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Can the Expo Line Unite the City of Angels?

GETTING THERE FROM HERE - After roughly the better part of a decade promoting major infrastructure projects such as the Exposition Light Rail Line (or "Expo Line"), I've never shied away from my belief that it could help link and bring together neighborhoods of different color and socioeconomic background.  I've also never shied away from my observations that virtually all neighborhoods, regardless of ethnicity or wealth, through which the Expo Line will traverse have the same hopes and concerns for this passenger rail line.
We all want better mobility, economic betterment, the opportunities for greater pedestrian and bicycle access from the beach to Downtown, and an improved quality of life.  We all fear traffic, noise, crime and other impacts that would transform neighborhoods into something different than what they've been for generations.

Friends4Expo Transit (F4ET), the all-grassroots group that involved Westside, Mid-City, Downtown and Eastside residents willing to spend years in reaching out to each other for the shared goal of creating this line, did and still does endure a host of accusations and false claims of zealotry and being in someone's pocket.  

Frankly, if there's a check coming my way or to any other F4ET member, it's way overdue.  

But we do enjoy the support of our spouses, friends, and political leaders who have both helped and doubted us in the past, and who now see this rail project (favored as Metro's #1 passenger rail priority, supported by Sacramento money, and ranked highly by the Federal Transit Administration in terms of transit need and cost-effectiveness) becoming a reality.

Yes, Virginia, there will be an Expo Line--one that might open this summer/spring to La Cienega and open this summer/fall to Venice/Robertson.  Despite a learning curve of engineering, contract and legal challenges, the Expo Line Authority has passed off the Expo Line Phase 1 to La Cienega to Metro and trains are already running along the line to ensure the safety and engineering soundness of what will be our best alternative to the megacongested I-10 freeway.

Considering how the underrated and formerly-problematic Metro Gold and Green Light Rail Lines and Orange Line Busway are already carrying tens of thousands more riders than was predicted a few short years ago, it's more likely than not that this Expo Line will enjoy a similarly large (if not more so) number of riders because there really isn't a good, solid transit line for Westsiders, Mid-City residents and Downtowners to access each other's pedestrian destinations.  

There is considerable urban renewal from Downtown Culver City to Downtown Los Angeles and everywhere in-between (such as USC), to say nothing of increased regional tourism, that should promote increased usage of the line (as if the horrible congestion of the I-10 freeway wasn't enough).

Yet we have considerable procedural, fiscal, legal and political obstacles, both past and present and future, to improve this line and make it the gold standard it was always meant to be.

The need to have Mid-City representation in Los Angeles for Phase 1 issues, as well as Westside representation in Los Angeles for Phase 2 issues, flew in the face of the need to ensure as seamless a transition from Phase 1 to Culver City to Phase 2 to Santa Monica as smooth as possible.  

Downtown/Mid-City City Councilmembers didn't always cede their vote to those Westside City Councilmembers who were alternate Boardmembers when Westside planning and issues came up.  

Unfortunately, race and egos did come up more than F4ET members would have liked, and on more than one occasion we were aghast at what was said and done because of the issues of regional or ethnic rivalries that never came up between F4ET members during the decades of advocating for this line.

But the legal realities were there to be confronted, and unfortunately the issue of race became a legal weapon used by those who either wanted to delay the line, or even prevent the line altogether.  We kept hearing things like "well, we've low quality rail amenities in the Mid-City so you've got to pursue low standards in the Westside", or "rail station amenities and the Expo Bikeway are all expensive, so find the money somewhere else".  

Add the concerns raised by some neighbors who "didn't want THOSE people coming into their neighborhoods" and the lack of LA City Planning preparing for this line the way that Culver City did, and you've got a messy situation.  

However, when all was said and done, the hard and truly painful decisions are behind us and now it's up for the cities of Santa Monica, LA and Culver City to get their acts together and pony up their own funds for betterments that either the Expo Authority or Metro deem unnecessary for this passenger rail line, and/or demand that Metro pay its fair share when appropriate.

