ALPERN AT LARGE - If ever there was proof positive that Westside traffic was, is and will remain a staple of grassroots and media buzz, it's the explosion of media and e-mails announcing (and for some, celebrating), the support of the California Supreme Court for the EIR for Phase 2 of the Expo Line (from Culver City to Santa Monica).
Yet while some of us might be rejoicing, and others of us might be in shock or in grief from the Supreme Court decision, it is my own strong contention (as one of the grassroots supporters who helped keep hope for this line alive during some very tough years) that we'd all do well to restrain our joy or our disappointment because there is a growing crystallization of both hope and concern for our Once and Future Expo Line.
In other words, so long as we ALL keep up the debate, and keep things out in the open, we'll get a better Expo Line and related transportation/planning policy, to boot.
The "legalese" of the 6-1 California Supreme Court ruling (which affirmed several lower court rulings) can be summarized by its conclusion that there was "no prejudice" in the decision of the Expo Line Construction Authority to base its future traffic counts and studies on projected future conditions in 2030, and not on existing environmental conditions.
The Supreme Court concluded that the Phase 2 Expo Line EIR actually DID violate CEQA's requirements to use current baseline traffic conditions, but it did NOT do so to be biased, confusing or hide any impacts of the Expo Line to either current or future traffic. Restated, the strategy, but NOT the intent, of the Expo Line Construction Authority was and is faulty...but it's the intent that matters. So the Supreme Court was NOT too thrilled about what the Authority did, but it wasn't going to stop the line from being built as is.
While that may not resonate well with all, it does suggest and conclude that the Expo Line Construction Authority was trying to be helpful in showing the Expo Line could work for the Westside and Mid-City alike.
And it should also throw out a spotlight on the strategy and intent of those who raised the lawsuit (Neighbors For Smart Rail), because there is considerable confusion (and concern) over what that entity's intent was.
It is my earnest belief that some NFSR members just wanted to kill the line altogether, while some merely had misguided and misinformed ideas of how the Expo Line could be mitigated. Just as Expo Line supporters have diverse attitudes and perspectives on what the Expo Line should be, and are "evolving" to this day, it's fair and appropriate that NFSR litigants and Expo Line opponents are also diverse and evolving. "Blaming" anyone will not help matters at all, but a little history is in order--this Once and Future Expo Line was once called the Air Line, and it stopped carrying freight and passengers a few decades ago (I welcome historians like Jonathan Weiss and Fred Gurzeler to elaborate more on this at CityWatch, but time and space constrains me).
Darrell Clarke and others--many from Santa Monica--convinced Metro to purchase this Air Line and other unused or underutilized rail rights of way for future transit use. Mr. Clarke and others--all grassroots, all unpaid, and who were from all parts of the political spectrum--pursued support of a light rail to connect Downtown to Santa Monica.
Mid-City rail backers such as Presley Burroughs linked with Darrell Clarke, and the two of them (along with other grassroots leaders) were savaged by some of their neighbors who held considerable influence over politicians such as Zev Yaroslavsky, Yvonne Braithewaite-Burke, and Richard Riordan (and who were ardent opponents of the proposed straight-shot light rail from Downtown to the beach).
In the background of all these grassroots efforts was the splitting of the City of Los Angeles along racial and geographic lines after the L.A. riots, which left many Westsiders reversing their desire for the Wilshire Subway and related east-west rail lines in order to keep "those people" out of their neighborhoods. And Zev Yaroslavsky and Henry Waxman were all too happy to support the will of their constituents.
Furthermore, the cost overruns for the Red Line Subway revealed a Metro Board spending money with reckless abandon, and prevented not only the Expo Line from being built, but prevented rail to the Eastside and to LAX to boot (for example, the Green Line was originally supposed to go from Aviation/Imperial to pass by LAX and extend up Lincoln Blvd. to Marina Del Rey, but with less money it was shunted towards the South Bay instead).
The outlook was bleak for the Expo Line, because federal money dried up and both political and grassroots support for mass transit declined...until the combined triad of worsening traffic, the faded memory of the LA riots, and the increasing popularity of mass transit among new generations of Angelenos changed everything.
And there was another critical element: the Internet, which linked like-minded individuals to create a larger and newly-formed collaborative of Friends4Expo transit supporters via a website created and regularly updated by the aforementioned Darrell Clarke, that to this day is a vital icon of grassroots influence in transportation policy.
Friends4Expo Transit began an aggressive lobbying policy with a second wave of activists (including myself, a dermatologist who in the year 2000 worked in Culver City and Torrance and who recognized the miserable transportation situation of transit riders and motorists alike), while Clarke co-chaired "F4ET" with other motivated Westside leaders such as Kathy Seal and Julia Maher.
Meanwhile, the Mid-City (now increasingly Latino and Asian, but then predominantly African-American) kept its representation with Presley Burroughs and other activists...and I will never forget how--during an outreach meeting to the Crenshaw Blvd. Chamber of Commerce, after a few very outspoken and angry opponents spoke against the Expo Line, a simple hand vote showed overwhelming support for the line...and as a rail, not a bus.
