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‘Might Rail’ to ‘Light Rail’: The Expo Line Example

TRANSPO LA - Slightly over ten years ago, Friends4Expo Transit (F4ET) had a party at a Mid-City residence to celebrate the approval by the Metro Board for the first phase of the Expo Line to Culver City.  That same group now has just had an introductory ride of the once and future Expo Line for which we all learned, and must continue to learn, lessons and an experience that cannot be forgotten:

LESSON LEARNED #1:  The Internet has empowered, and continues to empower, ordinary individuals to change their world

I well remember F4ET co-chair Darrell Clarke’s toasting the Internet as a prime reason the Expo Line was approved by Metro.  It was a sight to behold, whereby ordinary individuals from all over the political spectrum, and with professions of all backgrounds, made a profound difference—but it was the Internet that amplified F4ET’s collective voice and overcame the intense political powers who opposed it.

The Expo Line was a 20-plus year odyssey for those who fought for it (link) and I was but one of the second wave of individuals who “jumped on board”.

Friends of the Green Line (FoGL) was based on the successful F4ET, and was rewarded by the same wonderful folks at Metro who recognized our earnest grassroots efforts and who taught us the past and the potential of the Green Line.  Meanwhile, Southern California Transit Advocates (SoCATA) and The Transit Coalition (TTC) have successfully pursued similar partnerships with Metro to plan and fund the Wilshire Subway and Downtown Light Rail Connector.

LESSON LEARNED #2:  There are some truly visionary politicians, but most cannot be relied upon to do the right thing

In all fairness, we have to give our political leaders the same respect we give all other human beings, who need time and experience to establish their learning curve, and who have to respond to changing times and to all of their varying constituents.

For example, then-Mayor Riordan and then-Supervisors Yaroslavsky and Burke originally opposed the Expo Light Rail Line concept and advocated for cheaper buses that the voters didn’t want.  A silly straw man of a “bus vs. rail” argument ensued, but with both Rapid Buses and an expanding MetroRail system beefing up Metro’s ridership every year into one of the nation’s leading transit agencies, the rational need of when to use both transit modes has crystallized in our region.

And now Supervisor Yaroslavsky, who once stopped the Wilshire Subway and the Expo Line at a time when funding, consensus and planning (three critical needs for any transportation/infrastructure project) did not exist, worked with Assemblyman Mike Feuer to create Measure R and become these projects’ greatest champion to ensure they do exist.

Of course, the other political example of Representative Henry Waxman ( who stopped the Wilshire Subway after the L.A. riots and Beverly Hills opposition made the Subway politically untenable) also exists; now that many in Beverly Hills oppose the routing of the Wilshire Subway to the Metro staff-supported choice of the very center of Century City, Waxman is again airing his concerns. (Link)

Furthermore, Congress cannot be relied upon to do the right thing with respect to funding LA’s transit projects, because the GOP is opposed to transportation spending during our deficit/debt crisis, and the Democrats are opposed to a spending bill that truly explains where the transportation funding will come from. (Link)

Ditto for Sacramento, which still isn’t willing to clean up its own financial house to reliably and responsibly fund long overdue and innovative transportation/infrastructure projects. (Link)

So there are a few good, responsible and visionary politicians who will work with the grassroots and come up with transparent and first-rate proposals, but overall the grassroots still can’t rely on their political leaders to do the heavy lifting.

FINAL LESSON LEARNED #3: Credibility is still a vital element, particularly in the Internet age, for big projects to get built

A sharp contrast can be made with the Expo Line and the California High Speed Rail (CAHSR) Project.  The former has been planned with a groundswell bottom-up approach, and with transparency a highlighted feature, while the latter has been planned with a top-down approach that has a frightful amount of consultant-driven baiting-and-switching and hidden agendas.

Costs have gone up for both projects, but they are more forgiven by the voters in the case of the Expo Line than they are for CAHSR.  CAHSR was particularly inept and inappropriate during the Schwarzeneggar era, and might now have a chance to succeed with Governor Brown reshaping and redefining what the CAHSR will originally be for California.

With the Expo Line and other MetroRail projects providing access to Union Station and with the greater emphasis on Metrolink and Amtrak upgrades to establish enhanced access to the future CAHSR (should it survive its current challenges and get built), a better chance of Expo Line-like transparency and greater support might exist for CAHSR as well.

The perfect example of this paradigm shift exists with Anaheim being recently cut out of the CAHSR to save $6 billion; Orange County objected and accepted slower CAHSR trains with nonstop access to Union Station to allow its inclusion into the system. (Link) The Authority Board has approved the new $68 billion CAHSR plan (link) that’s a sharp change from the previous $98 billion proposal.

My hope and guess is that Governor Brown and others have learned from the Expo Line’s example and lessons learned to best make CASHR a reality.  Being open and credible, and admitting when one was wrong (but that one’s learning curve is now up), is the best way to win over the voters and taxpayers who will pay for these large, expensive (but necessary!) projects in an Internet age that demands accountability and transparency.

(Ken Alpern is a former Boardmember of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and is currently 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    The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.)

Tags: Los Angeles, Transportation, Ken Alpern, Expo Line, Friends4Expo Transit, Darrell Clarke, Riordan, Yaroslavsky, Burke

Vol 10 Issue 31
Pub: Apr 17, 2012