Will Duel Over Dollars Slow Growth of LA’s Downtown?
- 27 Jul 2012
- Written by Ken Alpern
GETTING THERE FROM HERE - There is no doubt that a broad effort is coming together, decades in the making, to restore and revitalize and reinvent Downtown Los Angeles in ways that will make it a place to go to rather than a place to avoid if at all possible. The questions, debates and issues surrounding this effort, which certainly include our transit-building efforts, harken back to the generations-old conundrum as to what defines "Los Angeles" ... LA City or LA County?
Speaking of "broad efforts", it should be noted that philanthropist Eli Broad and others have spent years, if not decades (and many dollars), creating new developments and rebuilding Downtown Los Angeles (See photo—Broad Museum) from a downtrodden mistake of urban planning into a first-class cultural and tourist destination that many still do not yet appreciate, such as the Grand Park project that will probably play a large role in 21st Century Los Angeles.
(It's yet to be determined how much Mr. Broad will contribute to the Downtown Light Rail Connector and Downtown Union Station Run-Through Track Projects, but it's his money. Still, keep those two projects in mind because they're critical in assessing the needs of "Downtown LA City and County", and they will be revisited below.)
The limitations of building "Downtown Los Angeles" however, are two-fold, and as an Angeleno who grew up in suburban eastern Long Beach I am fortunate enough to respect and relate to both sides of the coin. These limitations are:
1) The inability to access Downtown Los Angeles because our freeway system, already insufficient to accommodate traffic to any one given destination (Downtown or anywhere else), and the expenses of creating enhanced access, and
2) The desire of residents of LA County (or even LA City) to access Downtown Los Angeles because, while many "new urbanists" love the concept of walkable, concentrated, urban destinations, many (probably about half) of all LA County residents--and Americans in general--prefer the concept of drivable, walkable, bicycle-friendly suburban environments to live, work and enjoy.
Unfortunately, the dueling reality of urban centers (New York, Downtown LA, Chicago, etc.) necessary to provide economic powerhouses for the rest of the nation to benefit must compete with the reality that many taxpayers pay big bucks to pay for development of these centers and do not see enough infrastructure (parks, road repair, open space) in the suburban or even rural regions where they choose to live.
These two dueling realities have led to some very unfortunate conundrums that extend from a counterproductive political Red/Blue state divide to an ongoing, neverending turf war over where county, state and federal dollars are spent in the name of improving our economy, environment and quality of life...and transportation planning is certainly at the center of these conundrums.
There are many who decry the expenses of freeway-widening (such as the I-405 between West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, and the I-5 widening between the SR-91 and I-710 freeways), and there are others who decry the expenses of the Wilshire Subway and the Expo Line ... and most transportation experts would probably agree that both groups of naysayers are as wrong and unhelpful as those who debate buses vs. rail, or mass transit vs. cars, or parking vs. buses when ALL are needed to create a comprehensive, high-quality transportation/planning system.
So ... enter Governor Jerry Brown, and LA County Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Mark Ridley-Thomas--three very different men with different constituencies and who have been politically tied together by our ongoing transportation turf/vision wars.
Jerry Brown is a rail proponent, particularly a high-speed rail proponent, virtually his entire political (and perhaps natural) life, while Mike Antonovich has been a vigorous (if not brusque) proponent for the San Gabriel Valley and for a countywide transit system that is not overly focused on the City of Los Angeles, and Mark Ridley-Thomas is a consensus builder who is as powerful an advocate for underground rail as he is a voice for the Mid-City African-American communities.
All three men have in their own ways tried to pragmatically build their visions for a 21st Century California while simultaneous promoting and prioritizing some regions and the expense of others. In other words, there are many reasons to both admire and find fault with their visions and actions.
The recently-passed and initiated California High-Speed Rail project does, despite some questionable (if not confounding and even infuriating) misspent funds, enjoy some frightfully-overdue funding for critical projects to benefit both LA City and County. $350 million will be available for fly-through tracks at Union Station to improve Metrolink and Amtrak service, $115 million will go to the Downtown Light Rail Regional Connector project, and $88.7 million to Metrolink for grade separations and new locomotives.
