The Bottom Line of All Our (Rail) Lines

GETTING THERE FROM HERE - It’s no secret that the effort to build and enhance passenger rail service throughout our city, county, state and nation is under fire.  Yet it’s not only the far right (whose mega-libertarian bent defies all need to provide alternatives to the traffic enslaving all city dwellers), or the GOP leadership (which too often relishes in denying transportation funding to blue states or the urban centers on which our economy relies) that threatens our budding rail renaissance.

Blame those (usually on the left, but with representation throughout the political spectrum) that are ignoring our bottom line.

Whether it’s Iraq, or inefficient spending on defense, our social safety net, education, or especially Medicare/Medicaid (the real budget buster), we’ve got to make sure our transportation spending is balanced and cost-effective.

The good news:  the Federal Transit Administration is already in the business of doing just that, and to a large degree we’re seeing Metro and other agencies regularly report which freeway and rail projects are most cost-effective.

The bad news:  our political leadership, which too often will ignore their staff (mostly engineers, mathematicians and left-brained scientific types) and demand projects simply because they “create jobs” or “help the environment” or “free us from the car culture”.

And the taxpayers, whether they lean right or left, or whether they are Democrat or Republican or Independent, know when they are being bamboozled.  They know when they need cars and they know when they would like another alternative (a rail line would have been sweet for our recent Laker/King playoff games held Downtown).

There is considerably more to be optimistic about (no matter what we read in the blaring headlines) and just as our current Westside I-405 freeway widening is being handled infinitely better than the last one, our current Metro and other rail-building efforts are more efficient and responsive than ever…but there’s always room for improvement:

1) The Exposition Light Rail Line (“Expo Line”) is finishing its first phase on June 20th, with stations set to open in Culver City (Venice/Robertson) and near Dorsey High School (Farmdale/Exposition).  The Westside and Mid-City is gaining new access to Downtown LA and Staples Center, to USC and adjacent museums, to the Mid-City and (indirectly) to downtown Culver City and the beach.  Metro and DASH and other buses are now being planned for rerouting to the Expo Line, and ridership will probably be huge.

We are losing the political correctness and legal nonsense that divided us when this Expo Line should have united us and hopefully the more democratic and open leadership of new Expo Authority Boardmembers Bill Rosendahl and Paul Koretz can get us back to a more open planning process than what we saw in Phase 1.  

And maybe we can find ways to enhance both parking for the Expo Line and remote access to Downtown LA, paid for by AEG to make their stadium idea work, particularly at the freeway-adjacent Exposition/Sepulveda and Palms/National stations.  The taxpayers deserve quality access to the line they paid for.

2) The Crenshaw/LAX Light Rail Line project is beginning construction with utility relocation efforts and this $1.72 billion project will run between the Expo Line and the Green Line near Los Angeles International Airport, with six stops serving the Crenshaw Corridor, Inglewood, Westchester and parts of LAX.  It is the first of 3-4 rail projects designed to connect LAX with MetroRail.

However, it would be nice to know that this project (as with all rail projects) would be implemented not as a welfare/workfare project as much as it is a quality planned/constructed project to benefit generations to come.  So while the contracts to require hiring of union workers, particularly those who are chronically underemployed or disadvantaged, might play well politically, the need to reassure taxpayers that the best and brightest are building this line is of equal or greater importance.

3) It’s nice to know that our elected officials and Metro are being held to the highest standards, but the need to go legally ballistic also hurts our bottom line.  Whether it’s Fix Expo, the City and School District of Beverly Hills, Neighbors For Smart Rail, Crenshaw Subway Coalition, or any other entity tying Metro up in perpetual lawsuits at the local, regional or state courts (did they remember to bring the matter to United Nations, while they’re at it?), it hurts our bottom line.

Which is doubly unfortunate, because while it’s a very good thing to hold Metro, the Expo Authority or any other taxpayer-funded transportation agency’s feet to the fire, these lawsuits waste time and money that could—and should—go towards realistic and necessary mitigations.  As a result, we’re likely to see LESS and NOT MORE of these mitigations.

4) It’s no secret that the San Gabriel Valley is very bullish on the Foothill Gold Light Rail Line (ultimately planned to go eastward to San Bernardino County and Ontario Airport) as well as the grade-separating Alameda Corridor East project to enhance freight train and intersecting cross-street traffic and safety.  The voters and political leaders of this region are among the most vocal opponents of Downtown LA-based rail projects, and they’re necessary to pass any Measure R extension.

Clarification of what any extension of Measure R can do for this region with respect to rail projects (and, for that matter, for freeway/road improvement as well), is a reasonable request.  Ensuring funding of the Foothill Gold Line to Claremont, facilitating MetroRail and Metrolink access to Ontario Airport, and enhancing freight rail between Southern California and the rest of the nation are three of the best and most cost-effective talking points to defend any extension of Measure R this fall.

5) Finally, our California High-Speed Rail (CAHSR) Initiative has made some serious improvements to its previously-bloated, environmentally-unfriendly and unrealistic plan with its recent focus on “blending” the rail project with existing and improving tracks used Amtrak, freight and local passenger rail networks. (Link) http://californiawatch.org/dailyreport/experts-say-rail-plan-improved-still-flawed-16465).

This clearly SHOULD have been the plan we voted for, but still is projected to cost roughly $68 billion at a time when the CAHSR Authority’s credibility is at rock bottom, and at a time when the federal government’s share of the costs are not likely to materialize any time soon.  The Authority MUST focus on keeping the total budget closer to $40 billion (NOT $68 billion), and MUST focus on what $9-10 billion can get us now, because it’s all we might ever get any time soon.

And whether it’s a California cap-and-trade gimmick (much more questionable than its supporters would like to believe), or even getting very cheap prison labor (arguably controversial, but can we please make our prison system more cost-effective?), ALL options to make this project affordable must be considered or the voters might just kill this project altogether.

Because if we don’t fix our bottom line for MetroRail, CAHSR or any other rail line, the result will be an end to this generation of rail construction projects so very necessary to move people and freight in an urbanized, 21st Century California.

(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: Ken Alpern, transportation, Los Angeles, LA transportation, rail

Vol 10 Issue 46
Pub: June 8, 2012