. Many in the SFV believe that the subregion got short changed by Measure R, relative to the share of the tax base that the Valley represents.
According to Hertzberg, CSUN sees “more than 100,000 single-occupant car trips to campus” every single week. The campus transit center is served by several Metro bus lines but all of these suffer from relatively poor service. The Rapid 744, which makes a gigantic U-shape along Van Nuys, Ventura and Reseda Boulevards, operates at 20 minute headways throughout the day, with its last scheduled service to CSUN at about 9:15 PM. The 167 bus, which nominally connects Chatsworth and Studio City to campus, runs just once an hour in either direction. As part of its general call for better service, CSUN President Diane Harrison wants to see service levels within 10 miles of campus drastically improved. About half of CSUN’s students live within a 10-mile radius of school, an area encompassing essentially the entirety of the San Fernando Valley, according to their research. Burt Reed of the Transit Coalition says that the Valley should demand 1 million bus service hours just in their subregion and take precautions to make sure that that money doesn’t drift away into other areas.
Harrison’s other priorities would help to reinforce CSUN as a central regional trip generator. She recommends moving the existing Metrolink Northridge station to Reseda Blvd, adjacent to her proposal for a real Bus Rapid Transit line running from Ventura Boulevard up to the CSUN transit center. The Metrolink station is just about a mile from campus but suffers from poor connectivity with local buses. Harrison’s solution would certainly help, and Metrolink service improvements would make it more useful for students as well. CSUN is further recommending the establishment of Bus Rapid Transit between campus and the future Van Nuys Light Rail line, which might one day provide service under the Sepulveda Pass to Westwood and LAX, and a Metro Rapid route between the Warner Center and campus. The Nordhoff Bus Rapid Transit line is an excellent way to emphasize the demand and need for intra-Valley transit options. The 744 runs down Van Nuys and Reseda, but is clearly useless for those attempting to take transit between activity centers on either. A Nordhoff BRT project would break the 744 down into its 3 component travel patterns, and better serve the populace because of it.
All in all, the school is making a laudable effort to redefine its role in the Valley transportation network. Past Metro studies have focused on north-south movement in the SFV, as the agency has been building out the beginnings of its regional system. This has had the effect of giving too little weight to travel patterns that begin and end inside the Valley, and of denying it a hub-spoke mini-network of its own. But now, the conversation has clearly progressed to that point. Tomorrow at 6 pm, CSUN will have its priorities on display at the 2nd Valley Transportation Summit. Underscoring the need for action by Metro, CSUN will offer Uber scholarships for students to attend.
Last year, a proposal to improve a Metro-owned right-of-way running through South Los Angeles made a major jump forward when Metro received $15 million in federal grants to begin converting the blighted corridor into an active transportation path stretching from the Crenshaw Line out to the Los Angeles River. The news was welcomed by the Chair of Metro’s Board of Directors, Mark Ridley-Thomas, in whose County Supervisorial district the new active transportation path will be located. However, it was received somewhat more roughly by transit activists, some of whom felt that even a temporary improvement to the corridor would jeopardize its future use for rail transit. I, for one, am excited that South L.A., so often neglected, misunderstood and ignored, is set to receive the rail-to-river pathway that residents have identified as a genuine need.
If one wants a glimpse into the extent that South Los Angeles is generally ignored by its electeds, one need only look at the Measure R2 priorities recommended by the “Central Cities” Council of Governments (which is, after all, just Eric Garcetti’s City Hall). Despite the studies that have been completed on the Harbor Subdivision, and despite that a subway down Vermont appears in Metro’s Long Range Transportation Plan, Garcetti has prioritized extending the Crenshaw line north up to Hollywood/Highland station, and funding the Downtown streetcar project. Of the remaining priorities, most are citywide initiatives that appear to amount to a siphoning of funds away from Central and South Los Angeles by the San Fernando Valley and Westside. South L.A. in particular appears to get very little, not even a recommendation to fund the shortfall in the rail-to-river path project.
There is no reason that this community should be forced to be patient with an unmaintained rail corridor for decades until Metro gets around to establishing service on Slauson, but, to be sure, there is also no reason that Metro actually should wait decades to do so. This is a corridor primed for rail service, that would serve existing local need, improve regional mobility, and that could be had for relatively cheap. By all indications, though, it has been shunted down into the lowest ring of priorities, and likely on the strength of some more outdated SCAG analyses.