Burroughs and Clarke were savaged publicly at these events, and accused repeatedly of being paid lobbyists for some group or another (they didn't, and I didn't, receive a dime for these efforts, but a considerable amount of our own money, to say nothing of our blood, sweat and tears, were lost).
Because their opponents were invigorated and politically enabled by support from Yaroslavsky, Burke and Riordan, Friends4Expo faced an uphill battle but continued its political and local outreach, but met regularly with first-rate Metro staff members David Mieger and Tony Loui, who told us the Good, Bad and Ugly about what we could and could not do.
Then Yaroslavsky, Burke and Riordan, referencing costs and a bus system in Curitiba, Brazil for which they were suddenly enamored, pursued an alternative strategy in 2000-01 to create an Expo Line Busway that skirted around Cheviot Hills and Rancho Park from Venice/Robertson down Venice Blvd., up Sepulveda Blvd, to proceed then west to the beach.
My own neighborhood of Westside Village, as well as adjacent Westside neighborhoods from Mar Vista to Venice, rose up in fury against what considered to be both poor transit planning and inappropriate favoritism of one community at the expense of many, and revealed in 2001 that the Westside wanted the same as what the Mid-City wanted: a straight-shot light rail line, and not a Busway, along the rail right of way.
I and other activists in the Westside converted this sudden surge of interest for rail transit into an organized Internet communications network that raised the volume to earsplitting levels against the proposed Venice/Sepulveda diversion at a time when many Cheviot Hills/Rancho Park residents thought the diversion was a "done deal".
The Metro Board, at the recommendation of its staff, split the difference in 2001 by establishing "half a rail line" from Downtown to Culver City (Venice/Robertson), with details of how the line would proceed to the beach to be determined later...and Santa Monica City Councilmember and Metro Boardmember Pam O'Connor established an amendment that the ultimate western terminus of this line was the region near the Santa Monica Pier.
(True historians and sticklers to detail will read my oversimplified history with frustration, so either bear with me and/or write a more detailed article to CityWatch--because this grassroots story is one that stands out in recent history of ordinary individuals making a difference in transforming City/County transportation policy.)
Funding was an issue, however, and a year or two later, the Expo Line was proclaimed to be "on life support" from David Mieger. I felt that Friends4Expo needed to maintain a high profile during this bleak period, and so I helped fund and organize an "Expo Expo" in Santa Monica, complete with presence of political, Metro staff and press and a very filled room.
Similar events were held elsewhere in the Westside. Then Zev Yaroslavsky had a personal and political epiphany on traffic problems in the Westside, and spearheaded an Expo Construction Authority to achieve local consensus and political buy-in to expedite the planning, funding and construction of the Expo Line.
This Authority was a messy exercise at best, and with a host of political egos from the Mid-City who were only too happy to "take over" the line and exert their influence over the Westside, but the Authority's efforts might have been necessary to overcome the legal opposition to this line--which, to most everyone's surprise, came at first NOT from the Westside, but from the Mid-City in the region of Dorsey High School.
A few local activists, many of whom are now leading the Crenshaw Subway Coalition to fully grade-separate the Crenshaw/LAX Light Rail Line, wanted the Expo Light Rail Line underground by Dorsey High School for safety purposes--and elevated/above-ground options were not on the table.
They were supported by Westside groups who later coalesced into Neighbors For Smart Rail, and who similarly wanted an Expo Line subway in the Westside. The legal obstacles from this unexpected opposition, coupled with tremendous cost overruns by subpar contractors (and a LADWP that was all too slow to cooperate with the Expo Authority), slowed the Phase 1 of the line to Culver City by years, and many did (and still do) deem that this effort to grade separate at Dorsey High School was merely to kill, and not to slow or improve the line.
It is truly uncertain (and up for immeasurable, if not irrelevant debate) whether the Mid-City opponents were using the Westside, or the Westside opponents were using the Mid-City, to create a more expensive underground route for the Expo Line and/or slow or even kill the line, or maybe it was a marriage of convenience, but the Authority hung in there and the combined/linked oppositional approach probably backfired on all of them. Which is a pity, because grade-separation (elevating or submerging the light rail line) has its benefits--but it also has its costs.
The university leaders of USC and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas demanded that the Expo Line go underground at Exposition Park, which was NOT necessary (it's operating just fine at this time at surface level), but an undercrossing at Jefferson, and elevations at La Cienega and La Brea were and certainly are betterments to the line.
Ditto for the elevation of the line at Sepulveda, Centinela and other locations in Phase 2 of the line...but with elevations costing $40 million, and subways costing $300 million, which endeavor would cost-minded engineers and government officials normally choose?
The Authority came up with the innovative idea of an extra stop for Phase 1 of the line near Dorsey High School at Farmdale, a fairly small residential street that got equated with large Overland Ave. in the Westside because the latter was next to Overland Elementary School.
This idea received the support of the California Public Utilities Commission, and although the Westside did later win its fight to get a rail bridge for the Expo Line at Sepulveda Blvd., it probably also lost an opportunity to have a similar bridge at Overland Ave. because of its being connected/equated with Farmdale Ave.
