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Transportation: The Four Irrefutable Lessons of 2011

GETTING THERE FROM HERE - Locally, statewide and at the federal level, in 2011 there were both advances and retreats in our efforts to create the mobility needed to improve our personal and collective economy, environment and quality of life.  Whether “lessons learned” from these advances and retreats will actually occur in 2012 and beyond is, unfortunately, anyone’s guess … but overall 2011 was a pretty good year.
ONE: The Expo Line was and is a grassroots effort that will succeed only if grassroots input is allowed to continue.

What was begun as an effort by grassroots volunteers from the Westside, Mid-City and Downtown communities (Friends4Expo Transit) to reach out to each other and provide an alternative to the punishing I-10 Freeway was hijacked somewhat by a few pols who catered both to special interests and to those who sought to perpetuate political, geographic and even racial division in the City and County of Los Angeles.

Overall, the Expo Line Authority staff have done a superior and diligent job of outreach and planning to ensure the proper planning and construction of this light rail line, which will open to Culver City in 2012 and potentially change the commuting and urban planning from the entire region as passenger rail suddenly becomes reality and not mere science fiction and chatter.

Problems with contractors, unpleasant surprises with infrastructure and coordination with the shared Blue and Expo Line tracks Downtown, and construction delays have been vigorously addressed for a project that is roughly two years behind schedule.  However, what certainly will be “lessons learned” in a good way from both the Eastside and Expo Light Rail Lines will probably not be as pleasant a lesson learned at the political level.

In short, when the first phase of the Expo Line opens it is hoped that the right Boardmembers are expeditiously removed and replaced with Westside representatives who will focus less on divisiveness and more on improving the station design, operations, and regional planning near the line for the benefit of all riders and to those who live and work next to the entire line.

TWO: Light rail and other passenger rail are great, but automobile traffic will still be a transportation centerpiece for the indefinite future.

There’s nothing like a good disaster to remind everyone how much we need our freeways and roads.  Take the recent fiery tanker explosion that destroyed the Paramount Blvd Bridge over the 60 freeway and shut it down for a few days. (link)

Now THAT was a true “Carmageddon”, and--unlike the previous I-405 freeway closure--there was no warning.  It will likely cost $5 million to fix this bridge and the adjacent freeway.  Regardless of the potential mechanical and/or human error involved in this disaster, this rapid repair is needed for funding and reconstruction of the 60 freeway ... and it reminds us all both how needed our freeways are as well as the priority of our tax dollars to pay for disasters such as this one.

On a similar but equally-relevant note, the reopening of the historic 1st Street Bridge in East L.A. after being closed as part of the Gold Line Extension and road widening efforts (link) also highlights our need for roads…and arguably promotes the best light rails as being road/freeway adjacent to supplement and not compete with our roads.

THREE: We blew it when we insisted that the California High Speed Rail Project connect LA to San Francisco in 2½ hours in order to compete with airplane travel, and should focus now on competing with automobile travel.

The debate is now really on whether the 2½ hour time requirement was stuck in the fine print or a goal that naïve Californians throughout the state sought for and arguably should now reconsider. (Link

The fact remains that the big transportation hurdle between Northern and Southern California is the long and boring I-5 car commute, and that a great deal of commuters will just take the airplane in the same way that they’ll take a plane to Las Vegas while others will endure the boring and jammed I-15 car commute.

And now that we know the costs of a 2½ goal ($100 billion), the question of how to bring the costs down to the originally-promoted $40 billion is the right one.  Lots of commuters will take a “higher-speed” train of over 100 miles per hour for smaller distances or even the entire distance if service is frequent and reliable, so it’s reasonable to ask whether a 3½ hour commute is worth considering if it saves lots of money and electricity on a train that appears neither cost-effective nor environmentally-friendly.

FOUR: State and federal transportation and infrastructure initiatives should be focused on getting projects built quickly and inexpensively, and not as a Trojan horse for job creation, pork barrel initiatives or throwing money at special interests that really have nothing to do with transportation/infrastructure.

Voters throughout the state and country were and still are in favor of spending tax money on building roads, rail, electricity and water infrastructure and similar priorities, but it wasn’t and isn’t hard to look at the recent state bond initiatives and the recent federal stimulus package to see all the wasteful distractions and spending that had nothing to do with a taxpayer investment in our infrastructure.

Affordable housing, overreaching labor unions, questionable environmental initiatives and other priorities really diminished the cost-effectiveness of our state and federal governmental transportation initiatives … in large part because they really don’t have much to do with improving transportation.

Did and does our state and federal spending on roads, rail, sewers, power lines, etc. get to enough projects and people to please the taxpayer and put a dent in unemployment and our economy?  Hardly.  

If we want to increase our annual spending on transportation in Washington, the annual transportation budget (and TEA-21 seven-year plan) should be upgraded and renewed after years of delay, and if it’s funded at the expense of lowering funding for social services, defense or other areas of undeniably wasteful spending (with much larger budgets than we commit to transportation/infrastructure) then so be it.

Stop with the gimmicks, recognize taxpayer investment as just that—and build projects quickly and on budget.

It’s that simple, but with politics and human nature, it’s questionable that such a simple lesson will be truly learned as we march into 2012.

But one can hope, right?

(Ken Alpern is a former Boardmember of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Vice Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee. He is co-chair of the CD11 Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at Alpern@MarVista.org. He also co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at www.fogl.us.   The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.) -cw

Tags: transportation, Ken Alpern, Expo Line, High-Speed Rail, LA Traffic

Vol 9 Issue 102
Pub: Dec 23, 2011