It's hoped that, as the City of LA, which really has a geographic/political/racial/socioeconomic obsession that is both despicable and inherent, and which has been made all too clear in its current redistricting debacle (LINK), can make the Expo Authority transition to Westside representation that enhances the Expo Line ridership experience to all regions, and to all communities.  Unresolved issues include:

1)    Station design and amenities:  Whether it's the Mid-City or the Westside, concerns are being raised as to whether enough shelter is being provided for rider or amenities are being provided for bicyclists.  

Rain and sun/resistant overhead shelters, solar-powered LED signs for train/bus linkages, establishment of native plants for both our ecosystem and to provide shade, are all described as "too expensive" at a time when we've spent hundreds of millions over budget for Phase 1 because of contractor and Boardmember errors.  

The Expo Line Corridor was supposed to be a Parkway that was both beautiful and pedestrian/bicycle-friendly, and I look forward to Bill Rosendahl and Paul Koretz achieving permanent status as Expo Line Authority Boardmembers who demand a higher level of station beautification and amenities for the entire line.

2)    The Expo Bikeway:  The Expo Bikeway was supposed to precede and even lead the Expo Rail Line in the right direction, and it's been shunted aside or given short shrift on too many occasions.  In one location at Expo/Rodeo, there is a significant safety risk for bicyclists that the City of LA and/or Metro must correct with either crossing gates or even an elevated portion of the Bikeway.  

This Expo Bikeway isn't just an after-thought by bicycling advocates whose spandex shorts and bicycle helmets are too tight for them to think logically--it was supposed to be a World-Class Bikeway that was one of the best features of the line, one that would obviate the need for many to access the line by either car or by bus, and which would be heavily utilized by those too afraid to ride on the mean streets of Los Angeles.

3)    Safety vs. Costs, and who should pay for them:  It is the job of Expo Authority CEO Rick Thorpe and his staff to build this line as on-time and on-budget as possible, but it is also the job of the Expo Authority Board to make sure the line is safe and pleasant to ride.  

Money doesn't go on trees, and it's certainly the job of cash-strapped cities to put their money where their collective mouth is, but I'd be more reassured if both the staff and the Board hung out for awhile at any of the shelters on a hot day, or took a bike ride along where the Bikeway will be.  

"Good enough" isn't good enough--the Expo Line was meant to raise the bar for light rail lines in the County of LA, and we're not talking that much money compared to the big expenses (both past and future) for the actual placement and structure of the line.

4) A first-rate promotion and coordination of the Venice Blvd. Rapid Bus Line to the Expo Line at the future Venice/Robertson station is needed to create an equally first-rate bus/rail linkage for Expo Line riders who want fast and efficient access to/from the beach.

5) A Westside Transportation Center at the future Phase 2 Exposition/Sepulveda station with lots of parking, bus/rail links, and ample pedestrian and bicyclist amenities.

But the greatest challenge lies with both the political and grassroots leadership of the City of LA:  will this line unite us and get past the regional/racial divisions that might be understandable (given human nature) but intolerable (given human logic and greater understanding) in this modern age?

As the handoff of decision-making power for the Expo Line increasingly moves toward Westside Councilmembers Bill Rosendahl and Paul Koretz, and as our next LA mayoral election approaches, it's hoped that an effort to get past shortcomings that still potentially plague the Expo Line will show that--at least for this one project--the City of the Angels can achieve its namesake and unite all of its residents, regardless of neighborhood, wealth status, ethnicity or any other feature that should bear no consideration in this modern era of the 21st Century.

(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 a member of the grassroots Friends4Expo Transit Steering Committee.  He is also 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.)

Tags: Ken Alpern, Expo Line, Friends4Expo Transit, Westside, Los Angeles, transportation, transit

Vol 10 Issue 9
Pub: Jan 31, 2012