The Harbor Subdivision ROW snakes from Union Station to LAX and back again, ending deep in the South Bay. A section of the ROW is already being used by the Green Line and the portion of the Crenshaw Line from Hyde Park south to the Green Line will utilize the ROW as well. In 2009, SCAG studied the entirety of the corridor, focusing on its potential as a means of connecting DTLA and the airport by regional or express rail. The South L.A. community rejected the non-local options, as well they should have. The regional and express options, if they had gone forward, would have turned their back on a transit-dependent population in order to privilege use of the system by South Bay Commuters and tourists. 200,000 people live within a mile of the Slauson corridor of the Harbor Subdivision, extending from the Florence/West station of the Crenshaw Line to the Slauson station of the Blue Line. Many of those residents, as SCAG and Metro noted, are already users of public transportation, and the 5.2 mile corridor runs through some of the densest neighborhoods in the county.
Here’s a close-up. The Crenshaw Line appears in pink and the Alameda option of the WSAB is shown in light green. The dashed line is the path that a Slauson LRT through South L.A. would follow. It would share tracks with the Crenshaw Line from Aviation/Century to Florence/West, at which point the Slauson Line would follow the Harbor Subdivision northeast to Slauson Avenue.From there it could travel east, primarily at-grade with targeted grade separations, before joining up with the Blue and WSAB lines at Long Beach Avenue, and following the WSAB tracks through DTLA to Union Station.
Even as local light rail service, the benefits would be pronounced. With 5 miles of track along existing ROW, we would serve a corridor of high need, provide connections between 3 rail lines (and the Silver Line) and vastly improve the connection between downtown and the airport. Once the regional connector is completed, travel from the Union Station hub to LAX will involve taking the Blue Line to the Green Line and then transferring to the People Mover. Cut-throughs using the WSAB, or the current Expo and Crenshaw Lines may ultimately prove to be faster, but they would also bring the trip up to four transfers. Taking the Slauson Line from Union Station to LAX, by contrast would be a two seat ride, with only a transfer to the LAX People Mover at 96th/Century station.
It is worth noting that in the Harbor Sub alternatives analysis, SCAG recommended fully eliminating an option that would involve interlining with the Blue Line and then running up Alameda to Union Station. This was due to a number of factors, primarily the lack of capacity at both Little Tokyo station and the Gold Line crossing of the 101 freeway. Little Tokyo station is now in the process of being relocated underground as part of the Regional Connector project, and just last year Metro’s WSAB Technical Refinement study proposed a nearly identical alignment for that line as the one that SCAG eliminated for the Harbor Subdivision. While the route hasn’t been fully refined yet, it would involve a separate crossing of the 101 and an aerial station above the new Little Tokyo station. SCAG’s analysis should be taken back into consideration. The Union Station connection that they dismissed outright is about to be considered for a Measure R funded line, and the potential for interlining the two exists.
One consideration would be that the existing Blue Line Slauson station (which is south of Slauson Ave) would need to be moved to the north side of the intersection. This may be necessary even if the WSAB alone is constructed. If the Slauson Line were constructed, the station at Slauson/Long Beach would become an important focal point of travel in and through South Los Angeles. Reconstruction of the station would offer the opportunity to improve the functionality of junction and to provide extra amenities for the high transfer volume that would occur there. In the picture below, the Blue Line Slauson station is elevated on the south side of the street. The rail running from the foreground is the Harbor Subdivision ROW track, and the at-grade crossing parallel to the Blue Line is being studied for use by the West Santa Ana Branch project.
The rail-to-river corridor is a good project that will provide safe active transit space in an area where that is an asset in short supply. Metro’s own design criteria for alternate uses on its ROWs mandate that they preserve the capacity for future transit usage. This could amount to putting in place temporary materials, with the underlying assumption that a Slauson Light Rail project would result in tearing them out. But again, this would be unfair to the community, which would be made to choose between two vital assets. While the feasibility of building the Slauson Line is not endangered by the rail-to-river project, nor by its exclusion from Measure R2, we are missing out on a perfect opportunity to concert our efforts. Rail-to-river funding could be apportioned out of funding for the Slauson line, and designed in such a way that they could coexist. We will know in the coming weeks whether or not the Slauson Line remains on Metro’s radar.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 heruniversally-belovedfinancial 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.