The Overland Ave. bridge was indeed taken seriously by the Authority...I saw the powerpoint presentation for that bridge, and it came after years of evaluation where even many pro-Expo advocates sought an undercrossing at Overland.
Yet the enormous cost associated with reconfiguring the storm drain made that undercrossing cost-ineffective, and those opposing the surface-level crossing--as with Farmdale/Dorsey--refused to consider a rail bridge alternative, leaving those (such as myself, and others) favoring the rail bridge in the minority.
It is speculation only whether the Westside as a whole would favorably reconsider an Overland rail bridge, and it is equally speculation as to whether a critical traffic mitigation measure was lost because of the strategy used by NFSR at the time. But in the interest of Environmental Justice, where one neighborhood could not be treated differently than another, both Farmdale and Overland are "at-grade" or surface level.
Westwood Blvd. was NEVER considered for a rail bridge by analysts at the LADOT, but Overland certainly WAS, and only time will tell whether the decision to have Overland "at-grade" will hurt Westside traffic access to/from the nearby I-10 freeway. Many efforts and strategies were used by opponents of the Expo Line Authority and NFSR to consider other routes to the beach, and former Councilmember Bill Rosendahl (who did favor the line, overall) also considered a routing that would have the Expo Line proceed down Venice to Lincoln Blvd., then north to Lincoln Blvd to the rail right of way...but the straight shot was concluded by the Authority to be the most cost-effective route.
And then Phase 2 began in earnest, with a new and infinitely-better contractor, combined with a tougher Authority that sought to reverse the inertia of the past cost-overruns and legal obstacles and move the project forward.
Friends4Expo Transit was by now eclipsed by more local entities such as Light Rail For Cheviot, a group of Westside Expo Rail Line and Expo Bikeway activists--yet they were also often given short shrift by the Authority.
Witness the fight for the Bikeway, for bicycle accommodations, for native plant requirements and for station amenities that were and still are being fought for with only limited results, and with only scant attention and respect, from the Authority to those who efforts actually created the line to begin with, and one can easily conclude that the Authority is either a necessary evolution from the Expo Line's grassroots origins or something that has proven tone-deaf to its original constituents.
But the legal opposition, which only this week in early August 2013 is likely finished, probably prevented any reasonable discussion of mitigations because of the need to drive this project forward against such a rising tide of fiscal and legal challenges.
Which is indeed a pity, because there are betterments and mitigations that have remained unaddressed far too long by the Construction Authority, and now that the legal hurdles are behind us it's time for the Construction Authority to stop blowing off the same activists who allowed the Authority to ever exist, and for its staff and Boardmembers to ever have their jobs and related positions.
And of particular note is that staff and political leaders at the Authority somehow sneakily allowed a scurrilous individual, one developer Alan Casden, to be enabled to build an oversized residential project on industrial land adjacent to the future Exposition/Sepulveda rail station, and to enlarge the project using the publicly-owned rail right of way in the FAR calculations without ANY guarantees of that development being TRULY transit-oriented.
This Casden Project was included in the details of the Authority agreement with the City of LA in an extremely nontransparent way, and was first fleshed out by those opposing this project by one Darrell Clarke--yes, THAT Darrell Clarke who suddenly found himself (along with myself, and Barbara Broide, and other Cheviot Hills activists) fighting side by side with NFSR leaders to fight this inappropriately-sized and zoned project.
I assure you I wasn't the only Expo Line advocate who did not want this project to be destroyed and exploited after all of our efforts to create quality transportation/planning for the Westside. Yet when both Expo Line and NFSR leaders BOTH fought this project, and the Sierra Club and Transit Coalition and virtually every Neighborhood Council and homeowners association opposed this project because of its size, its lack of transit-orientation and its deleterious environmental impacts to the entire Westside, we were shut down by a Mayor Villaraigosa and City Planning which suddenly announced that... ...the purpose of the Expo Line was NOT to enhance mobility options but to allow densification and strong-armed persuasion of commuters to leave their cars at home.
Meaning that the City of LA, coupled with an unholy alliance of developers, contractors, chambers of commerce and construction unions, has an agenda which has now eclipsed the original intent of the line--and while the Casden project was downsized, its complete lack of transit-orientation and its persistent oversized and overdense "project" was almost certainly what the cunning Mr. Casden wanted all along.
Mitigations and transportation improvements, from bicycle to sidewalk to bus to parking accommodations for the line remain unresolved to this day...and both Expo Line advocates are more leery of the their advocacy of the line, while opponents are more open to the evolving reality of the Expo Line. ...but if there is anything good that came from the Casden project, it's that both Expo Line advocates and opponents (once in vicious, neighborhood-dividing opposition) were united in their fight against this project, and now have the opportunity (if the egos and biases of both sides can be let go) to move forward with a proper 21st century transportation/planning focus that can create the better vision that this light rail line can offer.
A vision that unites neighborhoods and geographies of all races, of all socioeconomic backgrounds, and from all regions, to enjoy an enhanced Economy, Environment and Quality of Life for current and future generations: The Once and Future Expo Line!
Vol 11 Issue 64
Pub: Aug 9, 2013
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