Clearly, the latest version of the California High-Speed Rail project (signed at Union Station by Governor Brown) is smarter, more pragmatic and more cost-effective than originally planned, but there is no question that further refinements and cost-efficiency measures are in order. However, the message of what this should do (create better alternatives to airplane commuting to short destinations, and car commuting to long destinations) and what this shouldn't do (compete with airplane travel between LA and San Francisco) is in order.
And while Supervisor Mark Antonovich, who is now chairing the L.A. County Metro Board of Directors, fights vigorously against multi-billion dollar spending for the Wilshire Subway he also fights vigorously for a Las Vegas Desert XPress-California High Speed Rail link that also requires multi-billion dollar spending. Both projects have been accused of being pork barrel, overly-expensive boondoggle projects, and both projects have been advocated and debated for virtually half a century.
So is it a case of competing visions for Supervisor Antonovich and LA Mayor Villaraigosa (an undeniable and even history-making champion of the Wilshire Subway), or competing boondoggles?
It's the former. Despite the political battles (and unfortunate rhetoric on the part of Supervisor Antonovich, whose San Gabriel Valley constituents NEED the Wilshire Subway to get to their jobs) for Measure R and other funding, Supervisor Antonovich has a vision of a MetroRail and Metrolink system that accesses all of our airports and benefits all of tax-paying LA County while Mayor Villaraigosa is focused on creating MetroRail where it's needed the most (the City of Los Angeles).
The California High-Speed Rail project is a second-rate alternative to a San Francisco/LA air route (and is of doubtful cost-effectiveness), but is a first-rate alternative to shorter air routes such as Las Vegas/LA, Bakersfield/LA, Palmdale/L.A., etc. Furthermore, Supervisor Antonovich has supported the Downtown Light Rail Connector to benefit all LA County residents as much as he has fought for an extended Foothill Gold Line light rail project to Claremont (and probably to Ontario Airport).
Hence the decision of Supervisor Antonovich, who now as Metro Board Director has the ability to appoint three Metrolink Boardmembers, to remove Glendale City Council Ara Najarian with Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas was both startling and laden with political (but not necessarily beneficial) ramifications. (Link) http://la.streetsblog.org/2012/07/19/shakeup-at-metrolink-board-najarian-out-ridley-thomas-in/
Najarian and other San Gabriel Valley Metro Directors supported the extension of Measure R (without guaranteed funding of a Foothill Gold Line to Claremont) with the provision of an amendment by SGV Boardmember John Fasana to allow for the moving of funds from regional freeway projects (such as the controversial I-710 subway under South Pasadena) to rail projects (such as the more consensus-supported Foothill Gold Line).
Clearly, political payback by Supervisor Antonovich (who opposed any Measure R extension that did not guarantee funding for the Foothill Gold Line) was in play, while appointing fellow Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who represents a region without any Metrolink lines whatsoever, and who also opposed any Measure R extension that did not guarantee funding for a Leimert Park underground portion of the future Crenshaw Line, calls into question all sorts of hidden and not-so-hidden agendas that we'll see more of.
Will we see an enhanced effort to promote the underground connection of a singular Green/Crenshaw Light Rail Line to LAX that would make South Bay and Westside and countywide residents happy? Will we see an enhanced effort to create a Metrolink/MetroRail link to Ontario Airport? Will we see an effort to curb the desire of LA World Airports to extend LAX northward into the commercial district of Westchester which--like most of the Westside, values its own regional business more than it does Downtown LA?
Or will we see a high-pitch and high-stake political battle that could cost us a necessary extension of Measure R necessary to fund critical projects such as the Wilshire Subway, Downtown Light Rail Connector, Expo Line, Foothill Gold Line and other rail lines, as well as a host of road/freeway projects, within our lifetimes?
Much of these battles involve ego, political turf wars and--most importantly--the aforementioned, ongoing and neverending conundrum of a focus on Downtown L.A. City versus a more extended focus between the entire City of Los Angeles, or even the entire county of Los Angeles, versus a Downtown that many wish to avoid (and therefore not pay taxes towards).
It's a local version of Red/Blue America that focuses on a pro-urban and an anti-urban debate that is both understandable yet immature, and one that requires a diplomatic, compromising and respectful approach to please all groups in order to achieve a balanced approach that benefits the economy, environment and quality of life for the entire City and County of Los Angeles in 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 Co-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, which strives to get the Green Line to LAX, at www.fogl.us. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.)
Vol 10 Issue 60
Pub: July 27, 2012